We spend the hour with an explosive new film that shines a bright light on the FBI’s shadowy use of informants in its counterterrorism sting operations. These undercover operatives are meant to root out would-be terrorists before they attack. Since 9/11, they have been used to prosecute at least 158 people. But critics argue they often target the wrong people, “including those with intellectual and mental disabilities, and the indigent.” “(T)ERROR” goes inside the world of a particular informant who has played a key role in several major terrorism cases. It does so while he is in the middle of carrying out his latest sting operation. It came together when two independent filmmakers gained unprecedented access to follow Saeed Torres, whose undercover name is “Shariff,” a 63-year-old former black revolutionary turned FBI informant, as he monitors a white Muslim convert named Khalifah al-Akili. Torres knew one of the directors, Lyric Cabral, and after he came out to her as an informant, he agreed to share his story, without informing his superiors. As the film unfolds, al-Akili begins to post on his Facebook page that he suspects the FBI is targeting him. The filmmakers used this an opportunity to approach him, and soon find themselves interviewing him at the same time they are also documenting “Shariff” monitoring him. During this time each man remains unaware that the filmmakers are talking to the other one. We get the rest of the story when we are joined by the filmmakers who co-directed “(T)ERROR,” Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, and play part of an interview with al-Akili from federal prison. Al-Akili was arrested just days after he emailed civil rights groups to say he believed he was the target of an FBI “entrapment” sting. He is now serving eight years in federal prison for illegally possessing a gun after having previous felony convictions for selling drugs. We are also joined by Steve Downs, executive director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. He works with Project SALAM, which published a report last year called “Inventing Terrorists: The Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution.” He is also representing imprisoned Pakistani scientist Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. We are also joined by Marlene, the mother of Tarik Shah, who was arrested in 2005 after a joint FBI/NYPD sting operation that also involved Saeed “Shariff” Torres. She details in the film how Shah thought Shariff was his close friend, but he was actually an FBI informant.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Today we look at an explosive new film that shines a bright light on the FBI’s shadowy use of informants in its counterterrorism sting operations. These undercover operatives are meant to root out would-be terrorists before they attack. Since 9/11, they’ve been used to prosecute at least 158 people. But critics argue they’re often targeting the wrong people. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch found the FBI has focused on, quote, “particularly vulnerable people, including those with intellectual and mental disabilities, and the indigent.”
Well, a new documentary that just premiered here in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival takes us inside the world of a particular informant who has played a key role in several major terrorism cases. And it does so while he’s in the middle of carrying out his latest sting operation. It’s called (T)ERROR; the T is in parentheses, to put the emphasis on “error.” It came together when two independent filmmakers gained unprecedented access to follow Saeed Torres, aka Shariff, a 63-year-old former black revolutionary turned FBI informant, as he monitors a white Muslim convert named Khalifah al-Akili. Torres knew one of the directors, Lyric Cabral, and after he came out to her as an informant, he agreed to share his story, without informing his superiors. In this clip from the film, the other director, David Felix Sutcliffe, interviews Shariff inside the FBI safe house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the operation is underway.
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: How exactly do they train you to kind of prepare you?
SAEED TORRES: They don’t train me for nothing. It’s how I use the language. If they train me, I would never get what I wanted to get, because they’re strictly textbook. There’s a difference between telling somebody and making a suggestion. See, entrapment is if I go and tell him, “Yo, come on, let’s go rob a bank,” and you know that was not his intention, that was my intention. So I’m entrapping him. I don’t make the suggestions. I may go to him and say, “Damn, there’s a lot of money in there, boy. I see all them [bleep] dropping off all that damn money.” And he feeds into it, and he go, “[bleep] I’d sure like to take that.”
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: What about your current target? Are your handlers trying to suggest that you –
SAEED TORRES: I don’t suggest anything. I wait ’til as we speak and to get to know each other, what we speak about. So when he brought up camping, that was my key opening right there. The door opened up for me to make a suggestion now. I said, “Yeah, oh, that’s cool, man. We could all go camping.” I said, you know, why don’t we just go a little further? We could train the man like we do in the military.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from (T)ERROR of Saeed Torres, aka Shariff, an FBI informant who portrays himself as a radicalized Muslim in order to monitor Khalifa al-Akili. As the film unfolds, al-Akili begins to post on his Facebook page he suspects the FBI is targeting him. The filmmakers use this as an opportunity to approach him and soon find themselves interviewing him at the same time that they are interviewing Shariff monitoring him. During this time, each man remains unaware that the filmmakers are talking to the other one.
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Well, to pick up the story, we’re joined by the two filmmakers, who co-directed (T)ERROR, Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe. In a minute, we’ll also get a call from the federal prison where Khalifa al-Akili is being held. As the film shows, al-Akili was arrested just days after he emailed civil rights groups to say he believed he was the target of an FBI entrapment sting. He is now serving eight years in federal prison for illegally possessing a gun after having previous felony convictions for selling drugs. He was not arrested on terrorism charges.
David and Lyric, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Tell us about this story, Lyric, how you discovered it.
LYRIC CABRAL: Sure. Well, I met Saeed’s forward-facing self. I met his double life, if you will. I was studying photography. I was living in a small brownstone in Harlem. And Saeed was my neighbor. While he was my neighbor – excuse me – I would have frequent visits to his apartment. We would engage in conversations about politics, about current events.
One day, he abruptly disappeared. This was at the end of three years of conversing. He abruptly disappeared. It was May 28, 2005. I was staring into an empty apartment, wondering where he went, when I got a call from him. He said, “I’m no longer in New York. If anyone asks – comes to you asking about me, any information, please give me a call. Get their information for me.” When I said, “Why?” he said, “Come to South Carolina. I’ve relocated. I have something to tell you.”
