Do you feel safer?

Yesterday, Vinod reported on the convinction of Hemant Lakhani, would be merchant of death. Lakhani is clearly scum:

Lakhani was filmed clapping his hands in glee as he admired the missile he thought he had single-handedly smuggled into the US and was clearly delighted with his achievement. [cite]

However, I don’t feel any safer today. Consider the following:

1.  Lakhani was a nobody who got set up in a sting.  He wasn’t a big time arms dealer before the FBI came to him, he was a two-time loser in textiles who “had declared bankruptcy, owed taxes on his house, was evicted from the office where he ran his clothing business and owed money on bounced cheques.” From what I can tell, he had no prior involvement with arms dealing, nor any prior association with “terrorists” (it’s in quotes since the FBI guy was a ringer) before the sting.

2.  He was completely incompetent as an arms dealer. Lakhani spent 2 years trying to find missiles to sell to the FBI’s fake terrorist buyer but he still couldn’t get his hands on any weapons. He was so clueless that, according to the fake buyer,  Lakhani was unfamiliar with terms such as ‘ammo’.” His lawyer characterized him as: 

a failed businessman, motivated solely by money who “couldn’t finish a deal if his life depended on it” and would not have done so without a hefty government operation behind him.  [cite]

3.  To make the arrest, the FBI had to supply the arms for Lakhani to sell to them. The FBI supplied both “the arms buyer, and Russian agents who posed as sellers” They even smuggled the “missile” to New Jersey. Before that point, for almost 2 years, the buyer never received any military hardware from Lakhani.

I am not trying to defend Lakhani’s actions. He did something criminal and has been sent to jail. I am simply not convinced that there are any fewer arms or (real) arms dealers in the world today as a result. The FBI spent 2 years on this; encouraging and then capturing an “arms dealer.” Meanwhile, big fish like Victor Bout remain at large. Bout was even protected by the US and other countries when he got arrested.

People I know have been killed and maimed by terrorists. I take terrorism very seriously, and I want to see the US government actively going after the real bad guys, not just mounting national security theater to lull the folks back home into a false sense of safety.

Earlier posts on the subject:  Desi uncle in the import / export bidness Lakhani trial starts.

15 thoughts on “Do you feel safer?

  1. I dunno guys… it reminds me of when I was caught speeding 31 in a 25 zone a scant few weeks after I got my drivers license at the ripe old age of 16.

    Me – thinking that i had some room to plead with the cop – “Sir, some guy passed me on this road just a few seconds ago – he had to be going at least 40!”

    Cop – “sorry dude, I put my line in the water and your the fish that got caught in my hook”

    Moral – small victories for law enforcement are procedurally not too diff from big victories – you’ve gotta do both. This guy is vile.

    As the telegraph article notes -

    “There was no coercion. No threats, no guns to the defendant’s head,” Rabner said. “You don’t have to be sophisticated to be a criminal. You can be a dumb criminal.”
    Lakhani was filmed clapping his hands in glee as he admired the missile he thought he had single-handedly smuggled into the US and was clearly delighted with his achievement. The tapes were played and replayed in court.
  2. What I don’t like is how the whole thing was basically staged. they KNEW this guy was a clueless hack, not someone who spends their life trading in illegal weapons. They finally had to give him the weapons in order to bring him up on any charges, because he was too incompetent to do it himself!

    They were wasting time and money on that when real arms dealers are looking at it and laughing at the farce that it is while they continue to make money on their latest deal.

    I don’t know. It’s kind of like invading a country with a crap military for their oil when North Korea is showing us their nukes and giggling.

  3. Good point about the small victories. But its also a matter of cost/benefit. Two years of highlevel undercover work is just too high a cost for such a small fish.

    Plus the opportunity cost makes it even more expensive (time could be spent catching bigger fish).

  4. A fish that you put in the pond explicitly to catch. This guy wasn’t an arms dealer before, nor was he even a real arms dealer at the end of the trade. They had to set the whole thing up to “catch” him. That’s alot of effort, and no increase in safety.

    V – consider this. Let’s say cops aren’t giving any tickets to the fast cars b/c they’re politically connected. So they buy some schmoe pedestrian a junker, show him that if he pushes it to the top of the hill he can go really fast for a second, and then arrest him so that they can issue a ticket.

    The fact is, he wouldn’t have been speeding without the “operation” In the counterfactual world where there was no sting, the US is no less safe. And once you consider the opportunity costs, which were serious, then you might think that the US has become less safe. It’s not just about small fish, it’s about going after people who are threats to the US public left on their own. That puts your behavior and his in a different camp. He was a slime, and a willing participant, but hardly a threat.

  5. A summary of the entrapment defense from the Dept of Justice . In short, there are two issues that the defendant must prove: (1) that the government induced the defendant to commit the crime, and (2) that the defendant was not predisposed to commit the crime.

    -D

  6. We probably should have stopped evaluating the worth of this fed action with andrea’s comment: Just think – the money the FBI spent on this could have been spent to catch real arms dealers. It would take some effort to convince me that this was not a largely pointless pr exercise, the funds for which could have been used to inspect a few more incoming port containers.

    I again wonder whether the government will be engaging in similar efforts to target White Christian populations in Michigan (not that they should…just that if they’re going to waste my money, they might as well not discriminate against my people too).

  7. the BBC has more on this story including a pict of the a*#hole standing red handed over a missile, talks about his previous arms deal, etc.

    Saurav – I suppose you’ll never believe that if/when “a White Christian from Michigan” is caught like this, he’d get booked as well. Until then, we’ll watch as the TSA puts them through metal detectors & random security screenings.

