It has a familiar ring: "Investigators are looking for about a dozen more people in connection with a wide-ranging terror investigation that has already netted arrests in Colorado and New York City, a source familiar with the investigation said Tuesday."
That's the lead sentence of a CNN "breaking news" report filed Tuesday about a frantic search for alleged terrorism plotters within the United States. But a closer inspection of the story -- and that of others in the past week -- reveals that despite the hoopla, federal authorities have yet to charge the men they're accusing of a terror-related crime.
In fact, they're only actually charged with lying to federal agents. But you wouldn't know that from reading the headlines.
Problematic in this and other recent reports is the use of anonymous law enforcement sources, who repeatedly hype alleged ties to al Qaeda, identify "persons of interest," and detail dramatic but unspecified plots.
These sources, notes CBS News' Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor Andrew Cohen, began "clicking off all of the elements of their perennial song-and-dance number in terror-plot cases; this time from New York to Denver to Washington and back. The prejudicial leaks from law enforcement; the prompt (and promptly repeated) links to al Qaeda; the dramatic headlines, the identification of a "person of interest;" the assurances that no particular target had been specified; the intercession of an overwhelmed defense attorney; the denials, the meetings, the breakdown in talks, and, finally, the arrest (late at night, but with the tipped-off news cameras hovering above and about)."
"We’ve seen various iterations of the perp-walk parade hundreds of times before, in cases that merited the attention or not, and certainly dozens of times since Sept. 11, 2001," Cohen continues. "Often, way too often, the government has in the end been able or willing to prove far less than the initial (and often hysterical and hysterically received) allegations — distributed (typically without challenge) via cable television and the Internet — suggested. For example, off the top of my head, I give you: Zacarious Moussaoui, who was not the '20th hijacker,' Jose Padilla, who was not the 'dirty bomber' and John Walker Lindh, who was not the 'American Taliban.'"
Federal agents arrested three individuals over the weekend in connection with what officials described as a plot to bomb targets in the United States. The three men -- who are from Afghanistan -- are Najibullah Zazi, his father Mohammed Wali Zazi and cleric Ahmad Wais Afzali.
They've been charged with lying to federal agents; a judge set their bail at $50,000.
Cohen says the story has echoes of previous hyped terror cases where little actually pans out.
"We see only the old, familiar story; a prosecution for the alleged cover-up but not the alleged crime," the court reporter remarks. "But about the heart of the matter we still know very little. Are the Zazis really dangerous? If so, how dangerous are they? How strong is the evidence against them? What did they allegedly lie about and what didn’t they allegedly lie about? And how long is it going to take for us to know the rest of the story."
"If, for example, the feds believe that Zazi, the younger, really did attend an Al Qaeda terror training camp why is he only charged with "lying"? If the feds really did find incriminating bomb-making plans on a laptop taken from Zazi’s rental car then why no "material support" or conspiracy charge? If his fingerprints were on a "black scale" and batteries (two items which are legal to possess) what other physical evidence suggests a crime?
"Maybe both sides were plotting to inform on each other and the feds decided they could simply charge all of them with lying since neither version offered could both be true? Maybe neither version is true... Of all the starts to all the terror cases in all the world since 9/11 the start to this terror case cries out more than most for a little more patience."
Cohen concludes: "As Churchill might have said, we are not remotely close to the end of the beginning."
(Editor's Note: Raw Story apologizes to Andrew Cohen for misaddressing him in an earlier version, as he Tweeted.)