Friday, May 11, 2007

Fort Dix problems?

The case against the Fort Dix Six, the mostly Albanian immigrants who reportedly had a plan to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey, looks a little weaker in light of this story. The basic outline is that 16 months ago a Circuit City clerk alerted authorities to the fact that some guys were seeking to transfer a videotape with a bunch of guys screaming about jihad and firing weapons. The FBI infiltrated the group, recorded some of their comments on tape, and this week arrested them.

The first thing to note is that this was old-fashioned police work sparked by an alert citizen. The extra powers the government seized through the Patriot Act were not needed in this case, nor was it the result of unwarranted surveillance of Americans or massive tapping of phone calls.

Unfortunately, it could turn out that the infiltration of the group may have made it appear more dangerous than it was. The guy who infiltrated claimed to be an Egyptian with military experience. He went along on trips to case out targets. But apparently he was the one who pushed hardest for them to move from disaffected stumblebums who might never have been able to translate their confused hostility into action to something resembling a more genuine threat. He kept suggesting more sophisticated weapons and saying he knew how to acquire them. The others looked to him as a leader. One even said, "I am at your services."

That's always the danger with undercover or "sting" operations. They can create crimes that never would have happened without the prodding of the undercover guy. It strikes me as OK to initiate surveillance on these guys. If they really were all talk and no action, however, continued monitoring might have been justified --but if the undercover FBI guy was more of a catalyst than an observer, pushing them into something that would warrant arrest when they might not have gone so far on their own, a jury might buy it, but I find it ethically troubling.

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