Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s exposé of FBI entrapment had its world premiere at Tribeca this Spring. Its fest circuit also includes AFI Docs and the upcoming Traverse City and Woods Hole fests.
May 2009 saw the very public arrest on charges of a terrorist conspiracy of four Black Muslim men from my hometown of Newburgh NY, an economically-depressed city on the Hudson River, 60 miles north of NYC. Though touted in the media by officials as a “textbook example of how a major investigation should be conducted,” directors Davis and Heilbroner instead present a damning indictment of the methods used by the FBI through their own secretly-recorded footage, and argue, like the Newburgh Four’s unsuccessful defense counsel, that this was a clear case of entrapment. Where the government presented a cautionary (and media-friendly) tale of a homegrown terrorist cell who were set to bomb a synagogue and destroy military planes, and a corresponding celebration of the intrepid work of law enforcement officials to foil their dastardly plot, the hidden camera of the FBI’s shady informant, Pakistani Shahed Hussain, tells a much different story – one of high-pressure tactics involving outrageous sums of money, possible double-dealing, and general ineptitude that would have made carrying out any plan unlikely. While there’s no denying that greed, poor decision-making, and, for one accomplice, cognitive difficulties, conspired to draw four men into what they recognized would be an illegal act, the filmmakers convincingly argue that were it not for the government’s willful seduction of easy, vulnerable targets and the FBI’s orchestration and implementation of every facet of the plot, there would never have been a cell to begin with. The result is a frightening account of the far-reaching consequences of the war on terror and of the questionable means employed by those with incentive to keep America in a state of heightened alert, even if it has to be artificially manufactured.