"THE NEWBURGH STING," A STARTLING EXPOSE OF A CONTROVERSIAL FBI UNDERCOVER OPERATION, DEBUTS JULY 21 ON HBO
On May 20, 2009, four men from the impoverished and largely African-American city of Newburgh, NY, were apprehended for an alleged terror plot. They had no history of violence or terrorist ties, but had been drawn by a Pakistani FBI informant into a carefully orchestrated scheme to bomb Jewish synagogues in a wealthy New York City suburb and fire Stinger missiles at U.S. military supply planes. Their dramatic arrest, complete with armored cars, a SWAT team and FBI aircraft, played out under the gaze of major TV outlets, ultimately resulting in 25-year prison sentences for the "Newburgh Four."
Amidst the media frenzy surrounding the case, political figures extolled the outcome as a victory in the "war on terror" and a "textbook example of how a major investigation should be conducted," though others believed the four men were victims of FBI entrapment.
THE NEWBURGH STING, debuting MONDAY, JULY 21 (9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO, features unsettling FBI hidden camera footage, never before publicly released, and insights from Muslim leaders and high-level Washington insiders, including former FBI assistant director Thomas Fuentes, Congressman Keith Ellison and former FBI undercover agent Mike German, as well as intimate interviews with the families of the Newburgh Four. Offering startling insights into the state of surveillance in a post-9/11 world, the film is directed and produced by the team of Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (HBO's Emmy(R)-winning "Jockey").
Other HBO playdates: July 21 (3:35 a.m.), 24 (12:30 p.m., 7:00 p.m.), 27 (3:30 p.m.) and 29 (11:15 a.m.), and Aug. 2 (10:00 a.m.)
HBO2 playdates: July 23 (10:00 p.m.) and 31 (2:45 p.m.)
In the wake of 9/11, the FBI and other U.S. government agencies were adamant that such an event would never happen again on U.S. soil. As Thomas Fuentes explains, the message within the organization was clear, meaning "there will be no tolerance for another terrorist attack in this country under any circumstances." Mike German, a 12-year FBI veteran, reveals, "Immediately after 9/11 there were actually FBI agents going through the hallways saying, 'The rules are off. The rules are off.' And I remember saying to one, 'What rules are you talking about? Are you talking about The Constitution?'"
THE NEWBURGH STING delves deeply into one of the many cases across the country where people were allegedly drawn into a plot with extreme consequences. Imam Salahauddin Muhammed remembers the first time FBI informant Shahed Hussain visited Newburgh's mosque in spring 2008. The well-dressed visitor began making inflammatory statements about women and inquiring about jihad, prompting the Imam to advise his congregants to stay away from him.
Representing himself as a wealthy Pakistani businessman, Hussain eventually caught the attention of James Cromitie, a low-level drug dealer who worked the night shift at Walmart, earning $14,000 a year. Hidden camera footage shows the two inside Hussain's rented Newburgh home and in his luxury cars, where Hussain promises Cromitie "a lot of money" if he helps him commit Jihad. Hussain eventually suggests they bomb the Riverdale Temple and urges Cromitie to recruit "good Muslim brothers" for the jihadist cause.
Cromitie seems uncertain, until Hussain offers a $250,000 payout. Eventually Cromitie recruits three other men - David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen - to help execute Hussain's terrorist plot
"David's a sweetheart. He's got a kind soul," says Alicia McWilliams of David Williams, her nephew. After serving jail time for dealing drugs, Williams decided to turn his life around and enrolled part-time in college. However, when his younger brother, Lord, became seriously ill and needed an expensive operation, the family had no way to pay for it. Hearing of his plight, Cromitie happened upon an easy recruit for Hussain's cause, and Williams saw a way to afford his brother's medical bills. Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen were also in dire financial straits, with Payen, a Haitian immigrant, considered "challenged intellectually and emotionally."
Chilling undercover images and videos show Hussain teaching these men how to use Stinger missiles and telephone-operated bombs, taking them to nearby Stewart International Airport and orchestrating a carefully crafted, yet vague, terror plot to plant bombs outside two Riverdale synagogues and use a missile to blow up a military plane. Riding in one of Hussain's cars, David Williams is heard voicing his concerns about the plan. "There could be people there," he says. "We don't want to hurt nobody."
But lured by the promise of $250,000, as well as exotic vacations and luxury cars, the men proceeded with the plans as orchestrated by Hussain. Mike German notes, "Usually, when the FBI had a hit-for-hire undercover operation, you're talking $5,000, $10,000 for a murder. The idea of $250,000: That's change-your-life money."
On the evening of May 20, Hussain drove the men to Riverdale, where they placed two bombs in cars outside a synagogue. The FBI was waiting with 100 officers and bomb squads, even though the fake bombs and disabled Stinger missile had been supplied by the agency itself. Every aspect of the plot, from crossing state lines to pick up the "bombs," to targeting Riverdale, a wealthy Jewish community close to New York City, appeared to many to have been formulated to incriminate the four to the fullest extent of the law and provoke already heightened tensions in a post-9/11 world. The FBI furthered this fabricated tale by telling the media and Congress that their agents had "penetrated" an existing terrorist group that showed "a distinct interest" in committing Jihad.
An incensed Alicia McWilliams says, "Your government told them to go to Riverdale [and] picked Riverdale to start a controversy with religion, with Muslims and Jews, in a community. And you used African-Americans!" Defense lawyers built a case around entrapment and Hussain, who had a murky history of arrests and bankruptcy, was paid $66,000 by the government, while serving as the prosecution's only witness.
Lawyers, friends and family of the defendants assert that the men did not intend to go through with the plot, but hoped to con the conman to escape their life of poverty. Concludes German, "Were they the best people in society? No... But they certainly weren't terrorists. And this government operation over the course of the year was specifically designed to turn them into terrorists."
Still, images of the men handling what they thought were live weapons was too persuasive for the jury. They were found guilty and received mandatory sentences of 25 years in maximum-security prison. After losing their appeal, the Newburgh Four are taking their case to the United States Supreme Court.
In addition to the 2004 documentary "Jockey," Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's HBO credits include "The Cheshire Murders," "Plastic Disasters," "The Adolescent Addict" (part of the "Addiction" series) and "Diagnosis Bipolar: Five Families Search for Answers." Davis also directed, produced and edited the Emmy(R)-nominated 2002 HBO documentary "Southern Comfort," which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. Heilbroner is also a former Manhattan prosecutor, criminal justice professor, and author of the highly regarded nonfiction book "Rough Justice."
THE NEWBURGH STING is an HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Covert production in association with Impact Partners; directed, produced and edited by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner; filmed by Kate Davis, Jonathon Henninger, Franco Sacchi; executive producer, Dan Cogan; associate producer, Jenny Raskin; original music, T. Griffin.