Ever since 9/11 our country’s security agencies have been working overtime on surveillance, sting operations, and other forms of intelligence gathering. The Patriot Act enabled all law enforcement agencies to override the 4th amendment’s due process stipulations. Over the years we have watched the continual erosion of our civil liberties in the delicate balancing act of maintaining domestic security.
If individuals in national security agencies are acutely ethical, there is no problem with handing over to them American constitutional power which enables them to walk between the raindrops in the name of stopping “terror.” However, agencies are peopled by flawed human beings. There is little oversight and no checks and balances to prevent potential corruption, cover-ups, or malfeasance. There is no independent way to monitor abuses which may be exacted with impunity because “no one” is watching.
The documentary (T)ERROR reveals that for the first time, someone is watching. Filmmakers Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe gain unprecedented access to an FBI counter-terrorism sting operation in which they pierce the veil and penetrate behind the scenes one of the branches of the national security state to capture a live, on-the-ground operation. The FBI is unaware they are filming them. The documentary (T)ERROR is a vital reminder of how law enforcement agencies, in this example, the FBI, may commit potential human rights violations while exercising the mandate to curtail the “war on terror.” The film reveals that agencies may interpret the mandate so broadly that over-zealous agents target individuals in preventative stings that the FBI promulgates. Many suggest that the net effect is to incite violence and increase the war on terror rather than curtail it.
(T)ERROR‘s on the ground, live footage shows how economically disadvantaged individuals, usually criminals serving time, are released and used as paid informants. These individuals work in the service of the agency to engage alleged Muslim militants in taped conversations that compromise them. Agent handlers work their informants in step-by-step procedures to act as provocateurs. The irony is that without the informant’s intervention, there may be little legal justification or evidence, not in the POI’s (person of interest), background nor their actions, to suggest that these individuals are a legitimate, real threat to national security. The filmmakers not only exemplify in secret video tapings how this is done with two subjects Saeed, the informant, and Khalifah, the alleged militant, they provide research information, details, and commentary about tactics. Ultimately, the citizen’s first amendment privileges are abrogated when the incriminating tapes are used for trial.
The documentary by first-time filmmakers Cabral and Sutcliffe chronicles the evolution of the incredible series of events that occur when they begin filming the life and times of Saeed, a former Black Panther. Saeed is secretly videoed during his undercover work as a paid informant. We hear actual taped conversations between Saeed (alias “Shariff”), as he attempts to befriend POI (person of interest), Khalifah, elicit intelligence, and spur on incriminating actions which may be construed to be dangerous to the US national security state.
During the segment of the film which establishes how Saeed is lured to be an informant and in effect turned against his own moral fabric and sense of dignity and person-hood for the sake of money, Cabral and Sutcliffe investigate his past. To provide the background for how and why Saeed became the FBI’s paid informant, the filmmakers use archival clips of the Black Panther movement and pictures of Saeed as a Black Muslim within the movement. They tape Saeed’s discussion of his history, his fellowship with friends in the African-American community, and his checkered past when he lived in Brooklyn. It turns out that Saeed (in his 60s in the film), who had been jailed for grand larceny receives an early release to serve the FBI. It is a quid pro quo; they pay for room and board and pay him a “salary” which is just enough to keep him dangling on a string and feeding at their trough. In exchange Saeed provides taped conversations which agents use as evidence against potential “terrorists.”
A particularly revealing case Saeed worked on that the filmmakers examine concerns Talik Shah. Shah was Saeed’s fellow Muslim, a musician and friend from whom Saeed took bass lessons to infiltrate Shah’s loyalty. Saeed helps the FBI make a case against Shah which many in their community and Shah’s mother intimate was tantamount to entrapment. Cabral and Sutcliffe provide interviews with those from the mosque where both Shah and Saeed worshiped. What is paramount in explicating both sides of the Shah controversy is that it was not the apparently successful “close down the terrorists” operation the mainstream media sensationalized and glossily reported on.
