Through an absorbing, insider look at the case of the “Newburgh Four,” ‘The Newburgh Sting‘ reveals the FBI’s role in targeting Muslim communities in poor neighborhoods and luring believers into committing acts of terrorism. Husband & wife team David Heilbroner & Kate Davis’ (Southern Comfort) shocking and galvanizing exposé dissects the story of the four men arrested in 2009 for a plan to bomb Jewish centers in the Bronx. Led by a suspicious Pakistani businessman with questionable motives, the film exposes how these men—over the course of a year—went from being small-time criminals in poverty-stricken Newburgh to high-level national security threats. With incredible footage gathered from hidden cameras, directors Heilbroner and Davis investigate just what homegrown terrorism means.
At the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, where ‘The Newburgh Sting’ has screened as part of the Documentary Selections again, we spoke with the film’s Directors David Heilbroner & Kate Davis (over two separate phone calls) to talk all things documentary filmmaking, the current relationship between Muslims and the FBI, the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and much more.
Find More Information About ‘The Newburgh Sting’ at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival – HERE
Part One: Director, Kate Davis
How did you and David get involved in this project?
Kate Davis: David had been wanting to do something on Islamophobia. And he went around to various legal conferences to learn about violations against Muslims in the U.S. And I kept on saying, well, we need a good story. And it took a couple years to land on the Newburgh Four as a case that crystallized a lot of the themes that we wanted to look at. From there, we got to know the defense attorneys.
How did you start reaching out to some of your specific interview subjects?
Kate: We worked closely with Sam Braverman, one of the defense attorneys, and he connected us. But that doesn’t mean it was easy to find people who would talk. Most people who know the four perpetrators were too afraid to go on camera. And even some of the defense attorneys were afraid that going on record would somehow jeopardize the appeals process. But I think the film would only help their case. In general, it took a while to get people’s trust. It was Alicia McWilliams, the aunt [of defendant David Williams], who was in a sense the bravest. She had already come out against what the FBI had done, and found other families who were victims of entrapment. So she knew a lot about the issues, and she was completely willing to put herself out there.
One of the things that makes the documentary so convincing is that you use the FBI’s own extensive surveillance footage, which makes it clear that the FBI’s undercover informant concocted every detail of the bomb plot. How did you get ahold of that footage?
Kate: Some of the material is public record because it was shown at trial. But David and I have decided we’re not going to say exactly how we got all of the footage, because we need to protect people who felt like they were risking their jobs by getting us material. But it should really all be a matter of public record.
In your mind, when you watch these tapes, is there any debate as to whether this was entrapment?
Kate: Nope. Can’t say there is. Seeing it is believing it. And I’m used to doing films that show multiple points of view and look at things relativistically. But not in this case. On the other hand, I really tried to stay open to the idea that there was some sort of method to the madness on the FBI’s part, and we tried hard to hear their side of the story. We met with a prosecutor for hours. And it really boiled down to a very simple argument that’s stated in the film: The prosecution felt that these guys were there, they did agree to do this, and that’s enough to convict. But I think for a certain price you can get most people to do anything. If you’re poor and black in Newburgh and somebody starts flashing the promise of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, eventually they might wear you down if your only other option is to be a low bit drug dealer.
What do you think made them a more appealing target, their poverty or their connections to Islam?
Kate: I think in this case targeting poor people was at least as important as the Muslim factor. Because these guys weren’t all actually Muslim. Only two of them were, and they weren’t so religious. I really think what made this formula work for the FBI is that they’re poor, and so they had no voice.
What does the Newburgh Four case say about the current state of affairs between American Muslims and the FBI?
Kate: The FBI has been criticized, and there are changes happening. They’re sending affiliates to go and make friends in Muslim communities. But they still have informants going around. So they’re kind of playing it both ways. There are so many ironies here. And one is that in the name of fighting for the freedom of Americans to live in a country without terrorism, they’re actually potentially creating more terrorists. Because the extreme radical Muslims look at cases like this as a good reason to hate us.
Do you think that the FBI was intentionally misrepresenting certain aspects of the case?
Kate: Absolutely. No question. There were just too many public fallacies. In the film, an FBI spokesperson in New York refers to the Newburgh Four as a terrorist cell that they’d been tracking for a year. It was all bullshit. These four guys were not a cell. They didn’t even know each other.
Do you think this film might change the thinking of any of the public officials who championed this investigation?
