This week presidential wannabe Gov. Chris Christie has been trotting out a line we're sure to hear many more times during his campaign:
"I'm the only person in this national conversation who has used the PATRIOT Act, signed off on it, convicted terrorists because of it."
Which means it's time for a refresher on one of the two cases to which he is almost certainly referring: The prosecution of Hemant Lakhani.
The story, as told in this classic 2005 This American Life episode, is a tale of ineptitude, entrapment, and bureaucratic self-perpetuation, starring very young U.S. attorney Christopher (!) Christie.
The episode is a full hour, and you should absolutely listen to (or at least read) the whole thing. But until then, enjoy some highlights from Christie's dogged the pursuit of this dangerous terrorist:
Here is a list of what Lakhani claims he can acquire, when prodded by an FBI informant:
- Stinger missiles
- night-vision goggles (although the exchange makes clear that he think that might just be another term for sunglasses)
- plutonium in 22-pound bottles
- anti-aircraft weapons
- radioactive suitcase bombs.
Here is a list of weapons he is actually able to acquire on his own for this informant:
Here is a list of people Lakhani claims to be friends with:
- Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi
- former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto
- the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka
- the President of Congo
- U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom he offers to summon to an NPR reporter's house on 48 hours notice.
Here is how he tries to pay an arms dealers for a missile:
- a personal check.
In short, Lakhani's an idiot.
After many twists and turns, the U.S. government winds up handling every single aspect of the transaction around Lakhani. This triumphant national security prosecution is actually the story of a 70-year-old small-time hustler who gets sent to jail for buying a fake missile from a fake arms dealer to be delivered to a fake terrorist group at an airport Hilton.
Lakhani is also an asshole, to be sure. There's no doubt he believed he was doing business with Al Qaeda–affiliated terrorists who would use the weapons to kill Americans.
But is he a real threat whose capture justifies massive infringement on civil liberties and privacy? Chris Christie doesn't care. In the NPR segment he acknowledges Lakhani isn't terribly impressive, but says "I'm not going to sit around and second guess it. What was done was done, and I think ultimately the jury decided that question." What's more, Lakhani is "amoral" and "there are good people and bad people. Bad people do bad things. Bad people have to be punished. These are simple truths. Bad people must be punished." Christie says, "I don't have a crystal ball and I don't know, if this had fallen apart, what Hemant Lakhani would have done next," but "That's the kind of guy I want in federal prison, and so that's where he's going to go. And at the end, that's the success of the Lakhani case."
This case is often cited as a big win for the PATRIOT Act—Christie's bragging about it on the trail this week is nothing new—but it seems like a good time for a handy reminder that this is what "successful" applications of the controversial anti-terrorism law look like.
Listen to the whole thing here.