Film Is Skeptical About Domestic Efforts on Terrorism
By BRIAN STELTER
LOS ANGELES —The film "Better This World" introduces itself with the frightening sounds of television anchors filtering the news of a terrorist plot against the Republican National Convention in 2008. "Disturbing news tonight about homegrown terror," one of the anchors says, not for the first time and not for the last.
But, the film suggests, viewers should also be disturbed about the ease with which that label — "terrorist" — is applied.
Through the eyes of Bradley Crowder and David McKay, who were accused of a firebombing plot at the convention, "Better This World" examines the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s controversial use of informants, an issue that receives far less attention than initial reports of suspected terrorism. Through interviews, telephone recordings and text-message transcripts the film leaves viewers with the impression that Mr. Crowder and Mr. McKay were philosophically seduced by an informant. The two men admitted to making Molotov cocktails on their own, but the cocktails were not used.
The film had an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release here last week, but it will reach many more people when it has its television premiere on Tuesday night on "POV," the PBS documentary series. Simon Kilmurry, the executive director of "POV," said it was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"The legacy of 9/11 is something we’re all living with today, and these are some of the issues that I think tend not to get looked at very closely," Mr. Kilmurry said.
In a pairing of sorts the next "POV," on Sept. 13, will show "If a Tree Falls," a documentary about the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group that set fires and was labeled a domestic terrorist threat by the F.B.I. in 2001. One of its former members, Daniel McGowan, who pleaded guilty to arson charges, says in that film, "People need to question, like, this buzzword" — terrorist — "and how it’s being used and how it’s, like, just become the new ‘communist.’ " He adds, "It’s a boogeyman word."
The "Better This World" filmmakers, Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, said they came away from their reporting with a recognition that use of the term "domestic terrorist" had broadened dramatically since the Sept. 11 attacks. "In the media and in the legal realm it’s marshaled for all sorts of political agendas, and it’s complicated," Ms. Galloway said.
They included the TV sound bites to highlight that impression. "In this case the media trumped up the charges and said some pretty provocative things that would instill fear in the average American," Ms. Duane de la Vega said.
Mr. Crowder and Mr. McKay, angsty young men from Austin, Tex., say in the film that they looked up to Brandon Darby, an activist who co-founded a relief group in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Together, Mr. Crowder and Mr. McKay say in the film, they made plans to protest the Republican convention in Minneapolis. Because the convention was treated as a possible target for terrorists, the F.B.I. was aggressive in its monitoring of protest groups; Mr. Darby was made an informant.
In a prison interview shown in the film, Mr. Crowder asks himself if the events that led to his incarceration would have happened if he had not met Mr. Darby, and he answers, "No, I don’t think they would have." Mr. McKay says in the film, "I felt like Brandon Darby entrapped me," though he admitted as part of his guilty plea that he had lied when he said he had been entrapped by Mr. Darby. Mr. Crowder was released from prison last year; Mr. McKay could be released this fall.
Mr. Darby, once hailed in leftist circles, is now a hero to some conservatives for his role in the case. He has denied any wrongdoing, and he has a pending libel lawsuit against The New York Times over its coverage of his activities as an informant.
Ms. Galloway noted that defendants in many cases like this one have accused informants of trapping them. "That’s a common situation," she said. "You have the flashbulb headlines about a domestic terrorist case, and then, not long after, a counter allegation by the defendant about misconduct by a government agent or informant."
The film also poses thorny questions about government prosecutions of cases like the one involving Mr. Crowder and Mr. McKay, who were called terrorists but who were convicted of lesser charges. The filmmakers said that audiences on the festival circuit this year were "surprised by how far the government is allowed to go" in such prosecutions. When they screened the film for international audiences, Ms. Galloway said, "people were stunned by the amount of resources devoted to terrorism."
Mr. McKay suggests in the film that the government "didn’t want two kids who made a mistake; they wanted two terrorists who were going to hurt people" because "it legitimizes everything that they’ve done." But the film also gives substantial time to interviews with F.B.I. agents.
The sheer amount of evidence in the film lends itself to a subtheme about surveillance, also a hot topic on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. The filmmakers retraced Mr. Crowder and Mr. McKay’s attendance at convention protests, via surveillance-camera footage provided by the police. Other evidence in the film — text messages, interrogations, footage of the men shopping for supplies at a Wal-Mart — emerged during the trials. There is even a clip of Mr. Darby talking to his F.B.I. handler, as recorded by his own hand-held camera as he walked through one of the protests.
Ms. Duane de la Vega said Mr. Darby had spoken to her at length by telephone, but he ultimately decided not to participate. She said that he sent her a text message after the film started appearing at festivals and said: "Congrats. I don’t agree, but congrats."
Ms. Duane de la Vega said she and Ms. Galloway see "Better This World" as one in a series of journalistic works that they hoped would "bubble up the issue" of informant use and domestic terrorism prosecutions.
The takeaway for viewers, she said, is to make sure that they understand the context of the alarming headlines about accused terrorist acts. She said, "When they read about domestic terrorism — keep reading."
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