30 Years in Prison For Saying the Wrong Thing? How The FBI Entraps US Citizens To Feign Success Against Terror
By Rehanna Jones-Boutaleb, Foreign Policy in Focus
On August 28, 2008, two childhood friends from
Tracing Crowder and McKay's saga from its very origins, the 2011 documentary Better this World cunningly unveils the intricacies of the two protestors' federal trials, as well as the media sensation they precipitated. The film, which is scheduled to air nationally on PBS's "POV" series, not only provides a nuanced perspective of two alleged cases of domestic terrorism but also cuts to the heart of the "war on terror" and its effect upon civil liberties.
Aiming to go beyond the "nice-kids-turned-domestic- terrorists" narrative propagated by mainstream media sources, film-makers Kelly Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega have turned their attention to the viewpoints of the key players themselves
Playing out against the backdrop of the RNC in
Unnerved by this illegal bust and inspired by Darby's militant polemics, Crowder and McKay walked into a Walmart on August 31 and bought provisions to construct Molotov cocktails. Although they proceeded to make eight bottled gasoline bombs, the next morning the two protestors realized, in Mckay's words, that they "didn't know what they were doing." Leaving the Molotovs behind, they joined other protestors in
At this point, the narrative takes its tragic turn. Incensed that Crowder had not been released, McKay foolishly announced to Darby that he was planning to throw his homemade bombs on police cars in a nearby parking lot. His conversation with Darby, held in a moment of hotheadedness, was in fact being transmitted to the FBI through electronic surveillance gear. Although McKay and Darby agreed to meet once more at 2 a.m. to use the Molotovs, McKay decided against this plan and ceased contact with Darby. Nevertheless, several hours later, just before McKay was due to leave for the airport, the FBI arrested him at gunpoint.
When McKay took his case to trial, arguing that he'd walked into an FBI trap, he was facing up to 30 years in federal prison. As his father remarked in a phone conversation prior to his trial, the case was that of "David against Goliath." An entrapment defense had no precedent of success in the
The two friends nonetheless found themselves pitted against each other as their cases played out. As Better this World critically reveals, when McKay's trial resulted in a hung jury, the prosecution crawled back to Crowder, effectively blackmailing him for information on McKay. Although the latter still had a chance to prove entrapment, when he was offered a plea-deal of four years in prison, he accepted, thus allowing Darby and the FBI to wash their hands of the case. Faced with the decision to accept four years in prison, or risk 30 in proceeding with a second trial, McKay backed down.
As Crowder explained in an interview on June 23, he and McKay were simply "pawns in somebody else's game." A paid FBI informant -- once respected for his involvement with Common Ground Relief, the post-Katrina recovery effort -- directly influenced their progression to more radical activism. More importantly, the machinery of the
Crowder and McKay's experience serves as a crucial reminder of broader and more disquieting government trends, such as the tendency to amplify minor offences as cases of "homegrown" domestic terrorism and employ pre-emptive counterterrorism strategies on
The relaxation of criteria required to engage in investigative activity has been a recurrent feature of the post-9/11 world. Mukasey's Guidelines, for instance, allow the FBI to conduct preliminary "assessments" on the activities of individuals or organizations without any prior allegations indicating criminal activity or threats to national security. In these assessment stages that occur prior to preliminary investigations - which themselves can last up to six months! - FBI agents are also permitted to "assess individuals who may have value as human sources," effectively enabling the premeditated recruitment of informants. Crucially, the Guidelines refrain from imposing "supervisory approval requirements in assessments."
Taking advantage of this dearth of checks and balances, the
Brandon Darby's recognized collaboration with the FBI also hints of a larger reality
These cases are only two of hundreds that raise questions about the dividing line between covert operations and government entrapment. Have government informants been given too much leeway? In the eyes of James Weddick, one of several FBI veterans interviewed in
Indeed, one of the more shocking realities Better this World brings to light is the fact that the FBI was preparing for the 2008 RNC at least two years prior to its opening. In the words of one agent interviewed in the film, authorities treated the RNC as a 100% security threat. To that end, the FBI relied on informants in neighboring jurisdictions to track the activities of allegedly threatening activist groups, such as the RNC Welcoming Committee, which coordinated discussions and preparations for the 2008 protests. McKay and Crowder themselves had actually been on the FBI's radar for more than a year when they travelled to
For those convicted on dubious charges of domestic terrorism, the probability of mounting a successful entrapment defense is slim to nil. According to the Center for Law and Security, from 2001 to 2007, ten defendants charged with "terrorism-related" crimes have formally issued an entrapment defense. None, however, has prevailed. Although Brandon Darby, currently a right-wing political commentator, now refers to Crowder and McKay as "American-hating Americans," the reality is that the two boys' progression to militant activism was undeniably influenced by his words and actions. In an effort to "better this world," a phrase taken from Darby himself, government informants are taking suspects to the edge of the pool and pushing them in.
Rehanna Jones-Boutaleb is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs