Legal experts question stings in terror cases
A 22-year-old Chicago man is scheduled to be back in federal court Wednesday on terrorism charges. Sami Samir Hassoun was arrested in September for plotting to blow up a crowded Wrigleyville corner.
It became immediately clear he had help. But that help didn't come from like minded individuals or a terrorist network - it came from the federal government. It raises questions about whether Hassoun could have executed an attack of any sort without help from the FBI.
The charges against Hassoun are unarguably very disturbing. Prosecutors say he dropped what he thought was a bomb into a garbage can in Wrigleyville on Chicago's north side, late on a saturday night, when the streets were full of people. He wanted to hurt as many people as possible. And yet if you read the complaint, that's the court document where prosecutors give a basic outline of their case, I have a copy here, its 26 pages long and it's full of Hassoun saying really goofy things.
One of the strangest plots he proposes is bombing Daley Plaza downtown during an Arab festival. That presumably confused the government's confidential source who asks, "You want to bomb Arabs?"
Hassoun seems to backpedal saying the bomb wouldn't explode, it would just emanate smoke. And the point of this smoke slash bomb thingy? Well, the complaint quotes Hassoun as saying that it would have a chilling effect on future civic events at Daley Plaza. There was no larger political endgame, he just wanted to affect the scheduling of these lunch-hour festivals.
Here's Hassoun's lawyer Myron Auerbach talking in the lobby of the federal court building about his client.
AUERBACH: He's just an incompetent who spoke too much and who was led down the path by the confidential source. He is not what you would consider a person with philosophical political views that would cause him to harm any of the people or the property in the Chicago area.
Hassoun allegedly brainstormed a number of grandiose attacks but when an undercover officer asked him why Hassoun just said he had always thought of trying to start some kind of revolution. So there was no specific goal except to be involved in something grand.
He wasn't driven by political or religious ideology and before the feds got involved he had no actual plan to implement any of the violence he talked about. The bomb he did place in a garbage can in Wrigleyville was a fake given to him by the FBI.
ACOSTA: Yeah, he had some goofy ideas, there's no doubt about it, but I think a lot of the terrorist acts that take place, if you sit down as a rational human being and try to determine, does this make sense? Is this a good idea? I think most people would say no, that's insane, that's stupid.
Sergio Acosta is a former federal prosecutor. He handled the case of another troubled young man and would-be terrorist. Acosta says federal agents working a sting operation give guys like Hassoun multiple opportunities to drop out.
ACOSTA: There is discussion about, 'Are you sure you want to do this? You can step back right now and it's not a problem.' And according to the complaint, he said, 'No, I'm in it. I want to do this.'
The sting then moves from just talking about violence, to taking concrete steps down that path, scouting a location, or perhaps buying weapons.
ACOSTA: These guys pose a real danger. If they were to get with individuals, like-minded individuals with the finances, with the access to weapons, that's when you have terrorist acts that take place, so finding these types of people is important for law enforcement for our society.
HUQ: It seems to me clear that some of these individuals who were targeted would, in all likelihood, have not done anything in violation of the law had it not been for their interaction with law enforcement.
Aziz Huq, with the University of Chicago law school, says sting operations rely on paid informants and those informants have a financial incentive to draw people to the attention of police - an incentive to steer people down the path to terrorism.
HUQ: 'Cause their livelihood in some way depends upon it. And, it's going to be easier for those informants to do that with people who are less rather than more sophisticated and smart.
Huq says sting operations have a tendency to sweep up those who aren't the proverbial sharpest knife in the drawer.
HUQ: It's not clear how much of a threat that they pose but it's a very hard question that the police are, I think, are genuinely grappling with. How do we figure out who's really dangerous in a world in which you can go out an buy a glock and harm a half dozen people in the space of a minute, right? How do you figure out whose really harmful in that world?
The Arizona shooting this past weekend that killed six and wounded congresswoman Gabreille Giffords has Huq thinking carefully about these issues right now.
Karen Greenberg says sting operations in terror cases are here to stay. It's a key way the federal government is trying to prevent terror attacks. Greenberg is with New York University's Center on Law and Security which monitors terror cases across the country. But she says courts are starting to discern between the sophisticated terrorist masterminds and incompetent and confused people like Hassoun.
GREENBERG: In terrorism cases 'til now, basically, if you have the word terrorism associated with it, you're guilty. It's only now that we're starting to, as a society, to distinguish terrorism cases from one another and not to see it as one monolithic threat.
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Greenberg says there's a body of terrorism cases that didn't exist just a few years ago, or in the immediate wake of 9-11. It gives both prosecutors and defense attorneys access to nuanced arguments which in turn allows juries to decide cases in context and render verdicts that are more just. And she hopes the more nuanced approach will help authorities focus more energy on the operators and initiators, and less on those who can be simply duped into going along with a violent plan.