In an era of mass surveillance, and increasingly broad rules of engagement given to law enforcement, you would think that the FBI wouldn't need to carefully manufacture cases against ordinary citizens to show that they're winning the so-called "war on terror." But that would be forgetting that in addition to maintaing the security of the nation, FBI officials are also concerned with their public image (hello Twitter), as well as their presentation in the mainstream press. In a 24 hour news cycle, you are only as effective as your last headline, and the documentary "The Newburgh Sting" paints a troubling portrait of an agency more concerned with their perception than with justice, all as part of a mission that broadly targets a religious group, rather than individuals whose fanaticism finds them both as outsiders at their mosques and society in general.
Directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, the doc tells a true story that gets more outrageous with each revelation, but it all centers around one man: Shahed Hussain. An FBI informant, who posed as a wealthy Pakistani businessman, he arrived in the poverty stricken Newburgh, New York in 2008, found the local mosque, and immediately started in with talk about jihad, while advocating that women in the faith should neither be seen nor heard. Needless to say, he didn't make a good impression, but he did catch the eye of James Cromitie, a small time drug dealer and Wal-Mart employee just trying to make ends meet. The pair start a testy friendship, and after a period of a few months, Hussain eventually persuades Cromitie to participate in jihad. The plan is vague—they will blow up a synagogue and perhaps an airplane too—but the reward is alluring: no, not praises from Allah, but $250,000 from Hussian's generous benefactors. However, more people will be needed to pull off the job. And so a few more months pass, Cromitie even briefly drops off the radar altogether, but eventually he gets a few other men involved: David Williams, Onta Williams and the mentally challenged Laguerre Payen. And all are willing to do Hussain's bidding.
And certainly on paper, the quartet seem to fit the profile of a potentially dangerous terrorist cell, but David and Heilbroner's swift, sharp documentary quickly sheds a whole new light on the case. In short, the question is this: is someone really a terrorist if it's the FBI informant coming up with the plan? From showing the four how to set and detonate bombs, shoot missiles, and taking them across state lines for no reason other than to make the eventual case federal, it was Hussain from the first moment who set the wheels in motion of the plot. And moreover, despite Hussain emphasizing he wanted people dedicated to the cause and not just there for the money, he got the opposite. None of the "Newburgh Four" were members of the mosque, and even for someone watching on the outside, it's clear that Cromitie is telling Hussain everything he wants to hear. He thinks he's conning Hussain to some degree, little realizing that he's the one who will soon be conned. On May 20, 2009 all four men were arrested with the media initially reporting it as a foiled terrorist plot, but as the real story emerged, troubling aspects about the case began to surface.
Right off the top, the FBI's main witness, Hussain himself, had his own shady background, one that saw him in deep financial straits, and striking a deal with the agency to become an informant in order to keep some of his assets. That immediately raises a flag about his intentions and motivations. Secondly, the $250,000 promised pay to Cromitie is essentially an inducement to commit crime, or it's what legally is known as entrapment. In fact, almost every element of the job pointed to these four men being framed up, and looking at it rationally, not much about the plan made any sense. These were four barely competent men of meager means, who basically had to be shown everything by Hussain, who himself came up with the plot. The desperation in the personal lives of Cromitie and co. maybe warranted keeping an eye on them as former FBI undercover agent Mike German says. But this level of deep undercover work? Hardly. Particularly when it's the FBI themselves constructing the narrative of what these supposed terrorists in waiting are capable of.
What Davis and Heilbroner eventually reveal is an organization who have made it their mission to put the Muslim community under scrutiny even though none of the terrorist attempts since 9/11 have been committed by anyone who is a member of a mosque. But is the FBI really being that narrowminded? Yes, they are. The Edward Snowden leaks revealed that prominent and respected members of the Muslim community have been spied on, including Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (The Intercept has more on this). The net that has been cast is very large, and in the quest to nab dubious "potential" terrorists, one could argue that larger, more realistic plots are being overlooked.
And that makes "The Newburgh Sting" something of a double tragedy. Of course, the four men being sentenced to prison for 25 years is already a miscarriage of justice, and you feel for these four who finally felt like a part of something bigger than themselves, but mostly just needed a helping hand, and were willing to do anything to get it. But larger than that is a culture of fear that FBI has essentially cultivated between the Muslim community—who could be their greatest allies—and themselves. But there is unease and mistrust on both sides that won't be quickly remedied. Told crisply, and illustrated with a plethora of eye-opening surveillance footage used by the FBI, "The Newburgh Sting" is a snapshot of something happening all over the country, with the illusion being presented of all kinds of terrorist cells being broken and individuals being tossed in jail. But the bracing reality of the true damage this investigatory approach will yield on a entire generation and culture of Americans has yet to be seen. [B]
"The Newburgh Sting" airs on HBO tonight at 9 PM.