At what point does our desire for public safety conflict with our need for personal privacy? In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against, American society has become hopelessly torn between two poles: we want the government to stop surveilling us law abiding citizens but demand that it find and thwart the bad guys. We criticize the government for not nabbing the Boston bombers before they placed their backpacks, but we rail against our text messages being intercepted and analyzed. What’s Big Brother to do? Last year’s Citizenfour brilliantly articulated that the FBI, CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies can get absolutely any piece of information they want. Now, (T)ERROR furthers the discussion with a separate but equally chilling insight – that, in a political landscape polluted by post-9/11 paranoia, those same agencies will get absolutely any piece of information that they want – regardless of whether or not it’s the truth.
An incendiary expose about the FBI’s misguided use of confidential informants in its pursuit of potential terrorists that feels at once momentous and somewhat reckless, (T)ERROR is also a journalistic masterstroke. Filmmaker Lyric R. Cabral first encountered one of the documentary’s two subjects, ex-convict Saeed “Shariff” Torres, when he lived downstairs from her in a Harlem brownstone back in 2002. When Shariff mysteriously disappeared from the area, Cabral made sure to stay in touch, and in 2005, he admitted to her that he worked as an FBI informant. Previously, Shariff had helped to convict a jazz bassist named Tarik Shah for just talking (and it doesn’t appear much else) about the possibility of training al-Qaeda operatives. This operation destroyed Shariff’s relationships with friends and family – he’s become a pariah, as bitter toward the FBI as he is willing to take its money. Eventually, Shariff agreed to let Cabral and her fellow filmmaker David Felix Sutcliffe film him as he continued his work for the FBI – but crucially, he did not inform his overseers of their project.
The first hour of (T)ERROR is essentially a profile on Shariff, a profoundly lonely man whose life consists of trying to get close to his marks in order to betray their secrets. He’s sent to Pittsburgh in order to befriend Khalifah Al-Akili, a white Muslim convert who has (moronically) posted messages supporting al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden on his Facebook. The FBI wants to find out whether Khalifah might progress from mouthing off about terrorism to actually carrying out operations of his own, but what (T)ERROR makes sickeningly clear is that Shariff’s role is more entrapment than investigation. The target has already been flagged, and all that’s necessary for an arrest is to prove that he might be up to no good at some point in the future.
As damning as that set-up is, though, (T)ERROR remains off-puttingly slack for almost an hour. Cabral and Sutcliffe spend too much time simply watching Shariff as he trades texts with a shadowy FBI handler and gets high in his new digs while waiting for Khalifah to accept a friend request. At best, it’s a slow burn; at worst, it’s stultifying. The inclusion of Shariff’s history as a Black Panther and lengthy discussion of the Tarik Shah sting feels like dead weight.
Then, the filmmakers change the game in what can only be described as a stroke of genius (sorry, spoiler-phobes). As Khalifah begins to become vocally suspicious that the FBI is attempting to encircle him, Cabral and Sutcliffe reach out to him, under the pretense of wanting to learn more about his fears. Soon, with the FBI pulling all the strings from afar, the filmmakers are recording a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse that would be comical were it not so stomach-turningly scary to comprehend, without either side being aware that the other is also involved.
One wonders whether more experienced documentary filmmakers would have structured (T)ERROR differently. The movie is one of two, distinct halves – the exposition-heavy background on Shariff, which drags more than it should; and the closing of the net around Khalifah, which builds to a terrifying and dramatic climax that wouldn’t feel out of place in a conspiracy thriller. It unfolds in a soporific lull then all at once comes to roaring life, and the incongruity is unfortunate.
When it comes down to it, though, (T)ERROR is mandatory viewing not because of its cinematic symmetry but because of its message. The FBI’s use of confidential informants in counterterrorism sting operations is a jagged piece of an inherently broken system. In the unchecked aftermath of a terrorist attack, the intelligence agency designed to protect us has resorted to misinformation and outright lies in order to entrap American Muslims into committing crimes. So desperate are the authorities for “Terrorist Attack Foiled” headlines that they’ve resorted to methods that actually breed more terrorists. Watching the panic on Khalifah’s face as he realizes that his guilt or innocence is of little concern to an agency that has already made up its mind, it’s evident that the subject of (T)ERROR is nothing less than the birth of an Orwellian surveillance state.
Will documentaries like this correct the issue? The FBI has yet to return Cabral and Sutcliffe’s requests for comment, and it does not seem likely that the Academy will rally behind (T)ERROR in the same way that it did the infinitely superior Citizenfour, so the jury’s still out on that question. But the film is eye-opening, vital correspondence nonetheless. A grave injustice has been done both to American Muslims like Khalifah, targeted while exercising their religious freedoms, and to informants like Shariff, pushed to conclude that the individuals they hunt are insurgents, even when they simply are not. In our increasingly foggy and underhanded war on terror, everyone is being watched – that much is clear. The truly frightening question is this – who will watch the watchers?