Sensational media accounts leave out or bury key details.
Another major holiday, another sensational ISIS terror plot the FBI takes credit for preventing. This time, the case splashed across the news is that of Emanuel Lutchman, a 25-year-old panhandler in Rochester, New York who allegedly plotted to attack a restaurant on New Years Eve. All major network broadcasts led with the story and it was breathlessly featured everywhere from the New York Times to CNN. There’s only one problem: the story is wildly inaccurate and in many ways factually false.
Like many 11th-hour FBI terror busts, the only thing the media has to go on is a DOJ criminal complaint that’s released to the press. Statements from the accused or their lawyers very rarely reach the public. And the criminal complaint and the FBI press release are framed to deliberately deceive the media.
Let’s run down some of the key claims made by the media and why they’re either factually incorrect or misleading.
Claim: The plot was directed by ISIS.
While the FBI's public statements to the media imply Lutchman was having discussions with real ISIS recruiters, the actual court documents are careful never to make this specific claim, only saying “Mr. Lutchman claims to have received direction from an overseas ISIL member.” For the purposes of proving “attempt to material support of ISIS,” prosecutors do not need to actually show a material connection to ISIS, only an attempt to make one. It remains unclear if Lutchman’s contact (“Overseas individual,” as the affidavit calls him) was, in fact, a member of ISIS, but this hasn’t stopped the media from asserting it as fact.
Claim: Lutchman bought weapons for the attack at Walmart.
Several media outlets, from Heavy.com to CBS to local reporters claimed Lutchman bought his weapons, but this is inaccurate. He actually went along as a paid informant, at the direction of the FBI, purchased the weapons. Nominally this was because Lutchman could not afford the $40 worth of supplies. This means one of two things: either 1) Lutchman was looking for an out and used his inability to pay for the items as an excuse, only to be further pressured by the FBI; or 2) Lutchman did not have the wherewithal to muster $40 to go on his own suicide attack.
This was a man who, according to his grandmother, “can’t buy Pampers for his son," who was being sponsored not by ISIS (evidently, his contact in Syria couldn’t send him $40 or fill out an Amazon purchase) but by the FBI. The fact that the FBI knowingly bought the weapons for the attack is a clear sign the FBI wasn’t interested in thwarting a plot, but building a case. The New York Times cleverly gets around the awkward fact by reporting Lutchman “gathered” the materials since they can’t say he bought them. Because he didn’t, the FBI did.
Claim: Lutchman recruited his friends for the “plot."
International Business Times and the Washington Post paint a picture of Lutchman as the mastermind recruiting his friends, but this is not supported by court documents. Informant #2, who has received $7,400 from the FBI since November 2013, continues to plan and assist the plot after Lutchman gets cold feet. In one of the more cynical elements of the case, Lutchman considered calling off the attack only to be talked out of it by the FBI informant. According to the affidavit, Lutchman sent a text to Informant #2 after a third informant (yes, 75% of this plot was the FBI) saying, “In a way I was thinking about stopping the operation." As the New York Times reports:
Mr. Lutchman grew concerned, and said in text messages that he “was thinking about stopping the operation.”
But another informer urged him not to be discouraged, and that same day the informer and Mr. Lutchman went to a Walmart store in Rochester to buy supplies.
Not only did FBI informants physically drive Lutchman to Walmart and buy the weapons for him, they actively encouraged him to continue with the plot when he had doubts.
Claim: Lutchman had a long history of mental illness and suicide attempts—shouldn’t this matter?
As both the DOJ complaint and subsequent interviews with his grandmother indicate, Lutchman had a long history of mental illness, including several suicide attempts and arrests for mental hygiene which is a standard high enough to justify involuntary institutionalization by the state. Instead of providing Lutchman with the mental health services he clearly needed or working to get him a job, the federal government instead spent north of $20,000 on informants to contrive an elaborate sting operation and provide the means for Lutchman to “attempt” to carry out an attack.
Just because someone is mentally ill doesn’t mean they can’t be violent of course, but when this mental illness clearly undermines a person’s ability to achieve basic tasks like driving to a store to buy supplies or have the means to actually purchase supplies, it’s an important piece of context, and one the media largely glossed over or omitted altogether.
It’s a strange scenario in which the FBI and prosecutors are only concerned with proving intent, which is all one needs in “attempting to provide material support” cases. The actual connections to ISIS or the likelihood of a real plot is irrelevant from the DOJ’s perspective. Where the media fails too often is confusing this rather generous standard for their own. Since these cases necessarily inflate the perceived dangers of terrorism and have the ancillary impact of propping up a war effort, the burden should be stricter for editors deciding to run with the “terror plot” narrative. Questions like, “Could Lutchman have gotten this far on his own?” or “Why were three informants needed to build a Potemkin plot?” are rarely asked.
There were some exceptions. A rundown in Al Jazeera framed the story skeptically and excellent followup reporting in a local Rochester paper, Democrat and Chronicle, looked beyond the FBI claims and interviewed Lutchman's next of kin. This reporting revealed the severity of Lutchman's mental problems and the likelihood the FBI had attempted to recruit Lutchman to be an informant years ago.
For the most part, however, it was simply copy-and-paste journalism that did nothing to challenge the overarching ISIS plot framing. As the war on terror enters its 15th year, at some point these formulaic FBI terror sting operations should be reported on with far more nuance and skepticism. Key claims by the DOJ should not be rounded up to scariest possibly framing, mitigating factors like mental illness and FBI pressure should be highlighted rather than buried in paragraph 23, and material evidence of actual terrorist involvement should be confirmed rather than smuggled in vague framing about the claims of a mentally unstable man.
Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter at@adamjohnsonnyc.