CLEVELAND - The FBI will tell you timing is everything. It was in the right place at the right time to stop five men accused of planning to blow up a bridge right in our backyard.
My disbelief was twofold. Not only was this plot busted in northeast Ohio, it happened while I was attending the FBI Citizens' Academy in Cleveland.
On May 1, the FBI Cleveland division announced the arrest of five local men who, the FBI said, conspired to use explosive materials to blow up the Route 82 bridge in Brecksville the night before.
Not surprising, this was a big topic at the FBI Citizens' Academy.
Assistant Special Agent in Charge George Crouch made it clear that, because this is an ongoing investigation, he could only address the basics so as not to compromise the case, and urged us to reference the affidavit for specifics.
"It was about a six month investigation, utilizing a source to infiltrate this group," Crouch said.
Working as a journalist for NewsChannel5, I covered the suspects' first appearance in federal court that Tuesday. I watched as they were led in with their hands and ankles shackled. They appeared disheveled and somewhat disoriented. I spoke with people who worked at the courthouse, fellow journalists, and briefly interacted with one suspect's family members.
The perception was that the suspects were not greatly sophisticated, not highly educated, and probably had financial hardships. Our newsroom tracked down some of their Facebook profiles, and one listed an interest as smoking weed. Some of the suspects were associated with Cleveland's Occupy protests, which is highly critical of the U.S.'s financial institutions.
"Once explosives were brought into the equation is when we started paying attention to this group," Crouch noted.
One man in the Citizens' Academy voiced doubts about these suspects' ability to come up with such a plot, and if the arrest itself was too neatly packaged and delivered.
Crouch said the FBI had been keeping track of multiple threats over several months before a legitimate concern pinged their radar.
"This investigation, as it progressed, talked about taking down bank signs in Cleveland because that would make a statement," he said. "Then it gets ramped up when the word explosives gets added."
The FBI had an undercover agent provide the suspects with inert explosives that would not detonate. Authorities said these men not only planted these explosives at the bridge, they pushed the detonator, repeatedly.
With the suspects in custody, Crouch said he can see his family again, suggesting that many special agents had dedicated long days and nights to this case for several months.
The five suspects are due back in Cuyahoga County Federal Court on Monday.
[Details of the case and the affidavit can be viewed here: http://on.wews.com/ITO5vh]
Authorities called these suspects anarchists instead of domestic terrorists. But word of the plot had many northeast Ohioans feeling we had dodged a terrorist act.
But the public may never know just how many of these bullets we actually dodge.
One analyst had said that the public rarely hears about the intelligence community's successes. It's the rare failures, where a threat is missed and lives are lost, that everyone knows about.
Except, Crouch lightly added, that the Cleveland FBI is more than happy to share its success stories.
Most of the terror threats against the U.S. come from foreign land, and the FBI is constantly working to catch these threats before they can be carried out on our land.
Supervisory Special Agent Eric Smith knows all too well the threats facing our country.
He worked directly with the team assigned to hunt down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. While the FBI is the lead agency for counterterrorism, it's one part of the government's global effort against terrorism.
But Smith said that it's easier catching threats overseas before they come to the U.S. The worst case scenario is when jihadist propaganda from overseas radicalizes a person already in the U.S.
It just so happens, another close call also took place on May 1 two years ago, when Faisal Shahzad tried to blow up a vehicle in busy Times Square New York City.
The 1993 Nissan Pathfinder was parked in Times Square – actually started smoking – on that day. Shahzad had gotten as far as getting the bomb to the target, and he had tried to detonate it. Fortunately, he did not get the setup right and the bomb did not explode.
With very little to go on, agents managed to identify Shahzad and locate him. He was arrested on a plane that was about to take off and leave the country. His arrest came about 53 hours after that SUV started smoking.
The 30-year-old Shahzad was born in Pakistan and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He came to the U.S.
in the late 1990s, studied here, had several good jobs and a family. His acquaintances said he started to grow more religious in 2006, visiting mosques several times a day.
He also became radicalized. Shahzad felt his peers were soft. He started to take Muslim extremist views to heart, and plotted the Times Square attack.
