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“Aspirational Rather than Operational”–7 Arrested in Miami Terror Plot

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Seven men were arrested in Miami last week on charges of conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and FBI buildings in five cities. It appears the entire case rests on conversations between the group’s supposed ringleader and an FBI informant posed as representative of Al-Qaida. We go to Miami to speak with a defense attorney and a community advocate. [includes rush transcript]

On Thursday evening, government officials raided a warehouse in the Liberty City section of Miami and arrested seven men, charging them with conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and FBI buildings in five cities. The men are Narseal Batiste, Patrick Abraham, Stanley Phanor, Naudimar Herrera, Burson Augustin, Lyglenson Lemorin, and Rotschild Augustine. They range in age from 22 to 32 and were indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami on Friday.

Five of the men are U.S. citizens, one is a legal immigrant from Haiti and the last is an undocumented immigrant originally from Haiti. The men are charged with two counts of conspiring to support a foreign terrorist organization, one count of conspiring to destroy buildings by use of explosives and one count of conspiring to wage war against the government. Each faces a maximum sentence of 70 years.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the details of the case at a press conference on Friday.

  • Alberto Gonzales, attorney general speaking June 23, 2006.

Family and community members have expressed shock at the charges and point out that no weapons or explosives were found nor did investigators document any links to Al-Qaida. It appears that the entire case rests on conversations between Narseal Baptiste, the supposed ringleader of the group and the FBI informant, who was posing as a representative of Al-Qaida. John Pistole, the FBI’s deputy director, described the plan on Friday as “aspirational rather than operational.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announcing the details of the case at a news conference Friday.

ALBERTO GONZALES: These individuals wish to wage a, quote, “full ground war against the United States.” That quote is from the investigation of these individuals, who also allegedly stated the desire to, quote, “kill all the devils we can.” They hoped for their attacks to be, quote, “just as good or greater than 9/11.”

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Family and community members have expressed shock at the charges and point out no weapons or explosives were found, nor did investigators document any links to al-Qaeda. It appears the entire case rests on conversations between Narseal Baptiste, the supposed ringleader of the group, and the FBI informant, who was posing as a representative of al-Qaeda. John Pistole, the FBI’s Deputy Director, described the plan on Friday as, quote, “aspirational, rather than operational.”

We’re joined right now in Miami by David Markus and Max Rameau. David Markus is defense attorney and president of the Miami chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He’s founder of the David Oscar Markus Law Firm, which focuses on criminal trials and appeals. Max Rameau is with Miami CopWatch, which is a project of the Center for Pan-African Development. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

David Markus, let’s begin with you. Can you explain exactly what went down on Thursday? What are the charges? What has been shown?

DAVID MARKUS: Well, they’ve alleged in a 13-page indictment that these seven individuals have connections to terrorists and were funding terrorists and were going to be involved in blowing up different places. And as you mentioned, there are no weapons, no connection to al-Qaeda. You see a lot of scary words in the indictment, like “jihad” and “loyalty oath” and “Osama bin Laden,” but what we have is the traditional informant going in and talking to a bunch of guys, and what’s going to come out in the next couple weeks is actually what was said, and that’s going to be the critical part to the case.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the narrative the government has laid out about exactly what happened? Who was the informant? How did they learn about this group of people?

DAVID MARKUS: We don’t know who the informant is yet? We know from reading the indictment that there were a number of meetings in warehouses and so on in Liberty City and that those meetings were recorded. We know from reading the indictment, as well, that there are allegations that there were talks about blowing up the Sears Tower, about the Miami FBI office, about the downtown Justice building. But, again, there was nothing actually done. There was talk. And we’ve seen in a lot of these cases that talk can sometimes lead to acquittals. So we’re going to have to see more than just talk for the government to be able to show their case.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the phrase the government is using, that the plans were “aspirational,” not operational?

DAVID MARKUS: Right. It’s interesting, because I think even the government is trying to lower expectations in their case, because they know that nothing was actually done. I think the most that was done were these guys got some boots from the informants, some military boots. They have to be able to prove that they were able to carry this out, that they were going to do something. And based on the mere words, that’s going to be difficult to do. We have to hear what was said on the tapes, how far these meetings got. But based on words and the government’s talk as aspirational plans, they may have some tough hurdles to get over.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about other cases? Have there been similar ones like this in Miami and Florida?

