For the past 14 years, relatives of four men jailed on terrorism charges in Newburgh, New York, have accused the FBI of entrapment. On Thursday, a federal judge agreed and ordered the release of three of the men known as the Newburgh Four: David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen. The men had been sentenced in 2010 to 25 years in prison for a government-orchestrated bombing plot of a New York synagogue. In a stunning decision, the judge accused the FBI of inventing a conspiracy. With the men set to be released within 90 days, we speak with lawyers Kathy Manley and Stephen F. Downs from the Coalition for Civil Freedoms about the monumental ruling, the legal issues with entrapment and what the ruling means for the many cases like this one. “This was the government’s standard operating procedure right after 9/11,” says Downs. “They were out there going to create as many terrorists as they could to show the public that they were on the job.” The fourth man convicted, James Cromitie, is expected to seek compassionate release.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
A federal judge has ordered the release of three New York men who were sentenced to 25 years in prison for their role in a government-orchestrated bombing plot. The men, who were all Black and Muslim converts, became known as the Newburgh Four. They were convicted in 2010 and sentenced to 25 years in prison for placing what they thought were bombs in a New York synagogue.
Supporters of the men have long argued they were entrapped by the government. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon issued a stunning ruling ordering the compassionate release of three of the four men. In her ruling, she wrote, quote, “A person reading the crimes of conviction in this case would be left with the impression that the offending defendants were sophisticated international terrorists committed to jihad against the United States. However, they were, in actual reality, hapless, easily manipulated and penurious petty criminals.” McMahon said the men were not terrorists, but, quote, “impoverished small time grifters and drug users/street level dealers who could use some money.” She wrote, quote, “The F.B.I. invented the conspiracy; identified the targets; manufactured the ordnance,” unquote. The FBI has relied on an informant who was involved in several other high-profile entrapment cases within the Muslim community.
Democracy Now! has closely followed the case of the Newburgh Four since 2010, when Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat and Hany Massoud and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films traveled through Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey to track the Newburgh case and two other entrapment cases. In October 2010, Democracy Now! aired a special investigation into these cases. This clip begins with Anjali Kamat.
ANJALI KAMAT: On May 20th, 2009, four African American men from the city of Newburgh, New York, were arrested outside a synagogue in the Bronx. Known as the Newburgh Four, they made national headlines as stark examples of “homegrown terror.”
REPORTER: Prosecutors describe the suspects as extremely violent men who embraced every opportunity for terrorism.
ANJALI KAMAT: More than a year after their arrest, the Newburgh Four are now facing trial in Manhattan for conspiracy to use of weapons of mass destruction and anti-aircraft missiles. But the case has raised serious questions about the government’s role in creating and then foiling fake terror plots.
REPORTER: The suspects were duped. The bombs and missile were fake, supplied by the FBI and NYPD.
ANJALI KAMAT: Alicia McCollum is the aunt of David Williams, one of the Newburgh Four. Since his arrest, she has tried to mobilize support for her nephew. Taking the train to the first day of the trial in August, she is visibly upset.
ALICIA McWILLIAMS-McCOLLUM: I was restless last night. I couldn’t even sleep. You know, it was just so much. You know, you think about the family and what you’re getting ready to go through, and it’s like this whole year of fighting for the case, and now it’s like finally happening and we’re going to trial. And just worried, you know, that the government want to make a case so bad that my nephew can go away for life, so it’s just been like heavy on my mind last night. Very heavy.
ANJALI KAMAT: Like the other members of the Newburgh Four, twenty-nine-year-old David Williams lived in the economically devastated city of Newburgh and had served prison time on drug charges and petty criminal offenses. All four men were converts to Islam, and one of them, Laguerre Payen, is a Haitian-born immigrant and a paranoid schizophrenic. Alicia says she was shocked when she heard that these four men were being called terrorists.
AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt from the 2010 Democracy Now! investigation by Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen. Alicia McWilliams-McCollum went on to directly accuse the government of entrapping her nephew.
ALICIA McWILLIAMS-McCOLLUM: This is entrapment. You’re going to send an informant into an impoverished community, the most impoverished county, to do your trickery. You ain’t stumbled upon a cell. Nobody ain’t tell you that someone was plotting to do anything. You created a crime.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Alicia McWilliams-McCollum, speaking in 2010. She died last year after fighting for over a decade for the release of her nephew, David Williams, and the other members of the Newburgh Four. Well, David Williams, Onta Williams, Laguerre Payen will now be released within 90 days after last week’s stunning judicial ruling.
We’re joined now by two lawyers who are part of the Coalition for Civil Freedoms, which was founded in 2010 to challenge preemptive prosecution and the post-9/11 targeting, surveillance and criminalization of Muslim communities. Kathy Manley is legal director for the Coalition for Civil Freedoms, and Stephen Downs is the chair of the coalition’s board of directors, former chief attorney for the Commission on Judicial Conduct in New York state.
