WASHINGTON --A grand jury charged yesterday that a former federal prosecutor in Detroit who led one of the Justice Department's biggest terrorism investigations concealed critical evidence in the case in an effort to bolster the government's theory that a group of local Muslim men were plotting an attack.
The prosecutor, Richard G. Convertino, and a State Department employee who was a chief government witness were indicted on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The grand jury charged that they had conspired to conceal evidence from the jury about photographs of a U.S. military hospital in Jordan that was the supposed target of a terrorist plot concocted by the Detroit defendants.
Convertino, once a rising star at the Justice Department who fell out of favor with supervisors in Washington, denied he had withheld evidence, and he predicted that he would be vindicated.
"These charges are clearly vindictive and retaliatory, and it's an effort to discredit and smear someone who tried to expose the government's mismanagement of the war on terrorism," he said in a telephone interview.
The case had been hailed by President Bush and John Ashcroft, his first attorney general, as a major breakthrough against terrorism plotted on American soil.
After four Muslim men were arrested days after the Sept. 11 attacks in a dilapidated Detroit apartment, federal authorities charged that they were part of a "sleeper" terrorist cell plotting attacks against Americans overseas.
Two of the men were convicted on terrorism charges after a high-profile trial in 2003, with Convertino as the lead prosecutor. But the case began to unravel amid allegations of concealed evidence and government misconduct. The Justice Department ultimately repudiated its own case, leading to the dismissal of all terrorism charges against the men in 2004.
"I can't recall a case like this in recent memory where you have not only the collapse of the prosecution's entire case, but now the prosecutor himself indicted," said Brian Levin, a professor at California State University at San Bernardino who has written extensively on terrorism prosecutions.
Convertino, 45, who has left the Justice Department and opened his own defense practice in the Detroit area, faces a maximum of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted. His co-defendant, Harry R. Smith III, 49, a security officer for the State Department who assisted in the prosecution, faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $750,000 fine.
The indictment returned by a grand jury in the eastern district of Michigan places blame for the collapse of the case against the terrorism suspects on Convertino and Smith. It said the two conspired "to present false evidence at trial and to conceal inconsistent and potentially damaging evidence from the defendants."
But an investigation by The New York Times published in October 2004 found that senior officials at the Justice Department knew of problems in the case almost from its inception yet still pushed for an aggressive prosecution.
An internal Justice Department memo prepared in Washington before the 2002 indictments of the men acknowledged that the evidence was "somewhat weak," that the case relied on a single informant with "some baggage" and that there was no clear link to terrorist groups.
"We can charge this case with the hope that the case might get better," a senior counterterrorism official in Washington wrote at the time, "and the certainty that it will not get much worse."
The prosecution exposed deep rifts within the Justice Department over issues of strategy - to the point that some Washington prosecutors assigned to work on the case were barely on speaking terms with Convertino and his Detroit prosecutors.
The opening of the government's indictment against the terror suspects, drafted by prosecutors in Washington, appeared to have been lifted almost verbatim from a scholarly article on Islamic fundamentalism. And Ashcroft was rebuked by the Detroit judge hearing the case for publicly asserting - in error - that the defendants were suspected of having advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The trial of the Detroit terror suspects turned in large part on a set of sketches found in a day planner in the apartment where three of the four men lived.
At the terrorism trial in 2003 of the four, Convertino and the prosecution team argued that the sketches, with corresponding words in Arabic, represented "casings" of two overseas targets - a U.S. air base in Turkey and a military hospital in Jordan.
Defense attorneys sought to debunk the theory, arguing that the supposed sketch of the Turkey air base looked more like a map of the Middle East, but the jury convicted two of the men on terrorism charges.
Smith, who was based in Jordan through 2003, testified at the trial that diplomatic constraints had prevented him from photographing the hospital. But the grand jury charged that the real reason he and Convertino concealed photos of the hospital taken by Smith and another State Department employee was that they did not match the sketches.