NEW YORK — It usually starts with a snitch and a sting operation, followed by a great deal of publicity and controversy.
Case in point: Four Muslim men charged last week with plotting to blow up synagogues and military planes. The informant is a convicted felon and Pakistani immigrant who turned informant seven years ago to avoid deportation. This wasn't his first foray into undercover work for federal authorities.
With considerable fanfare, a steady stream of terrorism busts has been announced by the FBI since Sept. 11, 2001. And in most cases, accusations soon followed that the stings were overblown operations that entrapped hapless ne'er-do-wells. Federal authorities say such arrests save lives.
But what happens to these cases after the media spotlight fades and the noise dies down? And are the snitches involved reliable?
"Most of these guys don't get tried," said security analyst Bruce Schneier. "These are not criminal masterminds, they're idiots. There's huge fanfares at the arrest, and then it dies off."
The New York men arrested last week were ex-convicts down on their luck. In federal court, one admitted that he'd recently gotten stoned. "I smoke it regularly," he told the judge. Not to worry, he added, "I understand everything you are saying."
James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen were calm as they appeared in court Thursday with shackled hands. They entered no pleas and were ordered held without bail. If convicted, they face life imprisonment.
Federal authorities are proud of their work, saying agents have prevented many attacks by nipping them in the bud. Among the biggest headline grabbers were alleged plots to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and underground gas pipes at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and allegations that others planned to storm the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey while dressed as pizza delivery men.
However, court statistics show that most domestic terrorism cases never make it to trial.
According to informant Shahed Hussain, who also helped the FBI in 2004 by posing as an arms dealer, he met the men arrested last week at a local mosque.
Hussain drove the men to scout targets and supplied them with weapons and explosive devices that, unbeknownst to the accused, were fake.
"Where he goes conspiracies blossom," said attorney Terence L. Kindlon, who represents one of two men sentenced to 15 years in prison based on Hussain's help in a 2004 case involving money laundering charges for a fictitious terror plot.
"We are not entrapping or encouraging anyone to commit a crime," said Joseph M. Demarest, head of New York's FBI office. "We merely facilitated their wishes."
Assistant U.S. attorney Eric Snyder said, "It's hard to envision a more chilling plot."
Which is almost exactly what then-U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf said in 2007 when announcing the bust of an alleged plan to blow up gas lines at JFK airport. Russell Defrietas -- described by neighbors as a man who slept in his car and couldn't read or write -- was arrested with three others on the work of an FBI informant, a twice-convicted drug dealer.
Mauskopf called it "one of the most chilling plots imaginable." Two years later, Defrietas, whom his attorney says is "mentally challenged," and three others sit in a Brooklyn jail. No trial date has been set.
As in last week's case, there was "a very active role played by a confidential informant," said attorney Daniel Noble, who represents Abdel Nur, a co-defendant in the JFK case. "There was never anything there," he said. "The question is whether anything would have happened without the informant."
That point was echoed by Schneier, of security firm BT Group. "Is the FBI manufacturing terrorists? What would happen if they were left on their own? They fall into the hands of an FBI informant, and then they get helped and egged on."