DAVID MARKUS: There have been. The most recent one, of course, was Professor Al-Arian, who in Tampa got an acquittal for — what the defense was — just talking. Now, that case is different in a lot of respects, but I think there are some similarities to be drawn in the way that the professor’s defense was this was just talk, there was nothing more than talk. You’re allowed to talk about this kind of stuff. And at the end of the day he was acquitted of most of the charges. I think that’s going to be part of the defense here, in addition to the entrapment and that this was just fantasy on the part of the seven. There have been some other defenses floated around, like that these guys might have just been bad conmen trying to get $50,000 and some guns from somebody who came around. Who knows whether the defense is going to be entrapment or that they were conned or that this was just talk? But there are potential defenses being talked about that have been successful in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: David Markus is a defense attorney. Max Rameau is with Miami CopWatch, which is a project of the Center for Pan-African Development. Max, you are from Liberty City, where the people who have been arrested are from. Can you talk about what you understand has happened, how this has affected the community, the community that these men come from?

MAX RAMEAU: Well, Liberty City, I live at. It’s about 20 — I live — my home is about 20 blocks from where the raid occurred. I have a lot of friends who are right in that area. The community obviously is very shocked, because of the show of force which was there and shocked because of the incredible and overwhelming news coverage of this. However, as things now are starting to calm down, as the dust is settling, we’re taking a closer look at it, and I think a lot of concerns are being raised about the disparate treatment that these men are receiving as compared to what members of other communities receive who might be accused of doing the same thing or might have been planning the same thing or even further along in the plans. So we have a long history of local law enforcement and the FBI, as well, attacking and targeting the Black community and groups in that community, and we’re concerned that this is another example of that.

AMY GOODMAN: You say “disparate treatment.” Can you give us examples of people you’re talking about?

MAX RAMEAU: Certainly. Obviously in the war on drugs there’s a lot more tax on the Black community, where less drugs are used than in the White community, particular about the issue of terrorism, in addition to Luis Posada, who is a Cuban who is widely considered to be responsible for the 1976 bombing of an airplane, with killing 73 people. He is in jail now but was in Miami walking around freely for many months before he was in jail. And he’s in jail on immigration charges, not on bombing charges. Orlando Bosch was also a Cuban who held a press conference in April of 2006, essentially confessed on television to his role in that same bombing, killing 73 people, blowing up an airplane. He said that he didn’t want to get himself in trouble by saying that he did it, but he essentially confessed to doing it. He lives in Miami right now in a nice big house, and he’s not being bothered by anyone.

On the day of the raids, that same Thursday, the Miami Herald, which is the local paper, put out a front-page article, where a former board member of the Cuban American National Foundation by the name of Jose Antonio Llama came out on the front page and said that the Cuban American National Foundation, which is recognized by the government as a not-for-profit organization, had a subcommittee from their board who was responsible and did buy weapons, bought boats, bought helicopters, for the purpose of attacking a sovereign country, for attacking Cuba. So these guys were actually terrorists, real live terrorists, and they all live right now free in Miami and not getting arrested.

I’m trying to imagine what would happen if a group of Black people got together and came out on TV and said, “We were responsible for blowing up an airplane.” What would happen to them? So it looks like there’s really a big difference in the treatment there of some amateur wannabes terrorists here, allegedly, who are now going to get ready to get run over by this train that is Homeland Security, and there’s some real live terrorists who are sitting, living, and being unmolested by the police as we speak. This is really unfair treatment.

AMY GOODMAN: Max Rameau, can you talk about the Haitian community in Liberty City and the effect that this has had, Max?

MAX RAMEAU: Yes. Well, I was born in Haiti myself. The Haitian community has been very upset by this. We’re really concerned that this is going be used as a justification for the continued discriminatory practices against Haitians. Already, Haitians have a difficult time. Haitians refugees have a difficult time getting into the United States. We’re concerned that now the government is going to say, “We told you all along that we shouldn’t have Haitians in here, and this is proof of it. We have a bunch of Haitian terrorists running around here.” So we’re very concerned that this is going to be used as a justification for discriminatory practices against the Haitian community, both those Haitians trying to come in and it’s going to represent a pretext for cracking down on the Haitian community and the Black community in general, but the Haitian community in particular, who live here in South Florida or perhaps other parts of the country.

