4 cautionary terrorism cases that came before the Boston Marathon bombing

OPINION - The fact that we're having the debate at all could be seen as progress in itself, given that in the previous administration, cases like that of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev -- were often handled quite differently....

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

With the surviving Boston Marathon suspect now formally charged with using a weapon of mass destruction, many people are scrutinizing the Obama administration’s handling of a case that some see as part of the so-called “war on terror” and others, including the ACLU, other civil liberties advocates, and the Obama administration itself, view as a straightforward criminal case.

The fact that we’re having the debate at all could be seen as progress in itself, given that in the previous administration, cases like that of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — including those where no lives were lost, and only a plot was alleged — were often handled quite differently.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington, the George W. Bush administration, including the then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and his successor, Alberto Gonzales, scoured the country for evidence of domestic terror cells. They often came up with cases that were based more on where the suspects traveled, or what they were perceived to want to do to American citizens, than on strong ties to al-Qaida. But that didn’t stop the administration from putting several of these suspects in prison, or from tangling with civil liberties advocates and lawyers all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Liberty City Seven — In 2006, seven mostly Haitian-American members of an obscure religious group were arrested outside a warehouse in Miami which served as the headquarters of their Universal Divine Saviors order. They were accused of plotting various terror attacks inside the U.S., including a supposed plot to blow up the Sears Tower. Then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales claimed the seven were plotting to “wage a full ground war on the United States” — though he admitted in media interviews that the group had no actual contact with with al-Qaida.

Meanwhile, the FBI called the impoverished group, whose most high-profile activity was to practice martial arts wearing heavy black clothing in view of neighbors who found them strange, but not threatening, “more aspirational than operational.” Their attorneys countered that the group, who were recorded conferring with FBI agents posing as al-Qaida leaders, were simply hoping to scam the fake terrorists out of $50,000. In the end, the trial ended in two mistrials, the acquittal of two of the men, one of whom was deported back to Haiti even after winning his case, and the conviction of the group’s leader, who was sentenced to six years in prison — far less than the 30 years sought by the government.

The Paintball “jihadis” — In June, 2004, three men were convicted in federal court of plotting terrorism inside the United States, and training for it by playing paintball in the Virginia woods. The men, all Muslims, were accused of being connected to Lashkar-i-Taiba — a Pakistani group accused of engaging in terrorist acts designed to drive India out of the disputed, majority Muslim region of Kashmir. The three men were handed down sentences of eight years, 85 years, and life — sentences the judge in the case called “appalling” and “draconian,” while noting that she had no choice under federal law.

The three — Masoud Khan, 32, Seifullah Chapman, 31, and Hammad Abdur-Raheem, 35 — two of whom were American and one a Pakistani immigrant, had rejected potential plea deals offered to the initial group of 11, with their lawyers arguing that they were peaceful, moderate Muslims who played at paintball for fun and recreation. (Six men ultimately accepted plea deals, and charges were dropped against two others.)

Meanwhile, according to Elaine Cassell, writing for FindLaw.com: “According to a report in a June 28, 2003 Washington Post article, Michael E. Rolince, in charge of the Washington FBI field office, conceded that the government had no evidence of specific plots against U.S. targets at home or abroad. ‘A lot of this is about preemption,’ he said. Cassell has called terrorism conspiracy charges like those leveled against the group a “coercive” tactic by government prosecutors, designed to elicit plea deals that credit the government with “catching” supposed terrorists.