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The First Post-9/11 Terror Case That Never Was

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In the video below, Retro Report looks back at the "Detroit sleeper cell" case, the first post-9/11 terror convictions. In a case that would bode ill for similar investigations to come, federal prosecutors quickly jumped to the wrong conclusions, resulting and a massive and embarrassing misfire that wrongly implicated four men, and wrongly convicted two.

Here's Eric Lichtblau writing about the case in the New York Times:

The videotape found of Las Vegas landmarks, originally thought to be a terrorist “casing” video, might have been simply a tourist’s keepsake. An audiotape thought to contain an anti-American hate speech appeared to be just an old children’s song in Arabic about a duck.

And the odd sketch in a day planner of what looked like a blueprint for an attack on a Turkish air base? Perhaps nothing more than a mentally ill man’s doodling of a Middle East map, prosecutors were forced to acknowledge . . .

We in the media breathlessly covered every warning and tip about threats real and imagined: scuba divers, cargo trucks, tourist helicopters around the Statue of Liberty, a cable-cutting blowtorch on the Brooklyn Bridge and more, as if they were the next big attack. The F.B.I. and the C.I.A. had failed to connect the dots before the 9/11 attacks, and the country was determined not to let that happen again.

As the first major terrorism prosecution after 9/11, the Detroit case tapped into that national psyche and garnered worldwide attention as a result.

The case had it all -- a compliant and unskeptical media, an informant given leniency on his own charges in exchange for his testimony, and federal prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence. More wrongful accusations and over-zealous informants would come. Unlike the countless other examples of misconduct by federal prosecutors, however, at least in this case there were some actual consequences for the accused prosecutor. Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino was dismissed from his position and criminally charged for conspiring to hide evidence. A federal jury acquitted him in 2007.

The overly credulous terrorism-related media coverage continued, too, whether of the security theater in the airports, the buildup to the war in Iraq, smearing the wrong man for the anthrax attacks, or pushback against the NSA revelations. (Though to be fair, the NSA stories were also of course broken by major media outlets The Guardian and the Washington Post.)

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Filed by Radley Balko