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The Newburgh Four Sentencing: FBI Sting Operation Used the Men as Counterterror Lab Rats

The bombs the Newburgh Four were planning to detonate to blow up three synagogues were fake. The Stinger surface-to-air missile the men were plotting to use to shoot down military aircraft at a National Guard base was not capable of being fired. The weapons were like this because they came from the FBI. And, now three of the four men have each been sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for their involvement in this FBI sting operation.

The men, James Cromitie, David Williams and Onta Williams (no relation to David) had been convicted in October 2010. The defense continued to present a case that the men had been swept up in a scheme of FBI entrapment. They highlighted how an FBI informant had posed as an Islamic extremist to convince them to become involved in a terror plot. They accused prosecutors, according to the Associated Press, of “introducing a Stinger missile into the plot because the charge that went with it carried a minimum 25 years in prison.”

US District Judge Colleen McMahon understood the men were only in her court for sentencing because the FBI “created an act of terrorism.” She understood the FBI scripted the plot from “start to finish.” But, afraid to upset superiors or government officials, she condemned the defendants’ anti-Semitism and their willingness to “kill, maim and destroy for money.”

“What you attempted to do was despicable,” said Judge McMahon. She guaranteed the men would be imprisoned under harsh conditions and said, “I imagine that you will be far from here, and quite isolated…I doubt that you will receive any training or rehabilitative treatment of any sort. Your crimes were terrible. Your punishment will indeed be severe.”

Let’s get this straight: it is despicable that the men, who were set up by the FBI to commit an act of terrorism, actually appeared to be willing to commit an act of terrorism, but the FBI’s operation is not despicable enough to disqualify the sentencing of the men to twenty five harsh years of life in prison.

Here’s some brief background on the case (and you can read more about it and two other similar cases of FBI targeting and entrapment in this Center for Human Rights and Global Justice of the New York University School of Law report published in May) —

David served five years in jail for drug dealing. Early in 2009, David’s younger brother, Lord McWilliams, was diagnosed with liver cancer. David had been a father figure for his younger brother and wanted a way to make money to pay for a liver transplant. He was offered an opportunity to save his brother’s life in April 2009, when an acquaintance, Cromitie said he could get him $250,000, luxury cars and financing for a barbershop if he helped to carry out a terror attack. David thought about the plan and decided he might be able to get the money without carrying out an attack.

On May 13, 2009, Hussain drove Cromitie, David and Onta and fourth man, Laguerre Payen, to the Bronx to conduct surveillance on various synagogues. They went to Connecticut to see the Stinger missile that would be used. A week later, Hussain drove the men to the Bronx again to the proposed targets. The FBI had placed two cars in front of the targets and Cromitie was to put the explosives in the cars’ trunks. David was dropped off and Hussain drove to the first car. Hussain turned off a recording device he had been wearing and the men were arrested.

Alicia McWilliams, David’s aunt, talked with me after the sentencing. She points out the FBI picked an isolated area because they knew there were criminals there. They didn’t go to Riverdale, they came to Newburgh to do their trickery.

“There’s no job training, there’s nothing in Newburgh,” explains McWilliams. “The town is going down because of the drugs and the gangs.”

The FBI is trying to divide a community. That is why they picked the synagogue, McWilliams asserts. Picking Jews as targets will bring attention especially media attention. And, it definitely will, if you are going after Muslims, she says.

Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law, likely agrees. In an article for The Guardian, she calls the government-sponsored anti-Semitism revolting. She points out Judge McMahon loathed Cromitie’s anti-Semitism but yet FBI informant Hussain was “caught on tape urging Cromitie to think about acting ‘for the cause’ – by attacking a synagogue – rather than merely lashing out at a few individual Jews. Hussain referred to Jews as “the root of all evil” And, Greenberg points out, Cromitie said he did not want to go that far.

