Documentary About RNC 'Bomb Plot' Raises Serious Questions About How Feds Prosecute

from the plot-lines dept

About a year and a half ago, I heard the somewhat disturbing This American Life episode about how a well-known activist named Brandon Darby, who had made a name for himself during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, had become a government informant to turn over two young men who the government claimed were domestic terrorists, intent on bombing the Republican National Convention. It was an interesting story, but I didn’t follow it too closely over the past 18 months. However, at SXSW I saw that there was going to be a screening of the new documentary Better This World, which was about that same story, and decided to check it out. There has been some criticism of the documentary as being “one-sided,” but I actually felt it does a pretty good job of portraying the highly complex and nuanced issues at play in the case, but your viewpoint may differ depending on a variety of factors. If you’re unfamiliar with it, two guys — David McKay and Bradley Crowder — were arrested while demonstrating against the Republican National Convention, and it was later determined that the two had created molotov cocktails back where they were staying.

There is no denying the two guys made the bombs, and that’s extremely troubling. The big question in the case really became whether or not they were entrapped. Specifically, the question was whether or not Brandon Darby, in his role as an informant “encouraged” McKay and Crowder to make the bombs. I’m not going to argue the specific facts of the case, which many people feel passionate about on both sides of the issue. There’s simply no way to suggest that the two men were “innocent” in their actions. No matter how much someone encourages (if, indeed, that’s what happened here — and it’s disputed) you to do something, you still have to take responsibility for your own actions — especially when it reaches the point of building bombs.

That said, the documentary really highlights the ridiculous nature of government prosecutions in cases such as this. In the last few months, we’ve seen multiple stories, that have a familiar ring to them, involving the FBI busting up “bomb plots” that appear as if they would not have existed if the FBI had not become involved. In other words, multiple cases where it appears that the FBI found people who would have had no capability to actually do any damage, and then were enabled by the FBI or partners to put those people in a position where they could be arrested for preparing to do “acts” that they otherwise would not have been able to do. Is that entrapment? It certainly comes close to the borderline.

The part of the documentary that I found to be most powerful and disturbing, was how the government agents — both the federal prosecutor and the FBI agents — almost seemed to gleefully abuse their power to pressure the two arrested individuals to confess to things that both insisted were not true. It certainly raises serious questions about the upcoming prosecutions and/or plea bargains in these other cases. It appears that the feds are not at all interested in determining the truth, but just in getting high profile convictions they can use to claim “wins” against terrorism. The movie is both disturbing and powerful in highlighting just what little chance anyone has to push back against the government if they believe they’ve been brought up on charges unfairly (again, whether or not the charges really were unfair is a separate question — but either way, these two had no real chance to get their side heard, and were pressured into corners that left them little choice in how to respond to government pressure). It’s a troubling movie for those who would like to believe that the trial system is designed to be fair and get at the truth behind a situation.

In somewhat related news, just days before the film was screened, Brendan Darby (who was the only major player who did not participate in the film, but appears in some older videos that the filmmakers got from other sources) sued the NY Times for defamation, for claiming in an article that he “encouraged” the two men to make their bombs. This question, of Darby’s exact role, was clearly a key question in the movie, and also a key point in the plea bargains offered by the government (i.e., in signing the plea bargains, they had to admit that Darby had not encouraged them). Of course, this new lawsuit raises some interesting possibilities, since the NY Times could potentially argue that it’s not defamation because it’s “true,” though they’d have to actually prove that (which could be quite difficult).

Either way, the documentary is worth viewing, especially if you want some insight into the way the government handles prosecutions such as these, and if you’d like to believe in the idea of a fair trial. It also provides much greater insight into why many other countries do not allow “plea bargain” deals, and even find them morally questionable. The opportunity for abuse seems very real, even in cases where people may be guilty.

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Comments on “Documentary About RNC 'Bomb Plot' Raises Serious Questions About How Feds Prosecute”

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Chargone (profile) says:

Re: The most disturbing incident

see, around here you’d get teh high profile case, the guy would get arrested, blah blah blah, then the agency dumb enough to Do that would get raked over the coals for the collosal waste of money it represents (not necessaraly overturning the results of the trial)

well, depending on who was in government at the time and who’s idea it was, anyway.

Rekrul says:

It appears that the feds are not at all interested in determining the truth, but just in getting high profile convictions they can use to claim “wins” against terrorism.