    The reason you try to go after the small “crimes” as hard as the big “crimes” is b/c of several legal / law enforcement theories (“equal protection”, avoiding “selective enforcement”, and, most recently, NYC’s famed ‘broken windows’). For ex., it makes the big guys a little less comfortable making deals. It scares other who might consider getting into the biz themselves, etc.

    Let’s say cops aren’t giving any tickets to the fast cars b/c they’re politically connected. So they buy some schmoe pedestrian a junker, show him that if he pushes it to the top of the hill he can go really fast for a second, and then arrest him so that they can issue a ticket.

    uh. That’s just not what happened here.

  8. … several legal / law enforcement theories (“equal protection”, avoiding “selective enforcement”, and, most recently, NYC’s famed ‘broken windows’).

    These don’t apply here. Selective enforcement usually applies to racial discrimination, it certainly does not instruct cops not to focus resources on where crime is highest.

    Broken windows only applies to physical places. It says when a neighborhood looks seedy due to graffiti and lack of maintenance, it attracts higher-end criminals.

    NYC had a much more relevant program, COMPSTAT, which tracked crime on a per-block level, made precinct commanders personally responsible and helped them see exactly where to focus police resources. By this standard, the Lakahani sting sounds like a waste of time.

    You make an interesting point re: accidentally catching small fry, but presumably at some point between 2002 and 2005, the FBI would’ve figured out he was a small fish and either cut him loose or used him as bait to get to the big guys.

    I like Ennis’ phrase, ‘national security theater’: there are lots of things this administration has done more for marketing a feel-good sense of U.S. airline safety than actually fixing it.

  9. Saurav – I suppose you’ll never believe that if/when “a White Christian from Michigan” is caught like this, he’d get booked as well. Until then, we’ll watch as the TSA puts them through metal detectors & random security screenings.

    You know, you’re right, Vinod, that’s exactly the completely oversimplified point I was making–you’re not misconstruing what I say at all when you say that I think White people don’t get prosecuted for the same crimes as suspected aides to Islamists.

    I went over some history, and I realized how completely wrong I am–in fact, I think certain segments of the White population have been subjected to unthinkable levels of government discrimination since 4/19.

    How could I deny that basic fact? The level of profiling against former White Gulf War veterans was just the same in the immediate aftermath of 4/19 and for four years afterwards as it is today against Muslims and immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries. And I do feel a lot safer knowing that there were such stepped up efforts making sure that each Gulf War veteran who returned to the United States didn’t harbor any anti-government feelings. And all those voluntary interviews with thousands of Gulf War veterans in the first few years after 4/19 were so necessary to make sure we didn’t have an enemy lurking in our midst. And of course it was great that the FBI decided to take into account the prevalence of army bases in an area in order to determine how much to allocate in counterterrorism funds the way they have with mosques. But I think the thing that made me feel best after the Oklahoma City bombing was that any former military personnel who were remotely suspected of potentially harboring any anti-government feelings whatsoever were systematically prosecuted as “terrorists” under whatever laws were available–tax evasion, having a fake ID, opening someone else’s mail–regardless of whether it had anything to do with what they were actually suspected of, and with the severest penalties possible given to them without any knowledge of why they were being accused of being “suicide bombers”.

    And of course all former military personnel were fingerprinted or retinally scanned in order to rent Ryder trucks–just as a precaution mind you, since we have to be careful, balance liberty and security and all that–and there were entire pieces of legislation devoted to making sure not too many former military personnel could get drivers licenses, since those documents are really dangerous weapons, allowing you to rent vans that you can blow up buildings with.

    Because, in the end, how could I argue with you Vinod? You’re so right. In the United States, resources for crime prevention, enforcement, and investigations are always allocated fairly and without any influence from systemic discrimination.

    Well, except against White people when they’re being hassled at the airport, of course. That’s just too unfair, given the legacy of discrimination against White people in recent world history.

  10. These don’t apply here. Selective enforcement usually applies to racial discrimination…

    sheesh. no analogy is 100%. my point with things like selective enforcement, etc. is that they are all cases where the govt prosecutes a little crime with the same aggressiveness as a big one in the name of precedence, general order, etc.

    IRS audits, unpaid parking fines, etc. etc. etc. etc. (incur a $10 parking fine in NYC and watch how quickly that snowballs)

    by no means should the FBI have “cut him loose”. no way.

    saurav – whatever…

  11. With all the “This American Life” fans on this blog, I’m surprised nobody has posted a link to their hour-long show on the Hemant Lakhani story.

    Like most TAL shows it’s a really comprehensive account of a strange story (and a very strange man). I think Ennis’s analysis of the man is spot on. Yes, it does sound like Mr.Lakhani is an amoral man (like the FBI-guy in the piece says), but it is also almost certain that if the FBI hadn’t actually supplied him with a weapon, he would not have been able to supply anyone with one. He’s much more Walter Mitty and Willy Loman than Victor Bout.

    The story includes more details on the FBI-informant: a man who was a productive informant for the DEA in pakistan but, after he was brought to america (witness-protection-style), was broke and saw Lakhani as his “meal-ticket”. The piece is also full of examples of Lakhani’s incompetence as an arms-dealer and his various delusions. When asked by the FBI-informant for night-vision goggles he wonders if he means sun-glasses ! He boasts to the reporter about his close ties to all kinds of powerful people and promises her that if she wants he can get Tony Blair to show up at her door the day after.

    Well worth the hour-long listen.

  12. He wasn’t even small fish folks!! The FBI basically asked him to act like a fish, then asked him to jump in the pond, and then told him to put the hook in the mouth when he sees one!!! This guy is guilty of being an idiot, Greedy and may be dumbest person in the world, but I doubt that he is guilty of supporting terrorism.