“The Newburgh Sting” HBO

In 2009, with television cameras rolling, the FBI triumphantly busted a domestic terrorist ring from Newburgh, NY. The men, known as the Newburgh Four, are each serving a 25-year sentence for plotting to blow up two synagogues and shoot down military supply planes. FDL reported on the story and case; read Kevin’s take on it for more background information.

What happened in Newburgh continues to attract attention although perhaps not in the way the FBI intended. Instead, it serves as a cautionary tale in post-9/11 America. An uneasy story about what happened when the FBI went into an impoverished community and offered a large sum of money to people in exchange for their agreement to participate in a fake bombing plot. This case inevitably raises questions about our rights as Americans, what constitutes terrorism, and the definition of entrapment.

Monday night at 9PM HBO will air The Newburgh Sting. Veteran filmmakers David Heilbroner and Kate Davis direct this unsettling and provocative documentary. The film provides a disturbing window into the FBI’s role in the case and methodically explores the idea that the Newburgh Four, whatever else they may be, are victims of entrapment.

It’s around dinnertime when I call The Newburgh Sting’s co-director, David Heilbroner, to discuss the film. He tells me, “I want people to understand that this case is emblematic, it’s not an aberration. The FBI believes that this case was a success and they want it replicated. If we approve of these tactics then it won’t be long before they appear in other contexts.”

David, what was it about the Newburgh Four that originally called to you? 

“This is really a case about the FBI committing fraud on Congress and the American people. This was a case that the FBI created using taxpayer dollars to go to Congress and the public and say, ‘Look at what a great job we’re doing.’ So it called to me because before I became a filmmaker I was a prosecutor. I was an Assistant DA in Manhattan. I worked for the federal court and I believe in the system. Most law enforcers are genuinely honorable people, but something has been going on at the FBI that is deeply disturbing.”

This documentary lays out the case that the Newburgh Four are victims of entrapment. In order to achieve this, what elements did you see as critical to include in the film and how did you secure access to them? 

“One of the reasons we focused on the Newburgh Four, as opposed to other cases where similar tricks were employed, was that the Newburgh Four went to trial. And, due to this, all of the FBI’s undercover tapes were introduced as evidence. These then became available to journalists who were willing to sift through hundreds of hours of material. So, all of a sudden, low and behold, we have the FBI’s home movie available to those who will go through the trouble of getting it. So we got all of the tapes, transcripts, photographs, wiretaps- and it actually wasn’t that easy to get. Lawyers wouldn’t talk to us, prosecutors wouldn’t talk to us, and the FBI wouldn’t talk to us. We eventually got them, sifted through everything, and you can see for yourself what went down.”

Talk about the role race & poverty played in this case. 

“Newburgh, NY has about 25-30% unemployment. I think the majority of the houses downtown are condemned. It’s mostly African American. The FBI selected this town as a place to launch a terrorism hunt. You have a community that can’t defend itself and is susceptible to inducement into crime. You have people who don’t have any money, who are desperate to survive. In this case, the FBI sent in an undercover agent offering $250,000 as a reward for going along with an attack against a synagogue and an airplane. Now, for Newburgh, NY, $250,000 is an obscene, crazy amount of money. What’s particularly disturbing is that the FBI’s justification for this, although they wouldn’t come forward for an interview, was that this is how Al Qaeda works. Al Qaeda is going to come in and offer destitute and desperate people money to commit horrible terrorist acts. So, we’re just getting there first. Now, let’s say you agree with that. Then the FBI could have just gone in and said, ‘These guys are susceptible to terrorism. Let’s get them out of here on small stuff. It will probably take about a week.’ Instead they created this elaborate terrorist case with stinger missiles and bombs, which were just handed to these guys, and told the public that they busted a terrorist ring. So, not only did they take advantage of this community, they used them as pawns in a fraudulent production that was essentially a PR effort to make the FBI look like they were fighting the war on terror.”

Regarding the American criminal justice system, David, you’ve stated when speaking about the film, “When terrorism is involved the rules break down.” Can you explain?

“I think every now and then society goes through convulsions of fear. It happened during WWII with the Japanese and the internment camps. It happened with Abu Ghraib where Americans were condoning torture. Right after 9/11 terrorism had the entire country transfixed with fear. I lived in NYC. I know very well what happened with the World Trade Center. When that kind of attack happens, there’s a natural circle the wagons defensiveness and the mission among all law enforcement officers becomes this can never happen again. So, nobody cares about the rules anymore. What’s become apparent though in the years since 9/11 is that there really aren’t that many domestic terrorist attacks. There were a handful. But, as the original fear dissipates, you realize the trend isn’t there, and you’ve given power and money to a number of people who don’t want to surrender it.”

Some people will argue this film is one sided. What’s your response?

“The film is not one sided. I interviewed the former director of the FBI, who has nothing to do with this case, and who adores the FBI. I looked for someone very hard who would stand up for the FBI and the FBI’s position on this case very clearly. We tried desperately to get the prosecutors on camera. We tried desperately to get the FBI agents on camera. We were refused every step of the way. As a former prosecutor myself and as a journalist, I really wanted to get this right. And I kept digging for the facts, for the telling case that would show me this was not as bad as it looks. But I couldn’t find it.”

You’ve said you hope the film will spark a congressional investigation. Talk about this idea.

“When federal law enforcement agents spend taxpayer dollars to stage a fake case to make themselves look better in the eyes of the American people that, to me, is an egregious breach of trust. It’s an act of fraud against Congress and the American people. If that is not a good enough reason to have a congressional investigation, I really don’t know what is.”

What do you want the audience to take away from this film?

“I want people to feel a sense of political empowerment. I want people to watch this and really feel that something needs to change in the FBI. I’d like the public to say, ‘I’ve been sold a bill of goods. I need to contact my congressman and my senators. I am not happy with this. If this film is correct, I want to see something changed.’ If they do that, I will not feel like this film was time wasted.”

The Newburgh Sting airs on HBO Monday, July 21 at 9PM EST.