Kate: I hope so. We want to show it to Congress, and hope to have a good Washington screening at Silverdocs in June. Because I think when they do see this, they’re just not going to have any place to hide.
What does it say about the American criminal justice system that a conviction could take place, and then be upheld on appeal, when the evidence supporting an entrapment defense was so strong?
Kate: I’m not in the jurors’ minds, but I think there’s just such a fear-based climate, where we’re so terrified on some gut level of the next 9/11, that it’s really hard to let guys go when they agreed to use a stinger missile, even if it’s fake. In a way, the whole policy works because the American public is predisposed to convict whoever’s been pointed at [in terrorism cases]. It’s a little bit of a witch-hunt mentality.
Part Two: Director, David Heilbroner
What led you to this project?
David Heilbroner: Before I was a filmmaker, I was a lawyer and an Assistant DA in New York City. And I’ve written books about law and crime. The justice system, and its failings, have been a huge interest of mine for more than twenty-five years. A few years ago an old law professor of mine said I should look at how the FBI is abusing the Muslim community. And a civil rights professor named Debbie Ramirez offered to pay to have me travel to England and Washington, D.C., to talk to FBI and MI5 officials. I took her up on it, and traveled all over researching the issue. But Kate kept saying, you need a single story to tell. Otherwise it’s just too theoretical. And so we culled through a zillion cases and talked to people, and we came across the case of the Newburgh Four.
Why did this case in particular leap out at you?
David: It contained the elements of so many things that are wrong with the FBI’s tactics in the post-9/11 War on Terror era. But the best thing about the case was that it had gone to trial. And because it went to trial, we could get access to the tapes that the FBI had recorded over the course of this one-year-long sting operation. If these guys had pled guilty, those tapes would still be in a vault, and no one would ever, ever be allowed to see them.
Just how important was it to the project to have access to those tapes?
David: For a filmmaker, there’s nothing like contemporaneous footage. Even if you’re making an archival film, if you can get footage from the moment, it’s gold. Especially if it’s well shot. In this case, we had a one-year-long investigation recorded in every format imaginable. We had telephone calls recorded, we had video cameras in cars, we had video cameras in houses, we had surveillance aerial footage, we had infrared footage, we had still photographs. We had this incredible treasure trove that the FBI had essentially created–they were in the process of making their own movie. We just took their material and told it in a more straightforward fashion.
Did the FBI believe they were doing the right thing?
David: The FBI believes in this. Their feeling is–and there’s something to be said for this–that despite the fact that these men were broke with no options in life, and were being offered $250,000, planting a bomb anywhere is still a dreadful and criminal act. It’s simply wrong. But what was awful about this case was that the FBI created this crime out of whole cloth, and then sold it to the American public as, “We are busting a Muslim ring of terrorists in New York.” And nothing could be further from the truth. The FBI lied blatantly. As the old line goes, the cover-up is worse than the crime. They found these four guys and turned them into patsies, and sent them away for twenty-five years because they [the FBI] incorporated a stinger missile into the case–which legally prevented the judge from giving them a sentence that more appropriately reflected how they were hoodwinked. Let’s be straight: these were bad guys. This film doesn’t argue that four innocent people are in prison. It argues that the FBI is engaged in a systematic duping of the American public, on our dime.
As you point out, The Newburgh Four were not morally innocent. Do you think they should have been deemed legally innocent?
David: I think they should have been convicted of something. When people agree to plant a bomb anywhere, you can’t turn a blind eye to it, even if they were led by the nose. I think they should have been convicted, and the judge should have sentenced them to a year in jail. Even their mothers and aunts say in the film that they should have been sentenced to something. Alicia McWilliams says that [defendant] David [Williams] should have gotten five years for not having common sense. But it’s awful to put guys in prison basically for the rest of their lives for agreeing to commit acts of terrorism that you have seduced them into doing. And then to have [New York City Mayor] Michael Bloomberg, and [New York City Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly, and [U.S.] Senator Chuck Schumer publicly claim that the Newburgh Four were a Muslim ring that had been under surveillance–it besmirches the Muslim community, it dupes the American public into thinking that there is really a terrorist threat when there is not, it dupes Congress into thinking that the FBI is ferreting out this nascent threat, and as a result it wastes our tax dollars. The city of Newburgh does not need a multi-million dollar FBI investigation. The city of Newburgh needs better schools. It needs a jobs program. It doesn’t need [FBI informant] Shahed Hussain coming in and finding four idiots who would do anything for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. So that’s really the gist of the film. It isn’t so much about the injustice done to these four guys–although it was a huge injustice–it’s about the fact that the FBI is engaged in blatantly lying to the American public about the truth of what they’re doing. And we’ve caught them dead-to-rights.