Stephen Downs and Kathy Manley, welcome to Democracy Now! Kathy Manley, why don’t we start with you? The significance of this ruling yesterday by the federal judge? Tell us exactly what she said and how this came about, after what? It’s been over — well over a decade.
KATHY MANLEY: Yeah. Thanks, Amy. Thanks for having us.
It was — first, I’ve got to say, it was so poignant to hear Alicia’s voice because she was at the heart of the support for these men all these years. She brought a lot of us together. She inspired us. And when we filed this motion, she was still alive. And we really, really wanted her to see this, to see them get released. And unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. Hopefully, she’s up there smiling.
But this is a significant ruling. This was a wonderful decision. It took a year and a half to happen, but we’re so happy that the judge was — she always understood this case was unfair. She called it the “unterrorism” case from day one. And she always understood that the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence was way too harsh. But there was nothing — she believed there was nothing she could do about it, because, basically, there is no entrapment defense in the law — and I can talk about that if I have time, but there was no way for her to avoid doing this, she believed. And when we filed this motion, that gave her an opportunity, in a compassionate release motion, to say this sentence is too harsh. And she did say so. And it is a wonderful ruling, because it shows that the government created this entire case. You know, the judge is saying this. This is what we’ve been saying all along. She couldn’t say it was entrapment, because there’s no entrapment defense. The law doesn’t consider this entrapment. But it is entrapment. It’s the classic definition of entrapment. And we’re just really grateful that she understood the unfairness of this case, and now they will be released.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Downs, if you can lay out the case for us? And also, let’s be clear that the judge, Judge Colleen McMahon, is the original judge, right? She has basically reversed her decision.
STEPHEN DOWNS: Yeah. Thank you, Amy, for having us on. This is a wonderful — Democracy Now! has stood with us for years in calling out the unfairness of this case. And I think people were onto it very early.
What simply happened was that the government sent down their key man, Shahed Hussain, who had entrapped people up in Albany, and had nothing better to do with him, so they sent him down to hang out in a mosque in Newburgh. And the mosque very quickly caught onto him, that he was a phony and a government informant, and they kicked him out. So he went out into the parking lot and began to talk to anybody he could find: “So, let’s do jihad. Let’s get involved. I’m incredibly rich. I’ve got money, money, money.” And he hooked some guy, who was Cromitie, who got interested in this, not because, I think, he was at all interested in jihad, but because he was interested in the money. And they talked off and on, and Cromitie backed out after a while. And then they — Shahed Hussain realized that he was going to lose this fish that he had hooked, unless he upped it. And so he came back to him with an offer, saying, “I’ll pay you $250,000.” And he later tried to deny that in a lie, and the government allowed him to do that. But there’s a tape recording of his actually making that offer, $250,000. And so, they decided to go ahead with this plot. I believe Cromitie all along intended to try to get the money and not to do anything, not to harm anybody, because that was not his nature.
Just before the plot was to go down, a few weeks before, the government suddenly realized that they wanted more people. They wanted to entrap larger numbers. It wouldn’t look good if they were just entrapping one person. So they told Cromitie he needed some lookouts. And so he went out and hired and recruited these three young kids who just needed money. And in one case, certainly in David Williams’ case, he desperately needed the money, to get his brother a liver transplant. And so, they joined in for a very brief time, and then the whole thing came down on top of them.
There was, I think, never any doubt that the whole purpose of this was the government trying to buy crime with money, offering money to get the crime. It had nothing to do with terrorism. It had nothing to do with protecting a community against a group of people. What I find really offensive about it was that they then took these entrapment cases and turned them on the Muslim community and used it to generate hatred against the Muslim community by making all sorts of lies and exaggerated statements about what the case was about. They became a purveyor of hate, really, against the Muslim community. And the government has absolutely no business doing that. So, that’s how it happened.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2014, HBO aired the documentary The Newburgh Sting, which featured secret recordings of conversations between the undercover FBI informant, Shahed Hussain, and James Cromitie, one of the men who became part of the Newburgh Four. You have to listen really carefully, because some of the audio can be hard to understand. The clip begins with James Cromitie.
JAMES CROMITIE: None of these brothers got jobs.
SHAHED HUSSAIN: Mm-hmm.
JAMES CROMITIE: There’s three of us without no jobs.
SHAHED HUSSAIN: Sure.
JAMES CROMITIE: But, actually, how you think we feel, huh? We getting ready to do all this. We ain’t got no money in our pockets. How do you think we feel? Look at me, bro.
SHAHED HUSSAIN: Mm-hmm.
JAMES CROMITIE: How do you think they feel?
SHAHED HUSSAIN: If these brothers are doing it for money, I don’t need those, want all out.
JAMES CROMITIE: No, I talked to them already. They already know.
SHAHED HUSSAIN: OK. Let me say —
JAMES CROMITIE: I’m worried about them.
