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Denials, Lies and Arrests

For days since the initial raid on the apartment there have been a series of denials, lawyers defending clients and then arrests for falsely answering questions of the F.B.I. in Queens New York. There has also been noticeable hand wringing over whether the New York City Police Department acted too swiftly, and in so doing, might have compromised a longer term investigation by the F.B.I.

To wait or not to wait, that is the question. And waiting, how long is too long?

If US law enforcement waits for bombs to be made, it may act too late, and innocent people could be hurt. If it acts too soon, it may not have an airtight case, or maybe any case at all... ..."The critical issue is, when should the government intervene and intercept?" says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia who follows terror investigations. "In all cases, it's a different calculus.

The allegations, now becoming more and more clear, are that one of the suspects, Najibullah Zazi, had various incriminating evidence including bomb making instructions on his computer and admitted to having received training from al Qaeda while he was in Pakistan. An F.B.I. Press Release made it pretty clear that while being arrested for making false statements, that there was an on-going terror investigation.

So how widely does this plot cast its net?

Law enforcement officials described the investigation as fluid, with critical questions unanswered. Among them: Who else may have known about the alleged plot, the identities of others who may have been involved, and if there was a plot, how close Zazi and his alleged confederates had come to carrying out an attack. Two legal sources labeled as false a news report that seven other men in the New York area had been arrested in connection with the probe. But investigators continue to conduct interviews in New York and Colorado.

To believe that there is nothing to these arrests and that having plans to make a peroxide bomb in his possession makes the younger Zazi "innocent" is beyond logic. Another related point of view is expressed by Jeffrey Addicott, Director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.

"It's the Al Capone syndrome. Prosecutors were able to convict Capone only of tax evasion, not of being the gangster they suspected he was.

Federal prosecutors continue to follow a similar strategy in pursuing terrorism suspects, he said.

They rarely have enough evidence to convict someone of plotting a terrorist act, Addicott said. Instead, they get them for forging identification or lying to the FBI.

By exposing his client to three days of intensive inquiries, Denver lawyer Art Folsom used a risky strategy that his client had nothing to hide.

"This guy hung himself. Tactically, perhaps, the attorney was lackadaisical," Addicott said. "If you are naive, you will operate on the assumption your client is telling the truth. It makes the attorney look silly."

Federal officials are now warning transit systems to be especially alert to possible terrorist attacks.

The Joint Terrorism Task Force believes raids it conducted in Queens last week disrupted a plot by Najibullah Zazi, 24, to set off homemade bombs possibly in the subway, at a stadium or even at a Fashion Week event. Backpacks, cellphones and a battery-powered scale -- all possible components of bombs -- were confiscated during the raids on Queens homes that Zazi had visited.

There is much more to this than interagency competition or premature arrests. Should we let it go until an act is perpetrated? Think again. As Jeffrey Addicott said, "These guys don't wear uniforms. They are trained in deception. They are a tough nut to crack." Professor Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law commented, "It's a really delicate balancing act for the government because if they wait too long, someone can be hurt, so they tend to err on the side of safety."