What’s in it for them to lie like this?
David: Very simple: Money. If you go into Congress, and you say, “We’re doing really well in the war on terror, there are are hardly any threats at all,” they’re going to cut your budget in half. Homeland security is a big business. Eisenhower talked about the military industrial complex. Now we have the homeland security industrial complex. I believe the FBI is by and large a deeply ethical, motivated, caring, serious organization that does a really good job. But the FBI has gone out of its way to make Congress believe there are more cases like this than in fact exist. It’s cynical, and it’s nothing new.
What does a case like this say about the state of the American criminal justice system?
David: It says that when terrorism is involved, the rules break down. I don’t think this kind of an investigation would happen with this extent of duplicity on the part of the FBI in a drug case, or a gun running case. Terrorism is a hot political button. It freaks out juries and judges, it’s scary, and it’s kind of the crime of the moment, not unlike communism back in the fifties. I think that the justice system is really falling down on the job of keeping prosecutors and law enforcement in line. And I think the appeals courts need to tighten up the rules.
What can else can be done to improve the system?
David: What needs to be done right now is what we plan to do with this film over the next year: spark a congressional investigation into why the FBI does this and lies to the public about it afterwards. And I think the Newburgh Four should be pardoned after serving five years, because that’s more than enough time for people who were sucked into doing something by the FBI. This has to be exposed. I think this is just what congressional investigations are for. There has to be some accountability. So we’ve been raising money to go across the country barnstorming. We’ve got the support of all the major Muslim grassroots organizations. We’ve now drawn the interest of major foundations. We’re going to try and change the law.
How exactly does one start a congressional investigation?
David: You need advocates on Capitol Hill. And the way you get people’s attention on Capitol Hill is through, essentially, a quasi political campaign. A write-in campaign, petitions, telephone calls, and influencing. You need to have op-ed pieces, you need to have opinion-makers on your side. So in order to pull that together, we need to go city to city. We need to have panels and screenings, targeted to certain groups. And we need to get leaders who have influence with their elected officials who will meet with them and hand them petitions, and show that there’s a real interest in reform–that the people are deeply offended when they’re lied to. And I think we have an issue that has real traction at this moment in time.
And do you think the more people see the film, the more traction you’ll get?
David: Yes, I believe that to be the case.
The Newburgh case is being appealed to the Supreme Court right now. What specific arguments are being made there?
David: I just read the brief. What’s going to the Supreme Court is the question of, what is entrapment? There are two parts of entrapment: One is, was it the government’s idea to commit the crime? And everyone agrees that it was. Even the prosecutors agree: It was the government’s idea to create this event. The second issue is, was the defendant “predisposed?” In other words, had they done this kind of thing before? Were they asking around about doing it? And in this case, lower courts ruled that if they agreed to do it, that means they are predisposed. But if you think about it, that means there can never be a viable entrapment defense. So entrapment law has essentially been eviscerated by the courts. That’s now true in New York, but it’s not true in California, where you still have to prove predisposition. So now there’s what’s called a “circuit split,” where… [different appeals courts have ruled differently]. Hopefully the Supreme Court will rule in favor of a viable entrapment defense, where you can look at the backgrounds of the defendants and say, These guys aren’t terrorists. They may have done many bad things, but they’re certainly not terrorists. And in this case, therefore, they were entrapped by the government into committing a crime they never, ever would have done on their own.
– Interview Conducted Over 2 Phone Calls While at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival by David Teich
About The Filmmakers
David Heilbroner is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who produced the Emmy-winning, Jockey (directed by Kate Davis), and wrote and co-directed, alongside Kate Davis again, the Peabody-winning, Stonewall Uprising, among other titles. He also worked as a Manhattan prosecutor, a criminal justice professor at John J. College,authored two highly regarded books on criminal justice issues, and has spent years studying terrorism. Kate Davis’ Southern Comfort (2001 Sundance Film Festival Grand Prize winner) won over 25 awards and continues to be screened as a seminal work aimed towards overcoming transphobia.