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Online With Smadi, Zazi and the G-Men

30/09/2009

The recent arrest of Hosam Maher Husein Smadi highlights a number of details about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s modus operandi in dealing with suspected terrorists inside the United States.  Smadi, a 19-year old Jordanian was arrested on 24 September in Dallas, Texas, after a sting operation that saw the FBI monitoring, amongst other things, Smadi’s internet use.

Security agencies, if confident of their ability to control a given situation, often allow plots to run as long as possible in an attempt to both garner additional intelligence, and to show that a subject demonstrates the intent and ability to commit an act of violence.

The fact that Smadi was unable to achieve his aims was because the FBI were with him every step of the way.  This included supplying him with the sports utility vehicle loaded with fake explosives that Smadi attempted to detonate beneath Dallas’s Fountain Place, an emblematic downtown office building.  A similar level of FBI involvement was seen in the Michael Finton case in Illinois and has also elicited accusations of entrapment―Finton was also arrested last week.

Further back the chain of investigation is the legwork that agents undertake in order to generate the intel that drives any criminal investigation.  Inevitably, this includes the internet and telephony, and the FBI were on to Smadi early.  His comments on an unnamed ‘extremist’ website first alerted the authorities to his views and possible future actions.  The FBI described Smadi as a blustering big talker who espoused anti-American jihadist sentiments over the Internet.: “I want to destroy…targets…everything that helps America on its war on Arabs will be targeted,” he allegedly wrote.

The FBI continues to upgrade and update its surveillance capabilities, although suffers from anoutdated IT infrastructure, and has recruited analysts who speak Arabic and other languages.  Another recent case―that of Najibullah Zazi―provides a closer look at how an FBI agent, Garrett Gambinner, was fully aware of Zazi’s internet activity.  His affidavit to the Colorado court processing Zazi’s case demonstrates how much the agent knew about Zazi’s several email accounts and passwords, and presumably the contents thereof.

Time will tell if the prosecutions in these cases are successful.  In the meantime, questions continue to be raised over the legitimacy of electronic evidence in cases of this kind.

Do investigative agencies have the right to perform this kind of surveillance across the board of potentially criminal activity, or should it be spurred only in specific cases by operational necessity?  What implications are there for the broader public, who are suspicious that such tools are ‘dual-use’?  Where do human rights fit into the operational matrix?  Or do we just take autilitarian approach and accept that, sometimes, the ‘greater good for the greater number’ legitimises intrusive surveillance?  Our job as a society is to decide where the lines are drawn.