But his puppeteers were from overseas. Shahzad used common file sharing technology to review targets with the Taliban in Pakistan. It trained him, financed him, and controlled him from across the world.
Shahzad came from overseas, but Smith said the FBI's concern is becoming second and third generation U.S. citizens.
He told us to imagine a Pakistani-born doctor who now lives and works in the U.S. This man wants nothing to do with the terrorist acts loosely connected to his origin or religion. But he regularly goes to a mosque, which has a hardliner imam, who says the Western world is against the Muslim world.
This doctor fights two natures, but his better mind wins, and he never hurts anyone.
What he doesn't know is his teenage son believes his father has gone soft. He's behind a closed door at the other end of the house, looking up radical sites overseas online. This teenager was born in the U.S. and self-radicalizes in the U.S.
Everything that this hypothetical U.S. teenager needs for a terror attack in his backyard is right at his fingertips. Except the FBI is worried that this teen is not hypothetical.
There are more dangers than becoming radicalized facing U.S. teenagers. Child prostitution and human trafficking are a growing problem.
A special agent from Toledo, who works with the Northwest Ohio Violent Crimes Against Children Task Force, told us about the grim reality some children face.
Child prostitution is a large issue for Toledo, which is what's known as an origin city: a lot of pimps and victims come from Toledo and go elsewhere.
In contrast, a destination city would be Chicago, New York City, or Washington, D.C. So are any cities hosting a Super Bowl or World Series.
The goal of the task force is to try to identify the victims, recover them, and prosecute those responsible for victimizing them.
Again, Hollywood misses the mark with the reality. The agent said Hollywood tends to make prostitution romantic, as in "Pretty Woman," or a slave trade that stretches credibility, as in "Taken."
The reality is that most child prostitutes are "compliant victims." The pimp is a master manipulator who gets teens to participate in their own victimization.
Most compliant victims will not work with those trying to help them. They deny they are prostitutes, disavow any knowledge of the pimp, and will not ask for help.
How can anyone take part in such victimization? The FBI said pimps look for teenage victims at malls, shelters, concerts, libraries, bus stops, or MySpace online. They look for teens who have no self-esteem, no directions, speak softly and avoid eye contact.
The agent said the key to rescuing these children is a victim-centered approach. Agents must know how to approach child prostitutes, how to speak the lingo, and how to assure them that they can actually provide help.
Time is of the essence in these cases. The average age of children who become victims is 13. The life expectancy is seven years.
The Northwest Ohio Violent Crimes Against Children Task Force has recovered and identified about 90% of its victims.
But victimization in the U.S. takes place on more than the streets. One crime that reaches much wider is health care fraud.
"I won't talk to you about killing Osama bin Laden or bombing Times Square or getting prostitutes," said Supervisory Special Agent Tom Corrigan. "I will talk to you about health care fraud, which I think is an exciting area."
I admit, I did not expect to find health care fraud exciting, but I was soon set straight.
Health care fraud is a big game in the U.S. Health care expenditures are increasing three times faster than the rate of inflation.
In fact, there's about $2.1 trillion in yearly health care expenditures. The FBI believes anywhere from 3 percent to 10 percent of that can be attributed to fraud. That's from $67 billion to $225 billion a year.
The FBI tries to catch those who defraud the government, insurers, or medical groups that patients rely on.
Who's the victim in all this? Corrigan said many criminals rationalize health care fraud. They simply don't seem as concerned if the government is getting ripped off.
But there are very real victims in all this. Health care fraud can take place at clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, ambulance services, and with personal doctors.
There are cases where chemotherapy treatments have been diluted in an effort to save a buck, but not a life. In rare instances, irresponsible doctors have pushed drugs on patients, only to have those patients die in their offices.
Corrigan said the rise of prescription drug use and abuse is one problem. There are more deaths regularly from overdoses than traffic accidents now.
lives in the balance, what could lead the people we trust our health to, to take part in health care fraud? Money.
"I do believe this is the biggest financial loss in our country," he said.
Look for Colin McDermott's weekly write-up on his experience at the FBI Citizens' Academy over the next several weeks.
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