Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Bridge Too Far: Inside the FBI's bridge bomb sting

On the night of April 30, the FBI arrested five scraggly-looking anarchists in the parking lot of the Garfield Heights Applebee's. They'd been caught on video planting what they thought were plastic explosives in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, at the foot of the Route 82 bridge.

Two weeks ago, three of the young anarchists -- Doug Wright, Brandon Baxter, and Connor Stevens -- pleaded guilty in federal court to weapons of mass destruction charges.

Who were these guys? A Cleveland-grown domestic terrorist group, willing to risk killing people to "send a message" to corporations and the government? Or dimwit outsiders lured by an FBI informant? Or both?

I've been looking into the story since the arrests were announced. My story about the case is out now in the October issue of Cleveland Magazine and on our website.

Since their arrest, the story of the so-called "Cleveland 5" has been national news and fuel for political debate. Because the five men were all members of Occupy Cleveland, a Tea Party group held a rally in downtown Cleveland last month, trying to link the Occupy Wall Street movement to terrorism.

Meanwhile, activists and media outlets on the left have compared the case to J. Edgar Hoover's abuses of power more than four decades ago, when the FBI worked to undermine activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

My story follows the five men through their many past encounters with the law -- four of the five have violent pasts -- and describes how their anger and activism looked to their fellow protesters at last October's Occupy Cleveland encampment.

It also takes a close look at the actions of the FBI's informant in the case. Until the five men met the informant, the sixth man at the bridge that night, they appear to have had little means to carry out any of the attacks they dreamed up. They lacked explosives, cars, and arguably, brains. The informant, who had 13 felony convictions, steered them toward an undercover agent's fake explosives, drove them around, hired some of them, and, according to several sources, gave some of them illegal drugs -- while continuing to commit crimes of his own.

My October story, "A Bridge Too Far," gives the public a rare look at thorny questions about counter-terrorism stings. Has the FBI at times overreacted to minor threats and ensnared hapless losers in their stings by escalating the plots it busts? When should the bureau set a trap for a would-be bomber? Who can be trusted to set the trap? And what should happen when a target says he wants to back out?

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