By Billy Hallowell
The recent arrest of four Muslim men who allegedly plotted to blow up two synagogues in Riverdale, N.Y., serves as a startling reminder of both the potential dangers that America continues to face, and the impressive counterterrorism tools that, despite the efforts of some on the Left, the country still has at its disposal.
What is notable about the Riverdale plotters – James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen – is that they were not trained in overseas camps, nor were they radicalized by a large terror cell. Instead, they are U.S. and Caribbean natives who converted to Islam in prison. Equally significant is that their surveillance by the FBI, and later their successful apprehension, owes a great deal to the preventative measures of the much-maligned Patriot Act.
One such measure enables investigators to obtain suspect records from third parties, such as travel and telephone records, without notifying the subject. The second is a provision that enables law enforcement officials to obtain one warrant for multiple electronic devices. Both these measures likely contributed to the FBI’s success in foiling the Riverdale terror plot.
It was a chance encounter that led the FBI to investigate the plot. In June 2008, a government informant met James Cromitie by chance at a Newburgh, N.Y., mosque. According to WABC News, the informant alerted the FBI and then began to meet undercover with the suspects at a Newburgh home equipped with undercover surveillance video and audio capabilities. It was during these meetings that the terror plot unfolded. Eleven months later, the saga culminated with on-site arrests on May 20, 2009, after the men allegedly placed what they thought were cell-phone wired car bombs outside the synagogues.
Although the exact methods that officials used to track and subsequently apprehend the Riverdale plotters are not fully known, the Patriot Act appears to have been crucial to the investigation. Even the most rudimentary triangulation of the suspects’ cell phone, landline and Internet communications and records would have been a necessity throughout the duration of the investigation. As the suspects moved between localities and judicial districts, law enforcement officials likely needed to gain easy access to calls and communications being made without the paperwork and hassles once incurred prior to the Patriot Act’s authorization. Additionally, officials may have needed ongoing access to purchases being made online, on credit cards or through other means to monitor terror-related purchases.
While there has been a fair share of disagreement surrounding the role of the Patriot Act in thwarting domestic attacks, the Riverdale plot underscores its continued importance. The New York Daily News characterized the FBI investigation as having “incredible breadth” and the nearly-year-long monitoring that went on surely required access to a multitude of third-party records. Additionally, sources told the Daily News that, “Live-feed surveillance cameras caught the quartet's every move - and beamed the images to television monitors at NYPD headquarters in Manhattan and FBI headquarters in New York and Washington,” yet another indication of the surveillance methods made possible by the Patriot Act.
That’s not how much of the Left sees it, however. For years, liberal groups have asserted that the Patriot Act is too invasive, quashing privacy and stifling civil rights. In 2003, former Vice-President Al Gore urged the Patriot Act’s repeal and insisted that it weakened national security through its “mass violations of civil liberties.” According to the Los Angeles Times, Gore also concluded that, “the vast majority of these violations have not benefited our security at all; in fact, they have hurt the effort to improve our security,” a charge difficult to square with cases like the Riverdale plot.
Not that the Patriot Act’s foes have reconsidered their opposition in the wake of such counterterrorism successes. On May 20, 2009, just hours before the FBI arrested the four perpetrators, the American Civil Liberties Union paid tribute to Caroline Frederickson, the former director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. In March 2009, Frederickson was quoted by the Washington Post as claiming that the “Patriot Act has been disastrous for Americans' rights,” and urging Congress to “use this year's Patriot Act reauthorization as an opportunity to reexamine all of our surveillance laws.”
It should come as no surprise that those tasked with preventing domestic terrorist attacks see the Patriot Act differently. In March 2009, just two months prior to the incident in Riverdale, FBI Director Robert Mueller appealed to lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee to reauthorize key intelligence-gathering measures present in the Patriot Act – elements that are scheduled to expire this December. Mueller expressed special concern over the potential loss of the two components that he believes are central to FBI anti-terror successes – the same two components that appear to have been critical in stopping the Riverdale plot.
During his March 2009 testimony, Mueller reminded Senators and the American people of the grave threats that still exist. In particular, Mueller warned of the threat posed by “home-grown terrorists,” and “extremists who may be living here in the United States, in the very communities they intend to attack.” Mueller’s warning proved all-too prescient. With key provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire this December, lawmakers would do well to reflect on what did not come to pass in Riverdale, N.Y.