A Real Case Of Snakebite
How a trophy terrorism prosecution morphed into a big mud fight
It was trumpeted as a landmark case in the war on terrorism. Last June, a jury in Detroit convicted three Middle Eastern men on a variety of terrorism and fraud charges stemming from the FBI's investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a statement saying the "convictions send a clear message. The Department of Justice will work diligently to detect, disrupt, and dismantle the activities of terrorist cells in the United States and abroad."
Today, the government's trophy prosecution--still the first and only U.S. jury conviction stemming from the initial 9/11 probe--is a shambles, an acute embarrassment to Ashcroft's Justice Department. A U.S. News examination of internal documents, along with numerous interviews, reveals a Justice Department at war with itself, riven by petty jealousies and plagued by grandstanding that extends to Ashcroft himself, who damaged the government's credibility by twice violating a judge's gag order.
The case has turned into such a free-for-all that it seems almost all the people involved are either suing or investigating one another. The U.S. attorney in Detroit, Jeffrey Collins, has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the lead prosecutor, Richard Convertino, committed acts of ethical misconduct--allegations that Convertino denies. Both Convertino and his supervisor, Keith Corbett, have been removed from the case. Ashcroft has named a "special attorney" to examine thousands of pages of documents relating to the case, including classified reports that now could end up being shared with defense lawyers. The judge in the case, Gerald Rosen, calls the affair "a fine kettle of fish." He could throw out the convictions and order a retrial. U.S. News has learned that the bipartisan commission investigating the 9/11 attacks is conducting an inquiry into the case. Convertino, meanwhile, is suing Collins, Ashcroft, and other Justice Department officials, accusing them of "gross mismanagement" of terrorism cases. "Territorial infighting and office rivalries are going to destroy this prosecution," Convertino told U.S. News. Justice Department spokesman Brian Sierra, citing a gag order in the case, said the department could not comment.
Rising star. The 42-year-old Convertino, fit, soft-spoken, married for 20 years, and the father of five, hardly seems the rabble-rousing sort. A 14-year Justice Department veteran who has prosecuted complex fraud, gang, and mob cases, Convertino was seen as a rising star in the Detroit office and even interviewed for a federal judgeship three years ago. But his career began heading south six days after 9/11, when FBI agents arrested Karim Koubriti, Ahmed Hannan, and Farouk Ali-Haimoud at a Detroit apartment. The agents seized fake passport photos, forged green cards and visas, 105 audiotapes advocating jihad, sketches of a U.S. air base in Turkey and an airport in Jordan, and a videotape showing Disneyland, the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and the New York Times headquarters building. Eleven days later, the Secret Service arrested Youssef Hmimssa, a former roommate of Hannan and Koubriti, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In November, the feds picked up the alleged leader of the group, Abdel-Ilah El Mardoudi, with $90,000 in cash and fraudulent documents, and evidence of having made numerous trips to Turkey under various aliases.