Greenberg concludes:

This case has found headlines on the issue of entrapment. But its true significance lies in a much more disturbing fact. Who, if asked, would want a government agent to spread antisemitism as a means of inciting terrorism – particularly with a defendant who was characterised by his own attorney as the “biggest mouth” in town? Who really thinks that tax dollars are well spent to support utterances of antisemitism as a means of bonding with potential criminals and turning them into attempted terrorists?

Imam Salahuddin Muhammad of Newburgh told Democracy Now! in a report produced by Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films for Democracy Now!, I believe that what we are seeing today with the FBI surveillance and the FBI allowing for agent provocateurs to enter into Muslim communities is the same thing that happened in the ’60s with a lot of the black nationalist organizations. That’s what I see happening today in the Islamic community. The FBI, they are sending these agent provocateurs into the community, and they are cultivating and nurturing and actually creating situations that would never have occured if they didn’t have their man in there to do that.”

McWilliams concludes the FBI is using the community as a “test tube” and asks, “Who holds our government accountable for their unjust deeds? What they did is despicable.”

She uses the phrase “test tube.” The men seem more like laboratory rats. The FBI sends someone into a community, a Pakistani, who doesn’t stick out like an FBI agent might, to enlist individuals in a plot developed by members of the agency. They ask men, who many in society would consider to be disposable, to engage in a scheme that is criminal and terrorist to see if they will actually commit the crime and engage in terrorism. Psychological manipulation through religion and monetary awards is employed. And, when the experiment is over, they are put back in their cages, like lab rats i.e. they are sent to trial and sent to prison because whether the plot was fake or not doesn’t matter.

To McWilliams’ question: who does hold the government accountable for its unjust deeds? They manufactured a crime here. If that isn’t acceptable, than it should be a crime. If a citizen of the United States did a counterterror experiment like this and then claimed he was only seeing if they would actually do it, not only would the men involved go to jail but so too would the person engineering the plot.

Those suspected of CIA torture escape accountability. Attorney General Eric J. Holder agreed to drop ninety-nine out of a hundred cases on CIA interrogators unlawfully torturing detainees.

Top Bush advisers like former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice approved torture of terror suspects. But, as Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald details, President Obama not only shields former Bush administration officials from accountability, he meets with them to gain insight on domestic and foreign policy.

Economically, Wall Street executives were responsible for tanking the US economy, but, as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi points out, “Federal regulators and prosecutors have let the banks and finance companies that tried to burn the world economy to the ground get off with carefully orchestrated settlements.” Small fines are paid and often the bank that defrauded shareholders “use shareholder money to foot the tab of justice.”

BP executives likely commit one of the worst environmental atrocities in the history of the United States. They are criminally negligent before, during and after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon that costs the lives of 11 people and results in massive pollution of the Gulf of Mexico. There are no plans for criminal prosecutions.

Officials engaged in counterterrorism operations, who create terror operations to stop terrorism, are elevated. Wall Street executives like those at Goldman Sachs don’t just escape justice but are influential in economic policymaking decisions. In contrast, Tim DeChristopher, a climate activist who placed fake bids in a public land auction to disrupt drilling by energy companies, is convicted of a crime, even though the federal government admits the auction was illegal. Lt. Dan Choi faces federal charges and not the typical misdemeanor for protesting at the White House fence to call attention to the need to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Supporters of WikiLeaks become embroiled in federal grand juries that create this idea in the minds of Americans that they might have been involved in espionage. And, the US State Department will fine or incarcerate US citizens, who try to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza.

The United States government will seek to hold activists that engage in freedom of association or freedom of speech accountable. It will seek to hold accountable those who have connections to Islam and hail from impoverished and neglected communities. It will look backward to prosecute those who try to call attention to government abuse and misconduct and those whose voice in society is doubted because of race, class and religion. On the contrary, when government officials stand accused of crimes, it will work overtime to move forward and prevent anyone in government from looking backward to hold accountable those in government that should be investigated for crimes.


To read more on how the FBI has transformed and expanded into a massive domestic spy agency since the September 11th attacks, here’s a story I recently wrote for AlterNet called, “5 Outrageous Examples of FBI Intimidation & Entrapment.”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."