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Did the FBI Use Occupy Cleveland Case to Equate Activism with Terrorism?

Another case exposes the FBI's decade-long entrapment trend.

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“…identified the targets, and supplied the transportation and equipment, including the fake bombs, a non-functioning Stinger missile, a safe house, two storage facilities, rental cars, cameras, and cell phones. He suggested the code words, trained the four men on the weapons, assembled the fake bombs, and paid for everything, including meals, rent, groceries, and personal expenses.”

Although a jury found the Newburgh 4 guilty in 2010 of attempting to use weapons of mass destruction, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon, who had referred to the proceedings as the “un-terrorism case,” at the sentencing hearing  declared:

“I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.”

Although all four were sentenced to 25 years based on mandatory minimums, McMahon said while denying their motions for a new trial, “Nothing any of these men did was the product of any independent motivation on their parts.”

In a similar vein, Judge Dowd called the government’s sentencing recommendations of 19 to 30 years for defendants in the Cleveland case, “ grotesque.” Commenting in open court, the judge recalled how as an assistant prosecutor he helped convict someone for a double murder who served 18 years, less time than was being sought by federal prosecutors. “It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,” said Dowd.

How did we get here? What motivation would the federal government, and the FBI in particular, have for creating terrorist plots so it can then foil them? And why does it seek the harshest penalties for victimless, manufactured crimes?

It’s impossible to say exactly how much, but the government has easily spent  billions of dollars on counter-terrorism efforts inside the U.S. since 9/11. So, from an economic standpoint, the entrapment effort helps justify and sustain a multibillion-dollar industry. At the same time, the government gets to take credit for creating a “safer” environment, regardless of whether that claim has any truth to it.

According to the Justice Department’s own statistics,  since 9/11 only one person has committed an act of terrorism on U.S. soil -- an Egyptian immigrant opened fire at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002. Yet, the government claims to have prevented hundreds of terror plots as a result of its investigations of so-called “potential threats.” Either the government is exceptionally good at catching terrorists before they act, or the threat of terrorism is significantly overstated. The latter indicates a “protection racket” perpetrated by the government to manufacture both fear of terrorists and the  perception of safety, based on a counter-terrorism approach that is assumed to be effective. With great fanfare, federal agents assure the public in staged press conferences that they are arresting violent criminals, but that nobody was ever in any real danger because the FBI (or other law enforcement agency) was in  complete control.

Another motivation for the government amassing and maintaining vast resources allegedly used for counter-terrorism is the convenience with which it can also be used to undermine social change movements. By continuing to blur the line between activism and terrorism, notably with the PATRIOT Act in 2001 and more recently with laws like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) passed in 2006, government has deliberately swept political dissidents into its dragnet of manufactured terrorism cases.

One important factor contributing to the success of this entrapment trend is the repeated relaxation of FBI guidelines on surveillance and infiltration since 9/11. In 2008, Attorney General Michael Mukasey established a  new standard for FBI investigations, which sidestepped the need for any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing and any supervisory approval or oversight. With the steady increase in surveillance, including unwarranted wiretaps, and the rise in “fusion centers,” which are used to share information among local, state and federal law enforcement, the FBI is more equipped than ever to spy on us for as long as it wants to, and without any evidence or suspicion of criminal activity.

Informants, in particular, have been given wide berth and a more active role in terrorism-related investigations. In many of the cases in which they are involved informants not only come up with the plots, but also encourage and coerce targeted individuals to carry them out. All too often, the government supplies the cash, the weapons -- whether real or fake -- and the logistical support necessary to implement the fabricated plan. Indeed, many of the people targeted would never have been involved if not for the heavy-handed manipulation of FBI informants.

In 2006,  environmental activist Eric McDavid was arrested in Auburn, California, with two others and charged with federal conspiracy to damage and destroy property by fire and an explosive. Here too, an FBI informant was at the center of the case. “Anna,” who was given $65,000 as compensation and to pay for gas, food, accommodations and other needs, made the three dependant on her. Anna also used the prospect of romance to seduce McDavid and pushed the group to develop a plan for sabotage. In the end, despite plenty of pressure from Anna, no plan was agreed to and no explosives were ever used.

Frightened by the specter of long prison sentences, McDavid’s co-defendants, Zachary Jenson and Lauren Weiner, took plea agreements that included testifying against him at trial. So, in 2007, during the so-called “ Green Scare,” a period of heightened investigations and prosecutions of environmental and animal rights activists, McDavid was tried, and despite the use of an entrapment defense, was nonetheless convicted of conspiracy. The following year, using new draconian laws, U.S. District Court Judge Morrison England applied the terrorism enhancement and sentenced McDavid to nearly 20 years.

The sentences handed down in the Cleveland case were inflated due to the application of the terrorism enhancement, but they were considerably shorter than the sentence McDavid received, which appears odd on its face since McDavid didn’t even have a plan.

Less than four months after McDavid was sentenced,  another political FBI entrapment case was unfolding. In the summer of 2008, two Texas activists, Bradley Crowder and David McKay, traveled to the Republican convention in the Twin Cities accompanied by Brandon Darby, a paid FBI informant, who had been a well known and generally trusted radical activist up to that point. Darby coerced Crowder and McKay into making Molotov cocktails and even drove them to buy the materials. Though they decided against using them, the activists were still arrested for terrorism crimes. They eventually pleaded guilty and the government used this to create the  impression of a vast, militant, political conspiracy that threatened public safety.

Then, as if to signal a  serious attempt to discredit the Occupy Wall Street movement, less than three weeks after the Cleveland arrests, Chicago police conducted a midnight raid in advance of planned demonstrations against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) last May, arresting several Occupy activists. Recovering what the state’s attorney claimed were Molotov cocktails, three out-of-town activists were charged under the never-before-used Illinois state terrorism statute and accused of plotting to firebomb Obama campaign headquarters, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home, and other alleged targets.