Indeed, Cabrel and Sutcliffe reveal that there is the possibility that FBI actions and Saeed’s intelligence criminalized Shah’s taped comments and these were used against him to make a case. Shah took no apparent action or made any preparation for violence. There was only Shah’s bravado and anti-government talk which normally would not have stood up in a court of law. American citizens enjoy their first amendment right to criticize their government with their right to freedom of speech, do they not?
After 9/11, the legal system shifted to the dark side. The media wasn’t interested in such investigative reporting. There has not been any proposed oversight of agency actions. For someone like Shah who didn’t have the money to fight a long, protracted legal battle to prove his innocence, there was only plea bargaining, something that Saeed was forced to do with his grand larceny rap. Despite the attempts to create a defense fund and protest a possible unjust incarceration, Shah is serving the rest of his 15-year prison term. As filmmakers cryptically point out that this is currently going on, it is nothing new. Malcolm X warned in speeches to Black Muslims to be careful of whom they spoke with because Black Muslims had been compromised to be paid informants. The FBI uses money as the lure.
Though the editing could have been tightened in footage of who Saeed is and how he lives his life in Pittsburgh during the sting operation against Khalifah, this segment is ethnographic and thus vital though slow moving. It reveals that Saeed is probably similar to the typical paid informants that the FBI targets for their use. A picture emerges; informants are those who are needy often with children to support, those who don’t have close ties to the community, those who are otherwise benign with simplistic pursuits who wish to make enough money to end their clandestine, stressful work and live a life of peace.
Contrasted with this “slice of Saeed’s life,” Cabral and Sutcliffe include commentary about the “official” law enforcement/justice system perception of paid informants. They are defined as “sociopaths.” They are demeaned as the worst of people who have a lack of ethics in turning over friends for money. This comment is a mordant irony. If one considers some of the egregious, overweening actions of security/law enforcement agency personnel whose unethical behavior is justified to be legal in order to obtain a promotion or bonus, the definition is unfair and troubling. The filmmakers point that a compromised justice system where one must fight for justice, preferably with lots of money, which Shah, Saeed and Khalifah did not have, is additionally unsettling.
As Cabral and Sutcliffe video Saeed, aka “Shariff'” during phone conversations with his FBI handlers and Khalifah, and review Khalifah’s Facebook page and research salient details, including the numbers of paid informers used after 9/11 (up from 500 to 15,000), and other details, the picture clarifies; domestic security operations have become a runaway train.
With their on-the-ground footage Cabrel and Sutcliffe bravely reveal that a form of entrapment is being used against Khalifah. Their secret interviews of Khalifa are particularly telling. He states he suspects Saeed is an FBI informant and that he is being set up when he was forced into an obviously staged “badly directed, Hollywood-style” meeting with Mohammad (probably another paid informant), to discuss “jihad.” The last half hour of the film is particularly suspenseful and revelatory. One empathizes with Khalifa while feeling disgust at the unprofessional, desperate tactics of an agency which is using the powers given it to their grave disadvantage.
Though these documentarians could have shored up some of their edits, their portrayal of domestic security that emerges is a disturbing one. The powers granted to the agency without oversight have made it unwieldy and ineffective. Indeed, Khalifah discovered via the internet that both Saeed and Mohammad were paid informants, an embarrassment which the filmmakers show has deep ramifications for the agency and everyone involved.
Cabrel and Sutcliff’s examination reveals the victimization of informants who are easily discounted, manipulated and preyed upon. Even more frightening is the dissociative action of FBI agents to “make an arrest,” regardless of its warrant. Indeed, it appears that once someone is targeted and time, money and effort are expended, probabilities increase exponentially that the individual will be jailed and whatever is discovered will be configured as incriminating evidence to make a case. The film reveals how FBI assets appear to be squandered ineffectively to fulfill an all out mandate against the “war on terror.” To what extent is this just the tip of the iceberg with the use of paid informants and bungled miscarriages of justice? Additionally, to what extent have security agency assets been misdirected from preventing the mass shootings unrelated to the “war on terror” that have taken place most recently in Oregon, Colorado and California?
Cabral and Sutcliffe deservedly won an award at Sundance for their bravery in exposing this information. It is a fine piece of journalism and wonderful effort for first-time filmmakers.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0962770507] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=B001KOUYB0]