WASHINGTON—Even as Justice Department officials trumpeted the arrests of seven Florida men accused of planning to wage a "full ground war against the United States," they acknowledged the group did not have the means to carry out the plan.
The Justice Department unveiled the arrests with an orchestrated series of press conferences in two cities, but the severity of the charges compared with the seemingly amateurish-nature of the group raised concerns among civil libertarians.
"We're as puzzled as everyone else," said Howard Simon, the director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "There's no weapons, no explosives, but this major announcement."
The seven men are charged with conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and FBI buildings in five cities. Prosecutors said they swore allegiance to al-Qaida after meeting with a confidential government informant who was posing as a representative of the terrorist group.
But after sweeps of various locations in Miami, government agents found no explosives or weapons. Investigators also did not document any direct links to al-Qaida.
"This group was more aspirational than operational," said John Pistole, the FBI's deputy director.
According to the indictment, Narseal Batiste, the accused leader of the group, provided the informant with a list of materials and equipment needed to build an Islamic Army, including boots, uniforms, machine guns, radios and vehicles. At one point, he even provided shoe sizes for his "soldiers", the indictment states.
Batiste bragged that the planned bombings would rival the Sept. 11 attacks, but there were signs even he questioned the group's ability to carry out the plan. In May, Batiste told the informant that the plot was being delayed because of problems within his organization.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales held up the case as a good example of the Justice Department's strategy of taking out domestic terrorists before they strike. He said the group is representative of "homegrown" terrorist cells that operate without ties to a larger group like al-Qaida.
"We clearly believe there's sufficient information, sufficient facts, to support this prosecution," Gonzales said. "And, therefore, we took action when we did because we believe we have an obligation to prevent America from another attack here."
Some suggested that hinging the case on conspiracy charges robs a potential jury of the hard evidence of a crime.
"This is the sort of early strike strategy that will invite possible Bill of Rights violations," said Nathan Clark, an attorney for one of the defendants Rotschild Augustine. "If a group doesn't have the means than its less likely the government will have enough evidence to sustain the burden of proof."
The announcement comes as the Bush administration faces questions about the execution of its war on terror. On Friday, several newspapers reported that the Department of Treasury and the CIA have been reviewing private financial transactions to detect terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks. And next week, the Supreme Court is set to decide whether the administration can prosecute enemy combatants imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in secret military trials.
Justice Department officials used the arrests to justify their expansive tactics in combating terrorism and even released a "white paper" on 261 defendants, showcasing what they called their "impressive success" in thwarting terrorism. The release did not reveal how many people had been convicted of direct terrorist links and officials also refused to disclose those facts.
The news broke Thursday night as FBI Director Robert Mueller was being interviewed on Larry King Live and the department announced details of the arrests Friday at dual press conferences in Washington, D.C. and Miami.
Vice President Dick Cheney later hailed the arrests Friday afternoon at a fundraiser for an Illinois congressional candidate, calling the group a "very real threat.
"There are still people out there who are trying to do everything they can to kill Americans,' Cheney said. "We have to defend ourselves against that threat."
Prosecutors refused to discuss the informant's role or detail how the group came to the attention of authorities.
A man identifying himself as Brother Corey said in an interview with CNN that he belonged to the group, called the Seas of David. He denied the group was involved in terrorism and described the Seas of David as a religious organization.
The group apparently did little to inspire fear in the Liberty City neighborhood where they took up residence.
A close family friend and a distance cousin of Stanley Grant Phanor described the leader of the group, Narseal Batiste, as a "Moses-like figure" who would roam the streets in a cape or bathrobe, toting a crooked wooden cane and looking for young men to join his group.
Sylvain Plantin, 30, said Batiste was a martial arts expert who preached an obscure religion.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, two organizations that track extremist groups in the United States, said they had not heard of the Miami group.
"It must be a very new, not very established group," Mark Pitcavage, the director of fact finding for the Anti-Defamation League. "When I heard about the arrest, I tried to find out what sort of footprints they had left and came out with a big goose egg."
Simon of the ACLU said his organization is reserving judgment until it gets more information.
"We count on our law enforcement officers to make a distinction between people who are trash talking or making serious threats," he said. "But this one requires more information for the general public to be able to make a judgment as to which category they fall into."
(Chuck Rabin of The Herald also contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TERROR ARRESTS
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): SEARS TOWER
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