For the most part, law enforcement doesn’t look for the truth, they pick whoever makes the most convenient suspect and then spend all their time trying to prove them guilty by whatever means necessary.

I remember reading an article about a kidnapped child and how the FBI spent months trying to prove that the child’s uncle had done it. In the end, they accidentally stumbled across the real culprit, who was a friend of the parents.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

One guy fought it. One guy admitted the informant wasn’t involved. The guy who admitted the informant wasn’t involved did so from the beginning. The guy who fought it admitted he made it up when the government found recorded calls with a changing story.

From what’s said in the movie, this is not an accurate portrayal of what happened. Crowder did sign a plea bargain, but he makes it pretty clear that he did not agree with it. He weighed the situation: take 2 years and move on with his life, or fight it, with a 90% chance of losing, and get 12 years. But he makes it pretty clear in the movie that he feels that he never would have done what he did without Darby. Again, this doesn’t condone what he did. Whether or not Darby influenced him, he still made the bombs. But to say that he admitted from the beginning that Darby had no role is not accurate. Crowder appears in the movie and is pretty clear on his thought process.

And, the movie is also *quite* detailed when it came to McKay, and again your version is not at all accurate. He did not “admit” that he made it all up. He was forced to do that as a part of the plea bargain, but it is abundantly clear that he believes Darby pushed him to do it.

Again, that’s the point of the movie. The two guys were both heavily pressured to deny Darby’s involvement. But there are multiple other people in the movie who corroborate parts of their stories.

Once again, for emphasis, I’ll say that the two of them should be responsible for their actions. But you cannot take the plea bargains they signed — which both forced them to claim things that they obviously did not believe — at face value.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Check mate for Brandon Darby. The NY Times retracted the story today. It’s nice to see the truth win out. I wonder if he’ll go after the filmmakers now that the Times has gone on record with the truth about Brandon Darby.

It appears they corrected the assertion that Darby “encouraged” the plot. That’s not a “retraction” of the whole story, nor is it necessarily “the truth winning out.” Also, I don’t see how he’d have a claim against the filmmakers since they do not assert that he encouraged the plot.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

They backed away from the main and major point: That Darby encouraged the plot. The whole issue hinges on that point. The rest of it becomes pretty meaningless as a result, and the movie looks pretty much “out there”.

Don’t you feel like you got suckered by another fantastic story? Makes for great headlines, but not supported in reality.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is not entrapment rather a profound abuse of power. They manipulate simple human nature to their advantage and portray it as a success in preventing terrorism.

What does this say about an organization? Well for me it least, it shows an organization that would go to the most extreme means to justify its existence.

The time has come for us to dissolve these pseudo-governmental agencies and start over from scratch. I very much believe an organization should exist to protect us but that protection needs to be clearly defined with real limits, expectations, and most importantly accountability.

As a citizen of a republic I would also expect redressability in any agency that holds power over my life.

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

Well I didn't bother to read the article but.....

There’s simply no way to suggest that the two men were “innocent” in their actions.

But that means you’d like to try.. huh? HUH???

You support bombers you vicious ba****d… MASNICK SUPPORTS TERR….

Oh, um sorry came over all anonymous for a moment there.. 🙂 *blushes and crawls back under rock*

Anonymous Coward says:

There has been some criticism of the documentary as being “one-sided,” but I actually felt it does a pretty good job of portraying the highly complex and nuanced issues at play in the case, but your viewpoint may differ depending on a variety of factors.

Generally, if you agree with their point of view, you will find it balanced. If you don’t you will find it less balanced. if you find yourself agreeing too much with a point of view generally considered “out there”, you may want to check your own views to make sure you aren’t on your way to being a crackpot.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:


One can easily see this happening (in fact, it was strongly alleged to have happened in the mid-40’s):
The FBI tells someone “we need you to help us catch some bad guys – build a bomb/whatever, so the bad guys will trust you”.
So, someone goes along; they want to help catch bad guys.
Then the FBI arrests them for building a bomb.
At trial, the FBI says “If you sign a statement we didn’t entrap you, maybe a year or so; otherwise, death”.
Many people would fold.
So, I say, “Any hint of entrapment, and you prosecute the FBI and let the ‘criminals’ go!”

Boxing Bob says:


This has been going on in law enforcement for years in regards to the way they deal with drug law enforcement especially in the ghetto. Get a strung out junkie to rat on a fellow junkie,plant evidence and by all means keep the higher ups safe and untouched. Your arrest record goes up and you can pass the confiscated drugs to your informant.

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