SHAHED HUSSAIN: — it is for Allah [inaudible] and that’s all it is. And if they want need for money or greedness or they think they are going to make any money or any of this, please do not, because this is jihad. This is jihad. And that’s what jihad is.
JAMES CROMITIE: But you know what they’re thinking? They can use the money, though.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s FBI informant Shahed Hussain and James Cromitie, one of the men who became part of the Newburgh Four. Kathy Manley, if you can talk about who the FBI informant was, the fact that he had what? He had fled Pakistan, perhaps wanted for murder. He didn’t want to be deported, so he was desperate to entrap these men or do what the FBI wanted.
KATHY MANLEY: Yeah, he was — he was at one point wanted for murder in Pakistan. I don’t know the details of that. But after having seen his trajectory in the U.S., it’s a long trail of slime. Like, he just kept ripping people off, conning people, tricking people out of their money, and then eventually was caught in a case where he was defrauding the DMV. He was getting people fake driver’s licenses, working with a corrupt DMV employee. And the FBI was going to send him to prison and then deport him to Pakistan.
But instead, they gave him an opportunity to work for them in Albany, in our case, the case of Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain. And he did very successfully, wrongfully, prosecute them. You know, he’s so deceptive and slimy. And they ended up getting convicted and sentenced to 15 years. And we thought, “This guy is so dishonest, and the jury hated him. They probably won’t use him again.” But, sure enough, we found out they used him in the Newburgh case, and they used him in other cases. The FBI loves this guy. And after the Newburgh case, they used him in the Khalifah al-Akili case in Pittsburgh. And that was featured in the documentary (T)ERROR by Lyric Cabral and David Sutcliffe. And that actually featured the clip of Shahed Hussain offering James Cromitie the $250,000, when he didn’t realize he was being recorded.
So, this guy, then he went on to form this limousine company in the Albany — the capital region, and that was, very tragically, the limousine that killed 20 people in Schoharie County in 2018. And he was in Pakistan at that point, letting his son run the company, and basically telling him how to do it, telling him, “Don’t worry if the brakes don’t work. It doesn’t really matter. We don’t care.” And his son is now doing a five-to-15-year sentence, while he sits in Pakistan hanging out with his superrich brother Malik, who kind of destabilized the government in Pakistan. So, this guy has a long history.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Stephen Downs, let’s end with you. You have three of four of the Newburgh Four going to be released within 90 days, compassionate release. What happens with Cromitie, the fourth? And then, the fact that this FBI informant, who did a sting operation in Albany, the Fort Dix Five in Pittsburgh, does this all begin to unravel these cases?
STEPHEN DOWNS: Well, first of all, I just saw a letter from Cromitie’s lawyer that he’s sending to the court, asking to be appointed to represent him. So I’m pretty sure that Cromitie is going to make a move to also be released. Of course, his case is different from the others — all the cases are slightly different — so he will have to present that to the court. But I think it looks pretty good that the judge will grant that.
In terms of the second part of that, there’s a lot of cases that look like this case. This is a particularly clear, dramatic example of it, but this was the government’s standard operating procedure right after 9/11. They were out there going to create as many terrorists as they could, to show the public, I think, that they were on the job, that they knew what they were doing, that they were keeping America safe. And if they couldn’t find any real terrorists — and they couldn’t; there really weren’t any real terrorists around — they had to create them. And that’s what they did: They created these terrorists.
So we have a lot of cases out there. The Fort Dix Five is one. The Holy Land Five is another case. Aafia Siddiqui is another case. You can go down a whole long list of these cases. And some of them, and particularly the Holy Land Five and the Newburgh — and the Fort Dix Five, have, essentially, life sentences. They will probably die in jail. So there’s a really high priority on us trying to get these cases out, these people out. And so we’re going to really need a lot of work to go in there and start to try different theories to get them out.
This case is a godsend to us. It really underlies the whole hypocrisy of the government’s position, and allows us to argue now in these other cases, “The same thing happened here. This is no different. You just have to look at the facts and realize that these people were set up.” So, I see our work is cut out for us now. This particular case shows the way. It may not be through compassionate release motions; we may have to try other strategies. But I think, in a way, what it does is it breaks the assumption that these cases were real cases. It shows that the government had a policy of creating cases when they couldn’t find any real cases, and then pretending that they were real cases, and demonizing the Muslim community in the meantime. So, that’s what we’re going to have to work on, I think, over the next few years.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, Stephen Downs, chair of the board for the Coalition for Civil Freedoms, former chief attorney of the Commission on Judicial Conduct in New York state, and Kathy Manley, legal director for Coalition for Civil Freedoms.
Next up, a former obstetrician-gynecologist at Columbia University, Dr. Robert Hadden, has been sentenced to 20 years in a federal prison, accused of sexually assaulting hundreds and hundreds of patients during examinations over 20 years. We’ll speak to two survivors, two of his patients, and look at why Columbia ignored Dr. Hadden’s behavior for so long. Stay with us.
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