Last week, as you may have heard, the Justice Department breathlessly announced that it had uncovered and broken up a terrorist plot against the government, leading to the arrest of a 20 year-old man
, Christopher Lee Cornell, in Ohio. According to the FBI, Cornell was planning to go to the US Capitol and kill government officials. As often happens with these kinds of announcements, the press was quick to jump in and fuel the narrative
of some big terror plot
that the FBI was able to miraculously disrupt
at the last minute.
For years now, we've pointed out a pattern of how nearly every big headline about the US disrupting a domestic terrorist attack was almost always about the FBI creating its very own plot, and then pressuring and cajoling some vulnerable, poverty-stricken, desperate Muslim (almost always Muslim) young men into "joining" this plot. This happens despite those individuals rarely having expressed direct interest in any sort of terrorist activity, or having any connections or means to carry out such activity. But with continued pressure from "FBI informants" (who tend to either by paid by the FBI or are trying to reduce punishment for other crimes they've been charged with -- or both), eventually these men agree to take part in a "plot" that was entirely designed by the FBI and had no chance of ever happening. We've written about similar occurrences over
It looks like this one is more of the same
. As The Intercept reports:
The alleged would-be terrorist is 20-year-old Christopher Cornell, who is unemployed, lives at home, spends most of his time playing video games in his bedroom, still addresses his mother as “Mommy” and regards his cat as his best friend; he was described as “a typical student” and “quiet but not overly reserved” by the principal of the local high school he graduated in 2012.
Not only did he just convert to Islam a few months ago (and there's no indication that he ever actually attended the mosque that he claimed to have joined), but the details of the overall story certainly match the pattern of an FBI made up plot:
The affidavit filed by an FBI investigative agent alleges Cornell had “posted comments and information supportive of [ISIS] through Twitter accounts.” The FBI learned about Cornell from an unnamed informant who, as the FBI put it, “began cooperating with the FBI in order to obtain favorable treatment with respect to his criminal exposure on an unrelated case.” Acting under the FBI’s direction, the informant arranged two in-person meetings with Cornell where they allegedly discussed an attack on the Capitol, and the FBI says it arrested Cornell to prevent him from carrying out the attack.
For someone supposedly plotting a terrorist attack, Cornell didn't seem particularly subtle. The affidavit notes that Cornell first came to their attention because of his tweets in support of ISIS. Then the informant reached out to him and began pushing the plot.
Yet, it's not just the mainstream press that is exaggerating this story. Speaker of the House John Boehner wasted little time in claiming that Cornell was only discovered because of "the FISA program."
“The first thing that strikes me is that we would’ve never known about this had it not been for the FISA program and our ability to collect information for people who pose an imminent threat.”
Except, uh, no. The dude was posting on a public Twitter feed and then had a government informant reach out to him. It doesn't look like anyone needed any particular "FISA program." Thankfully, at least some reporters quickly called bullshit on this
, noting that the facts of the case don't at all match up with a situation in which any sort of FISA-approved surveillance effort was needed.
Instead, it seems clear that this is just blatant and cynical fear-mongering by John Boehner
in the lead-up to the fight to renew certain provisions of the PATRIOT Act, including Section 215, which is the program under which the NSA and FBI get bulk phone records from phone companies (and, most likely, other bulk records). As Julian Sanchez points out in the link above, there seems to be no reason to have used data collected under Section 215 in this case:
According to the criminal complaint, it was an informant hoping to reduce his own criminal sentence who brought Cornell to the Bureau’s attention. Nor, indeed, was Cornell particularly subtle: Under the Twitter handle ISBlackFlags, he pseudonymously voiced support for the Islamic State and violent jihad. If that’s true, then while it would hardly be surprising if Cornell’s phone records were reviewed at some point in the investigation, it’s hard to see how a bulk telephone database could have been essential to identifying him. Once Cornell had been identified, of course, traditional targeted intelligence or law enforcement authorities would have been sufficient to allow investigators access to his metadata—or, for that matter, his online communications.
But, knowing that the fight over renewing Section 215 is going to be a big deal later this year, it appears that Boehner used this as a bogus excuse to start laying the groundwork for such an approval. Remember, that multiple groups -- including the White House's own review board and the government's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board -- couldn't find any evidence that the 215 program was necessary in stopping a single
domestic terrorist attack. The only
case that it was really involved in was a guy in California sending some money back to Somalia.
When the fight to renew 215 really ramps up, this lack of a success story is likely to come up. And, thus, it appears that the supporters of the surveillance state are desperately in need of some "success stories" for the 215 program, and Boehner seems to have rushed out and grabbed the first available one and he's going to milk it for all its worth.
“I’m going to say this one more time because you’re going to hear about it for months and months to come as we attempt to reauthorize the FISA program: Our government does not spy on Americans — unless they are Americans who are doing things that frankly tip off our law enforcement officials to an imminent threat. It was our law enforcement officials and those programs that helped us stop this person before he committed a heinous crime in our nation’s capital.”
Except, no, it wasn't. This sounds like yet another of the government self-built plots that had no chance of ever taking off, and the only reason Cornell, a homebound videogame player who calls his mother "Mommy," got involved was because he was a gullible, disenchanted kid who spouted off some stupid statements on Twitter, making him easy prey.