Commentary: A question of timing, tactics in latest terror cases

Last month, officials in the U.S. Department of Justice announced that its agents had foiled no less than three separate alleged terrorist plots in the country.

They moved in on the suspects and apprehended them before the despicable characters could do harm to a single American.

On hearing that news, did you breathe a great sigh of relief or become more fearful that there are additional sinister conspirators lurking among us with the intent of blowing up buildings and public transit facilities?

Or, are you wondering, like me, if the government overreacted or perhaps acted too quickly — spoiling the plot or plots before all potential participants could be identified?

I don't take lightly these alleged threats to our national security. But I have long questioned law enforcement's sometimes overzealous reactions to perceived danger, and I have generally detested "sting" operations, whether they involved suspected low-level drug dealers, "fences" for stolen goods or wannabe terrorists.

It is far too early to decide the legitimacy of the government's case in the three latest plots.

Based on early information released by Justice officials, some of the evidence against those who have been arrested is compelling.

In the case of Najibullah Zazi, authorities said they learned through wiretaps and video surveillance that the legal resident from Afghanistan was planning to blow up targets in New York.

They have him on videotape buying large amounts of materials, including hydrogen-peroxide products, at a beauty supply shop. And they had the 24-year-old airport shuttle driver under surveillance when he used a rental car to drive from Denver to New York.

Investigators say he also tried to cook up a bomb in the kitchen of a hotel suite but was unsuccessful.

Two other men have been arrested in this case, and authorities suggest there may be other co-conspirators, which makes one wonder why officials didn’t give the plot more time to develop if it might have involved others planning an attack in this country.

The other two alleged plots, while disturbing indeed, are a bit more problematic for me.

As I said, sting operations are bothersome because they often mean that a law enforcement official, working undercover, is the real plotter and the suspect becomes a patsy in an elaborate government scheme.

The end result is the prosecution of a person for committing, or trying to commit, a crime that perhaps would have never taken place if not for the involvement of a government agent.

In Illinois, a 29-year-old part-time cook who was an admirer of John Walker Lindh, the American captured in Afghanistan as a Taliban fighter, reportedly parked a van in front of the Springfield Federal Courthouse, walked away and tried to detonate what he thought was a massive bomb.

Michael C. Finton, officials say, converted to Islam while in prison on other charges, expressed an interest in terrorist attacks and visited Saudi Arabia last year.

After learning through an informant of Finton's fascination with extremist attacks, the FBI put him in contact with a person he believed to be an al Qaeda officer but was, in fact, an FBI agent who later provided the decoy bomb.

Then there's Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, 19, a Jordanian national who was arrested after he drove an SUV into the garage under the 60-story Fountain Place building in downtown Dallas and later tried to detonate by remote control what an undercover agent told him was a bomb.

He had come to the attention of authorities after expressing on a Web site his desire to conduct "jihad" in America.

If what we're told is true, both Finton and Smadi fit the profile of the misguided, disturbed and disaffected young people who are easily influenced by those die-hard extremists who would like to do great harm to America and Americans.

And we have been warned by some of our national security leaders that we must be on the lookout for those angry individuals who are capable of acting alone in carrying out destructive acts against our government and innocent people.

But the question remains: Would either of these men have acted on their dark thoughts if left alone to their fantasies, self-destructive imagination and escapist computer chatter?

The truth is we don't know, and we'll never know.

Therefore, many of you will say, it was important that our government acted before finding out too late the answer to that question.

I, of course, say that the government may have been too eager to uncover a terrorist plot — even if it meant having to invent one.