The New York Times has deconstructed the failed federal antiterrorism case in Detroit, where federal prosecutors declared in 2002 that they had thwarted a “sleeper operational combat cell” based in a dilapidated apartment. The Times says senior Justice Department officials had doubts about the case even as they were moving to indict four Middle Eastern immigrants on terrorism charges. The evidence was “somewhat weak,” said an internal memorandum obtained by the Times. It relied on a single informant with “some baggage,” and there was no clear link to terrorist groups. Charging the men with terrorism, said the memo, might pressure them to give up information. “We can charge this case with the hope that the case might get better,” Barry Sabin, the department’s counterterrorism chief, wrote, “and the certainty that it will not get much worse.”
The case did get worse. After winning convictions of two suspects last year, the Justice Department took the extraordinary step five weeks ago of repudiating its own case and successfully moving to throw out the terrorism charges. The government discredited its own witnesses and found fault with virtually every part of its prosecution. The Justice Department officially blamed its lead prosecutor in Detroit, Richard G. Convertino. The Times say that documents and interviews with people knowledgeable about the case show that top Justice officials were involved in almost every step of the prosecution, from formulating strategy to editing the indictments to planning how the suspects would be incarcerated.