Wary of a number of federal antiterror cases that proved to be overblown, two legal experts yesterday cautioned about attaching too much significance to the arrest of six Muslims in the alleged plot to attack Fort Dix.
The federal government's strategy to aggressively intervene early with any suspected terrorism plot, no matter how small, has sometimes resulted in prosecutions that failed to live up to their initial billing.
"The fact is that most of those arrested [in the past] are small fry and wannabes," said Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism expert and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "That's a reflection of the fact that al-Qaeda has a hard time getting people in here and has higher priorities."
Federal prosecutors in New Jersey were quick to note that the six men arrested Monday night - all from the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East - had no known ties to international terrorists. But the arrests were initially announced from the White House, attaching a significance that implied it was more than a homegrown conspiracy.
Benjamin said he knew too little about the New Jersey allegations to draw a conclusion about the seriousness of the threat. The fact that the New Jersey men took a video of themselves firing assault weapons to a store for copying onto DVDs, he said, "somewhat indicates they weren't the A-team of terrorists."
The New Jersey case, where the suspects trained by engaging in simulated combat with paintball guns, bears some resemblance to a 2003 Virginia case in which 11 Muslim men from the Washington area were charged with participating in paramilitary training - including playing paintball - to prepare for "holy war" abroad.
Some say the government's "preventive paradigm" calling upon law enforcement to intervene early yields symbolic victories, but in the long run, may be counterproductive.
David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor and civil liberties expert, said prosecutors are under pressure to bring cases quickly.
"But there's a risk of losing valuable intelligence if a case is prosecuted too early, as well as assembling a weak case against a real security threat - the risk of losing a serious case," said Cole, a frequent government critic.
Others say it is impossible to measure the deterrent effect of the government's early intervention against suspects for what appear to be petty offenses such as immigration violations.
"You're trying to pick people off before crimes are committed," Richard A. Falkenrath, now New York City's deputy commissioner of counterterrorism, said in an Inquirer interview last year. "Maybe they were bit players, maybe they were big players. You take them down early."
Civil liberties experts also said the use of paid confidential informants sends up a red flag about the strength of a case.
The use of confidential informants is a legitimate tactic that is sometimes invaluable - Sheik Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric, was convicted of conspiring to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993 largely because of testimony from an informant. But informants, motivated by a paycheck, have also been shown to pressure small players into committing crimes.
The FBI paid an informant $230,000 to infiltrate a Lodi, Calif., mosque to target two Muslim clerics. The clerics were deported, and a Pakistani immigrant and his American-born son were charged in 2005 for lying to the FBI about the younger man's training at a jihadist camp in Pakistan. Testimony showed that Hamid Hayat, 23, had undergone the training largely at the goading of the informant. He was convicted and is seeking a new trial. The father was acquitted, but later pleaded guilt to lying to a customs agent about trying to carry $28,000 into Pakistan.