And when I went to South Carolina, he confessed to me that the apartment in which we had been conversing was, in essence, an FBI safe house. The rent was being paid by the FBI. It was wired with audio and video surveillance. And he told me that, “Do you remember Tarik?” And I said, “Yes. Tarik Shah?” He said, “Tarik is now in jail on suspicions of terrorism.” And at the time that I met Saeed in – between 2002 and 2005, it was sort of the height of his career. He was involved in two active counterterrorism investigations, one being the domestic investigation of Tarik Shah, the other the international –
AMY GOODMAN: Tarik Shah, who was a musician?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes.
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: Yeah.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: And the other being the international investigation based in Germany of Sheikh al-Moayad.
AMY GOODMAN: And you didn’t know this at the time.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: No, I just knew that he was a well-dressed man who said that he worked for the Legal Aid Society. He sort of –
AMY GOODMAN: He said he worked for Legal Aid.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: He did.
AMY GOODMAN: This FBI informant?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Did he work at Legal Aid?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes, yes. The FBI – what happened, the FBI took him from his job with the promise of doubling his pay, after the first World Trade Center attack. And so that’s sort of why –
AMY GOODMAN: So was he working at Legal Aid and being an FBI informant at the same time?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: That’s a good question. I believe so. I believe so. He always has some type of supplementary income.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how – he left.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you reconnect with him? And what year was it that he left Harlem?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: He left Harlem in 2005, immediately after Tarik Shah’s arrest. I went that summer, in like June or July, to South Carolina to visit him. And, I mean, it wasn’t really an issue of reconnecting, because I always called. I knew there was tremendous potential there for his story, yet I was completely repulsed that he had put me in a position where I was actively surveiled by the FBI. And so, for about 10 years, I really called him once a month – “How are you? Where are you?” – until David articulated the strong desire to make a film about informants.
AMY GOODMAN: So, David, explain how you came into this picture.
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: So, Lyric and I actually met right around that same time in 2005. We were both working at an after-school arts program in Harlem. And one of our students was arrested by the FBI, a 16-year-old Muslim girl named Adama Bah. And that arrest kind of shocked everyone in the community, shocked Lyric and I. And watching what happened to her as a result of her arrest – her father was deported; the government tried to deport her for several years. She –
AMY GOODMAN: And she was from?
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: She was from Guinea, West Africa, 16 years old. And she, all of a sudden, had to kind of be the primary caretaker of her family. Her mother did not speak English and had difficulty finding work, so she had to drop out of school – Adama – to take care of her four younger siblings. And so, while working on this film about her, I started to notice, you know, the other counterterrorism cases that were popping up, and seeing, in case after case after case, informants being sent into communities not to uncover terrorist cells, but to kind of create plots and cultivate arrests that the FBI could then use to swoop in and justify a victory in the war on terror. And while kind of observing these cases, I just thought, you know, dramatically, that would be a fascinating story to explore, the relationships that are being set up between these two – these two individuals, a target and an informant, the informant knowing that this person is ultimately going to be arrested as a consequence of this relationship.
AMY GOODMAN: When you started talking to Shariff – that was his aka name – Saeed Torres, for the film, you had not gotten in touch with Khalifah, his target in Pittsburgh, yet?
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: No.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about, Lyric, you convincing Saeed to go on camera. I mean, this is – you are getting him in the middle of a sting. The FBI doesn’t know about this?
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Presumably. We have – we, as filmmakers, sought comment from the FBI. We have yet to hear comment. But we presume that – you know, we had Saeed’s wholehearted cooperation. This film really comes from his desire to tell his story and get his story on the record.
AMY GOODMAN: Even as he is doing another sting? Because that’s how you’re –
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s what’s so astounding about this film.
DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: And I think it didn’t entirely make sense to us, either, at the time. We said, “Why would this person agree to participate in this film?” But we didn’t want to question that, initially said, “Let’s take advantage of this opportunity.” But ultimately, what we realized was, at the height of his career, Saeed was making hundreds of thousands of dollars, you know, working on multiple investigations. But in 2005, after having to testify in the case of Rafiq Sabir, who was Tarik Shah’s co-defendant, his identity was exposed, and everyone in the New York Muslim community became aware that he was actually an informant. At that point, he left New York and no longer had the social connections that made him valuable as an asset to the FBI. So when we met up with him several years later, he was making – he was barely getting reimbursed for gas money and was struggling to kind of make those large paychecks, those enormous paychecks, that he had been making previously in his career, which I think is what prompted him to agree to participate in this film.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, Lyric, how did you get in touch with his target? Presumably, Shariff did not tell you who he was now surveiling, monitoring.
LYRIC R. CABRAL: Well, early on, we were committed to sort of documenting the investigation wherever it may go and, as journalists, getting as close to the investigation as we could. And we sought legal consultation early on from the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, who sort of told us our parameters as journalists. And as such – Khalifah had a public Facebook profile, which was frequently checked by the FBI and by Saeed. And because it was public and Saeed shared that information with us, we began to check his profile. And increasingly, while we were documenting the investigation, Khalifah began to articulate suspicions on his public Facebook page, very interesting status updates like “The Feds think they can send anyone to me. They must think I’m Willie Lump-Lump,” things like this. So he would start to articulate that he thought that he was the target of an FBI investigation. And ultimately, his suspicions became more detailed. And when he finally articulated a name, Saeed, that – you know, the name of the informant that he thought was targeting him, we sort of felt comfortable, as journalists, reaching out to him.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go to break. When we come back, we’re going to hear both from Shariff and from Khalifah – from Khalifah in jail. Shariff, we have from the film, (T)ERROR. Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe are the directors. Stay with us.