Remember those heady days back in late September 2001? Remember how we were worried about follow-on attacks and anthrax suddenly wound up in the mail? Well, perhaps you don’t remember everything. Do you, for example, remember this from September 20, 2001?
American investigators said yesterday they had uncovered a suspected terrorist cell in Detroit, arresting three men in a raid on a house where diagrams of airports and forged identity documents were found.
The FBI was meanwhile on alert for the threat of more attempted hijackings this Saturday, as agents said that their sources had told them that a second wave of terror could be under way.
America’s Knight Ridder press agency quoted an investigative source as saying: “We have information that leads us to believe that there could be more attacks very soon. The same murky sources that indicated something might be happening in the weeks before the attacks have indicated something may be happening this weekend.”
There have been a string of false alarms since last Tuesday’s onslaught and federal officials said yesterday there was no way of determining how well founded the latest warnings were.
The three Detroit suspects were charged with possession of false documents, misuse of visas, passports and other immigration papers, and were being questioned about their knowledge of last Tuesday’s attacks.
FBI agent Robert Pertuso said that he and officers on the joint terrorism taskforce in the Michigan city found “handwritten sketches of what appeared to be a diagram of an airport flight line, to include aircraft and runways”.
The FBI had come to the house in a search for one of the 200 suspects on a “watchlist” which has been circulated around the United States.
They found the name of the man they were looking for on the mailbox outside, but the three men denied knowing him. In the house, the agents spotted identification badges used by airport catering workers and the men said they had previously been employed at the city’s airport.
The scary Detroit sleeper cell was soon reported to be plotting the destruction of Chicago’s Sears Tower (via Lexis: Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio),
October 2, 2001).
ABC News reported early yesterday that Karim Koubitri, 23, Ahmed Hannan, 33, and others had planned to launch a terrorist strike against the tallest building in the United States.
The television network reported that the FBI broke up the ring before the attack could take place and that the men had computer discs that mentioned the Sears Tower.
But FBI agents said they had not heard about any such plans.
A spokesman for the company that owns and manages the Sears Tower said security has been increased at the 110-story building since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Employees must show photo identification to enter, bags are randomly searched, and cars are not allowed to stop in front of the building, he said.
A recorded message at the Sears Tower Skydeck said that because of the “tragic incidents that recently occurred in New York and as a precaution, operations at the Sears Skydeck are temporarily suspended, and the deck is closed.”
…On Friday, Secret Service agents arrested Youssef Hmimssa at an apartment complex in Cedar Rapids. The apartment manager, Robert Dickson, said he saw federal authorities haul Hmimssa’s computer out of the apartment, but he was unsure what else was taken. Authorities in Cedar Rapids could not be reached for comment.
Youssef Hmimssa would become the government’s star witness against the Detroit sleeper cell and almost two years later when the men were convicted, John Ashcroft was quick to praise the prosecutor.
STATEMENT OF ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN ASHCROFT ON DETROIT VERDICT
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
TUESDAY, JUNE 3, 2003
Today’s convictions sends a clear message: The Department of Justice will work diligently to detect, disrupt and dismantle the activities of terrorist cells in the United States and abroad. We will commit every resource to preventing terrorist attacks, and sending those who aid our enemies to jail. Today’s verdict reaffirms our commitment to pursuing aggressively the evidence wherever it may lead.
I congratulate the prosecutors and agents who worked tirelessly on this case. Because of their efforts, Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi faces up to 20 years in prison, Karim Koubriti faces up to 10 years in prison, and Ahmed Hannan faces up to five years in prison. I also thank the jurors in Detroit for the service they provided their country in hearing this trial.
Every victory in the courtroom brings us closer to our ultimate goal of victory in the war on terrorism. The Department of Justice will continue its aggressive battle in the courts to ensure the safety and security of all Americans.
But only a few short months later, things began to fall apart. First it was revealed that the star witness had told a cellmate that he was a fabricator, and the prosecution withheld that information from the defense.
In the terror cell case, the defense accused Convertino and co-counsel Keith Corbett of failing to disclose a letter to officials from a convicted drug dealer, Butch Jones. Jones wrote that he had spent time in jail with the government’s key witness in the case, Yousef Hmimssa, and that Hmimssa said he was lying about the defendants’ involvement in terrorism. The letter also accused President Bush’s family of being involved in drug trafficking.
Then, on December 12, 2003, the New York Times (archived) reported:
The government’s case against an accused terror cell here appears to be at risk of falling apart amid turmoil in the prosecutor’s office and a dispute between the Senate Finance Committee and the Justice Department.
In September, the Justice Department removed the two prosecutors who handled the case. In June, Attorney General John Ashcroft praised them for convictions against two of the four defendants.
Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who is chairman of the Finance Committee, has criticized the department’s action in a series of increasingly pointed letters to Mr. Ashcroft and other officials. In the letters, Mr. Grassley suggests that the former lead prosecutor in the case, Richard G. Convertino, was being punished for answering a subpoena to testify on terrorism.
“We are all on the same team in the war on terror and in protecting the public,” Mr. Grassley wrote on Nov. 10 to Mr. Ashcroft and Jeffrey G. Collins, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan who is in charge of the Detroit office. “Treating public servants fairly, especially prosecutors and staff who played such an important role in the victory over the Detroit terrorists, is in keepingwith that mission.”
In another letter, he pointed out that Mr. Convertino and his co-counsel had been removed from the case almost immediately after Mr. Convertino informed his superiors that he was answering the subpoena. He testified about how easily criminals made fake identification documents.
On Nov. 17, Mr. Grassley wrote to Mr. Ashcroft, “Based on reports from Detroit about the level of hostility and vehemence being directed at AUSA Convertino, in particular,” as well as his co-counsel, Keith Corbett, and an assistant, “I am hopeful but not particularly confident that the department can provide solid enough assurances that they will be free of reprisals.”
Last month, the federal prosecutor who took over the case turned over a letter from an inmate who had been incarcerated with the government’s star witness. The letter raised questions about the credibility of the witness. Defense lawyers have cited the letter, along with other evidence they say was withheld, in a motion for another trial.
Whatever Chuck Grassley’s suspicions, the Justice Department has now indicted lead prosecutor Richard G. Convertino (as well as State Department employee Harry R. Smith III).
A former federal prosecutor and a State Department special agent were indicted today on charges that they lied during a bungled terrorism trial in Detroit and then sought to cover up their deceptions once the case began to fall apart.
Former prosecutor Richard G. Convertino, 45, and State Department employee Harry R. Smith III, 49, were charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements in connection with the 2003 trial, according to court documents.
And the New York Times reports:
an investigation by The New York Times published in October 2004 found that senior officials at the Justice Department knew of problems in the case almost from its inception, yet still pushed for an aggressive prosecution.
An internal Justice Department memo prepared in Washington before the 2002 indictments of the men acknowledged that the evidence was “somewhat weak,” that the case relied on a single informant with “some baggage,” and that there was no clear link to terrorist groups.
“We can charge this case with the hope that the case might get better,” a senior counterterrorism official in Washington wrote at the time, “and the certainty that it will not get much worse.”
But it has gotten worse. A lot worse. These guys should just be happy that they got a trial instead of a trip to a South Carolina brig or a trip to Guantanamo Bay.
Meanwhile, Convertino is suing Ashcroft (.pdf). Bush’s War on Terror is a flop.