Lights! Camera! Terrorists!

The federal indictment against the so-called Liberty City 7 was TV at its finest

The story of the Liberty City 7 ignited last Thursday as most of South Florida headed home from work. At 5:57 p.m., NBC affiliate WTVJ-TV (Channel 6) disrupted regular programming. Patricia Andreu, a pretty brunet of Cuban descent, broke in breathlessly. "We have some video that is just arriving from the scene," Andreu told viewers.

Then came footage from a rundown warehouse near NW 17th Avenue and 63rd Street. Law enforcement officers, dressed in army greens and black boots, paced around SUVs with darkly tinted windows as if waiting for a paintball game scheduled as part of a corporate retreat.

"We're told that a terrorism-related investigation is under way," Andreu explained. "We're told that armed federal and local officials — there you see them right there — have set up a perimeter in the area... As you can see in this video that we just got into the NBC6 newsroom, several federal and local officials are on scene there, including the FBI. They're armed, as you can tell."

CBS affiliate WFOR-TV (Channel 4) quickly posted a similar video on its website under the headline: "Terror Suspects Detained by Agents in Projects."

That afternoon, federal agents had arrested seven alleged al Qaeda operatives. At first, it seemed like the most significant counterterrorism development since the U.S. military bombed Iraqi insurgency leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi into oblivion. But the bust turned out to be nothing more than a carefully timed and staged media diversion.

The timing was suspicious. The New York Times had just revealed yet another government program that delved into private citizens' affairs. And national media were in town to broadcast the NBA champion Miami Heat's victory parade.

Call it a prime-time bust in the Magic City. Federal agents arrested Narseal Batiste, Patrick Abraham, Stanley Phanor, Naudimar Herrera, Burson Augustin, Lyglenson Lemorin, and Rotschild Augustine — and overnight transformed them into made-for-TV stars.

The government's indictment alleged that the Liberty City men plotted to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and the FBI office in North Miami Beach. And it reeked of entrapment. But the media, particularly those wielding TV cameras, were all too anxious to point the al Qaeda finger.

"I firmly believe there are public relations aspects to this case and other cases like it," says Khurrum Wahid, a Miami attorney who has represented clients against terrorism charges.

Following local TV's report-now, ask-questions-later dispatches, national media descended on Liberty City with scant information about the accusations and the accused. About 10:00 p.m., CNN's John Zarrella, appearing on Anderson Cooper 360, seemed to score the best interview: a member of the alleged Miami terrorist cell. "Brother Corey," as he was identified, explained that he and his friends "are not no terrorists." The group, Brother Corey said, is committed to peaceful religious study. The interview:

Zarrella: So you're saying that there was never any intention by this group to bomb the Sears Tower in New York [sic] or the FBI building here in Miami?

Brother Corey: Correct.

Zarrella: And you're not terrorists?

Brother Corey: We are not terrorists.

Zarrella: Not related in any way to al Qaeda?

Brother Corey: Sir, I don't want to release none of that information, but I know we are not terrorists....

Zarrella: Why do you call yourselves soldiers? What's the — you know, if it's a peaceful group, why use the term "soldier"?

Brother Corey: Because we study and we train through the Bible, not only physical [Brother Corey points to his head] — not only physical but mentally... This is not no homeless shelter for a terrorist attack. You hear me?

Clearly, if the inept "Brother Corey" and his buddies are terrorists — and CNN didn't provide evidence to prove this — we're all safe.

But on the local 11:00 p.m. news, the fear-mongering continued. WPLG-TV (Channel 10) investigative correspondent Rad Berky reported from outside the group's warehouse that night. The phrases "Terror Raid" and "Terror Arrests" flashed on the screen. His face stern, Berky intoned: "Investigators believe there was a homegrown, domestic terrorist organization working out of this warehouse in Liberty City. Seven men are under arrest tonight."

Berky repeatedly attributed information already well-known to the media and the public — such as the government's claim that the accused terrorists wanted to bomb targets in Miami and Chicago — to "sources." Uttering such words as jihadand jihadist, Berky used his four minutes and twenty-five seconds to speak with infinite redundancy of the federal government's charges against the Liberty City 7.

"Our sources say it was the Miami-Dade Police Department that started the investigation," Berky reported. "The FBI then got an informant inside the group, convincing them he was al Qaeda or an Islamic jihadist. There is also said to be audio- or videotape of the group members pledging support for violent holy war."

Concrete information came the next day at a news conference in the U.S. Attorney's Office in downtown Miami. Twenty-five cameras circled a lectern strewn with microphones. Three camera crewmen wore Heat T-shirts. Others dangled NBA press credentials from their necks. Reporters pressed in line, anxious to get their hands on CDs that contained photos of the accused terrorists.

At 11:30 a.m., about 30 minutes after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales finished his news conference in Washington, D.C., U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta took the stage in Miami. Behind him stood two dozen local and federal officials, including Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, Police Chief John Timoney, and Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne. A slender man with thinning brown hair and Dumbo-like ears, Acosta addressed the media with a drawl that implied authority. The seven Miami men, Acosta said, hoped that their attacks would be — in their words — "just as good or greater than 9/11."

Of course, according to the eleven-page indictment distributed at the news conference, the group didn't have any weapons or explosives. And their al Qaeda contact — to whom they allegedly pledged allegiance and asked for $50,000 in funding — was in fact a federal informant.

These guys weren't even being scouted for the al Qaeda farm league. But many of the reporters just didn't seem to get it.

"Was al Qaeda on its way to responding? What kind of feedback did they get?" a female reporter asked, successfully screaming over her colleagues.

"I'm sorry — I don't understand," Acosta replied.

"They asked for money. They asked for weapons. What kind of feedback did they get from al Qaeda?"

Acosta replied that, uh, well, no, al Qaeda was never actually contacted.

"How did they get the $50,000 [from al Qaeda]?" another female reporter queried.

"I'm sorry?" Acosta replied, again baffled by the question.

"You mentioned $50,000," the reporter said.

Acosta replied again that, uh, well, no, al Qaeda was never actually contacted.

Following the twenty-minute news conference, officials filed out of the room. Dressed in his crisp, blue police uniform and shiny black shoes, Chief Timoney stepped down from the dais. Reporters surrounded him. Timoney offered vague answers to specific questions, his booming voice filling the room. Al Qaeda, Timoney explained, has morphed from a top-down organization into a group with independently functioning parts.

Then the chief glanced around the room, clearly distracted. Osama bin Laden, it seemed, was the least of the chief's concerns.

The elevator opened.

Timoney pointed. "Is that going down?" he asked as a New Timesreporter stepped in beside him.

"Thank God!" Timoney said as the elevator doors closed. "I've got a parade to run. I can't be bothered with this [terrorism] stuff."

-- Staff writer Forrest Norman contributed to this report.

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