Terrorism is hot-button business, and such issues do not handle controversy and criticism well. Threats breed fear, and any success in quashing that threat brings heralded praise. It is the often-unpublished story behind the terrorism victory on which the new documentary ‘The Newburgh Sting’ focuses.
The story itself is nothing new, though it is likely something that has gone unnoticed by most. The FBI sends an informant, usually a person arrested for unrelated crimes who chooses (or is coerced) into working for the government rather than face punishment, into mosques to attempt to infiltrate terrorist plots. If they do not find an active plot they then seek to find individuals they think willing to participate in such an action and recruit them. They provide them with the necessary materials, and right before they can carry out the plan the police swoop in.
On May 20, 2009 four men were arrested on charges of planning to shoot down military planes and blow up two synagogues. The men were recruited by an FBI informant from an economic slum with the promise of extravagant payments (upwards of $250,000 for a few weeks work). They barely knew each other, and there was scarce evidence that the plot would have (or financially could have) occurred without the informant and the FBI’s help (the type of weapon, the acquisition of the weapon itself, and the targets were all the idea of the informant). The men claim, and with more than a little legal precedence, that the government entrapped them and made them into a terrorism success story for the FBI.
The film picks up the story of the four men and runs with it, splicing in interviews with their families, their attorneys, as well as former FBI agents who speak to how the government operates in such cases. The FBI and the case’s federal prosecutors refused to comment for the film, but the usage of news interviews and Congressional briefings fills in the gaps and it’s hard to imagine any statement they would have departed from these official talking points anyway.
A secondary plot of the documentary is the way in which Muslim Americans have been treated by law enforcement agencies since 9/11. Various national representatives of Muslim organizations speak to the way the FBI has attempted to piggyback off of Mosques for their terrorist hunt. This is despite the fact that the only person thus far caught advocating such views at a Mosque turned out to be a government informant looking for the willing. While this storyline plays second fiddle to the overall focus on Newburgh it is just as, if not more, powerful and frustrating.
Regardless on how you come down on the issues of entrapment, terrorism, and the way these types of cases are handled, ‘The Newburgh Sting’ is a must watch documentary. These activities are paid for with tax dollars and involve American citizens. The film argues well that while successful prevention of terrorist plots, or any crime for that matter, should be praised, fears and insecurities should not blind the country’s eyes or silence its criticisms from purported injustices.
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