“Sears Tower Plot” Trial Ends in Acquittal and Mistrial

The trial of those involved in the “Sears Tower Plot” in Liberty City, Florida has ended with one acquittal and a mistrial:

A Federal judge in Miami declared a mistrial Thursday after a jury failed to reach a verdict in the trial of six men accused in 2006 of plotting to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago and several other government buildings. A seventh suspect was acquitted in what analysts describe as a setback for the US government’s domestic counterterrorism program. Jury selection for a retrial of the other six suspects will start next month.

The case against the so-called Liberty City Seven, named after the neighborhood in Miami where they met, was a preemptive prosecution, as they posed no immediate security threat at the time of arrest. A government official described the alleged terrorists as “more aspirational than operational.” Defense lawyers argued in court that paid FBI informants who infiltrated the homegrown group were strung along for money for an Al Qaeda terror plot that never existed.

Prosecutors said the suspects were recorded on tape boasting that they wanted to join Al Qaeda on “a mission that would be as good or greater than 9/11,” the Guardian reported.

Based on thousands of hours of audio and video recordings, including one that showed some of the men taking an oath of allegiance to al-Qaida, the government case argued that the group planned to sow chaos by poisoning salt cellars in restaurants and blowing up buildings, and wanted to obtain equipment including machine guns, a rocket launcher, military uniforms and bullet-proof vests.

The Associated Press reports that after nine days of deliberation, the jury sent a note to the judge on Thursday that said it was deadlocked and unable to make progress on the charges against six of the men. The judge read out the note in court and declared a mistrial.

The only conclusion I can draw from this entire matter is that the FBI’s counter-terrorism efforts are largely aspirational rather than operational. The key problem, as I’ve suggested from time to time here, is one of risks and rewards. After the 9/11 attacks the bureaucratic incentives at the the FBI aligned in favor of counter-terrorism efforts so counter-terrorism investigations and arrests we received. But the degree of difficulty, i.e. the risks, mean that the FBI’s activities are far more likely to rake in freelancers looking for financing than they are to stop terrorists with knowledge, planning, financing, and motivation.

Others good posts on this subject:

Shaun Mullens

The Justice Department made a collective fool of itself because Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez pulled out all of the public-relations stops and equated these nimrods with the foulest of the Al Qaeda foul. That was just plain silly. No matter, the government plans to retry the six mistrial defendants.

Maybe the FBI should be paid on a contingency fee basis.

James Joyner

It’s not entirely clear what the alternatives are. A military solution doesn’t seem to be the answer, either. But the tactics that have been developed over the decades to combat organized crime — with only modest success — almost surely won’t get the job done against the likes of al Qaeda.

Another point I’ve made before: bureaucracies aren’t built to deal with network adversaries.

3 comments… add one
  • Oh bollocks.

    The security bureaucracies in France, UK and Germany have dealt with Fenians, Reds and Islamists of little operational difference between al Qaeda and Red Army.

    This idiotic pretension on your part this is a bureaucracy problem is simply parochial whanking, bloody grow up.

    What does not work is mixing Criminal with Political. Methods I am told are not night and day, but incentives and issues are different (and obviously if one plyas up a bad Mafia bust, well, some lemons but no worries – a faux al Qaeda bust or terror bust has larger implications – that is the lesson from the European experience. Ah yes, and the particularly American habit of mass media pimping of rather preliminary items has to be killed).

    You need a domestic security service separated from Criminal but TIGHTLY controlled – no torture or as Andrew Sullivan has put it, totalitarian word parsing in a Right Bolshy manner about ‘enhanced’ terror techniques – with genuine specialists. Not bloody policemen nor only intel people.

    The other item that comes to mind is regardless of what you do, when you have an utterly incompetent government, you simply have one cock up after another. Get yourself a competent government regardless of political stripe and you have 100% upside.

  • Perhaps I’m underestimating the influence of the Bush Administration but I think you’re overestimating. I continue to think that a change in the system of rewards within the FBI is more likely.

    Get yourself a competent government regardless of political stripe and you have 100% upside.

    As you might say, not bloody likely. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a competent government here. In particular was the FBI more competent under the Clinton Administration? During that period its focus was mostly drug trafficking.

  • Lounsbury,

    A separate domestic security service is impossible politically in the USA.

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