So we really have an interest in making sure that these guys get their due process and that we challenge the official government version of events, because there is a history of lying, of planting evidence, of attacks and disparate treatment on behalf of the government against the Black community.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the evidence or lack of evidence that was found?

MAX RAMEAU: Well, a lot of show has been made about the militaristic boots that they had and the gear and the outfits. Well, it turns out these guys didn’t have enough money or enough organization to get these things for themselves. The FBI bought them the boots that we’ve heard so much about, bought them the military outfits that we’ve heard so much about. If you look at the indictment, the biggest piece of evidence, it seems to me, that they have is that the group may have taken pictures of a bunch of targets in South Florida. But the guys couldn’t afford their own cameras, so the federal government bought them the cameras with which they took the pictures. They couldn’t get downtown and all the other places by themselves. The federal government rented them the cars that they needed to get downtown in order to take the pictures. So it looks like they really didn’t have too much capacity.

In addition, right now the running joke in Liberty City is, you know, in the indictments — if you read the indictments, the men provided the FBI informant with a list of things they needed in order to blow up these buildings, but in the list they didn’t include any explosives or any materials which could be used to make explosives. So now everyone in Liberty City is joking that the guys were going to kick down the FBI building with their new boots, because they didn’t have any devices which could have been used to explode, so this really, really looks pretty thin.

And in addition, we have concerned — anyone who is an activist and been to community meetings knows that there’s a few people who come into a meeting and make these statements which are a little bit beyond what their capacity is. You know, you go in, you talk about a zoning issue, and some guy comes in and says, “Oh, we’ll just take over the City Hall,” when they’re talking about a little small zoning issue, and you know they have no capacity do that. So we’re concerned that these guys had no capacity to do anything that they seemed to be talking about, that they were led by the hand by this FBI agent.

I been living in Liberty City. I’m not sure, you know, just judging by Liberty City, in general — not just Liberty City, but most people there — I’m not sure these guys knew where the Sears Tower was, much less that it would represent a significant target. So I really wonder who suggested the Sears Tower in the first place, who suggested taking the pictures. It’s just not all that clear that these guys could have come up with these plots and have carried them out, and it really raises questions again about the other real live terrorists who are living here who are not being arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: Max, finally, the issue of when it was first announced, the government said that these were Muslim men. CAIR has been quite vocal over the weekend, the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations saying that they are not from their community.

MAX RAMEAU: Well, first of all, I don’t see that as being a major issue, whether they’re Muslim or not. I still think that they have a right to a fair trial and they have a right to the presumption of innocence and they have a right not to be arrested for thinking things.

But with that said, it really raises a lot more questions, that the federal government will go out and make these statements that, you know, apparently leaking information that these were a bunch of Muslim men, when apparently they were not Muslim men. It raises several questions. For example, did the government even know if they were Muslim or not? And if they didn’t know that these guys were not Muslim, then what else did they not know that they’re including in here.

And it raises questions that they would come out and outright lie. We’ve been very concerned about the media coverage also, which has emphasized very, very minute or seemingly insignificant information, like these guys like to keep to themselves. These guys wore turbans. Well, what does — you know, I don’t understand what the big deal is with some of that, except to the extent that that plays into xenophobic fears and fears about the war on terrorism as framed by the government.

AMY GOODMAN: This story came at just the same time as a huge embarrassment to the government, and that is the story in the New York Times about the monitoring of financial records internationally.

MAX RAMEAU: Yeah. I really think this could be a case of weapons of mass distraction, where you have a big embarrassing issue coming out, and right now people are not talking about that, and they’re talking about this. And this is not even seemingly all that significant of an arrest. So it really raises questions, when they didn’t have any weapons at the place. It seems to me that if the feds would have even thought this out a little bit, they would have at least planted weapons there, but they didn’t even go through the trouble of doing that.

So it seems that this was thrown out there, thrust out there as a way of distracting people or drawing attention away from another really embarrassing situation, which means that these guys are just props, and I am really offended by that, because I know then that if these guys really are just props, that means that there are — the government is spending all kinds of time and resources on people who don’t represent any danger whatsoever to the general society, and there’s other people who represent a significant danger to people in the society who are not being tracked, who are not being followed, who are not being arrested. So this is a real, real concern, not only because these guys have rights, but because this is a misappropriation of government money — my money and everyone else’s money, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Max Rameau, I want to thank you for being with us with Miami CopWatch, project of the Center for Pan-African Development in Miami; and David Markus, head of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

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