Richard Lavinthal

is a legal public-relations and media-relations consultant

Poor judgment by law enforcement - obscured during a three-day orgy of interagency attaboys, backslapping and media interviews over the "Fort Dix Six" case - could allow a future terror cell to flourish.

The six arrests May 7 occurred at the beginning of a TV "sweeps week." Coincidence? Or was the "takedown" planned specifically to make a media splash?

In their zeal for publicity, authorities delivered a strong negative message to citizens who might be inclined to report suspicious behavior from a neighbor or customer: "We'll leak enough information that you and your family could be found out."

In court documents, the FBI said their lead came from "a representative of a retail store" who saw a disturbing video brought in for duplication to a DVD. But later someone in the know revealed that a teenage clerk dubbed the tape and identified the Mount Laurel Circuit City as the store. This unfair, dangerous publicity should force the U.S. Marshal's Service to create a "NewsWitness Protection Program" and relocate the young man and his family.

According to news stories, the clerk has gone into hiding, "laying low" by not attending school, and avoiding his part-time job since the arrests were made.

It's one thing to do your civic duty and report suspicious activity, another to subject yourself and your family to possible retribution.

The six suspects are locked away in pre-trial detention, and they do appear to be bumblers, according to the affidavit attached to their complaints. (They had enough money to buy several $500 AK-47s, but not a single dubbing recorder?)

I'd be sleeping with one eye open if I were the person who tipped off the authorities, only to find that they reciprocated by sending the media to camp out at my workplace. The alleged terrorists' lack of electronic sophistication notwithstanding, one of those inept suspects could have a real terrorist friend.

In reading the complaints and the attachment common to all six, nowhere is Circuit City mentioned. Who leaked the retailer's name to the media so they could line up their cameras in front of the electronics store? Was it a local cop who had a small piece of the case, a state police officer with a friend in the media, or the FBI?

The news release issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office credits special agents of the FBI's Philadelphia Division and the FBI South Jersey Joint Terrorism Task Force, investigators with member agencies of the FBI South Jersey Joint Terrorism Task Force, comprising the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, the New Jersey State Police, the Delaware River Port Authority Police, the Philadelphia Division of ICE, the Cherry Hill Police Department, the Cherry Hill Fire Department, the Camden County Sheriff's Department, the Philadelphia Police Department, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Mount Laurel Police Department, and the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office. Which agency leaked Circuit City to the media?

And did the complaint, a public document, have to state that a representative of a video store contacted the FBI about the frightening DVD? Why couldn't the special agent's affidavit state simply that a private citizen provided a DVD to the FBI, and leave the rest to discovery and trial?

On May 12, the Los Angeles Times reported "a troubling vulnerability in the domestic war on terrorism," namely the reluctance of private citizens, which it called "amateurs," to get involved. The article quotes J.P. Weis, the FBI's Philadelphia special agent in charge, as saying private-citizen help is "not something that we would like; it's something that we absolutely need." Then it states that authorities admit that without the clerk, this case would never have been investigated.

Today, in hindsight, would the clerk from Circuit City call the authorities again? Is Circuit City corporate overjoyed at being identified?

The next time Joe Citizen reports something awry, let's hope the authorities do a better job protecting the "amateurs" who are keeping us safe. Shield them and their employers, in their charging papers, at news conferences, in their filed documents, and, most important, in their comments to the media.

Richard Lavinthal, who blogs at www.prPROpinion.com, is a former spokesman for federal and state law-enforcement agencies.