The FBI practice of targeting of civilians suspected of engaging in terroristic activities was discussed Monday following a screening of the Sundance award-winning documentary “(T)error” at the Trustees Pavilion.
The film’s co-director, David Felix Sutcliffe, was on hand to present the documentary and answer questions during a Q&A. He also set up the screening by delivering a brief speech.
“I’ve spent the last 10 years reporting on national perspective, especially from a Muslim perspective,” the filmmaker, who attempts to highlight a “diversity of perspective” in his work, said.
“(T)error” follows an FBI informant based on the United States’ east coast named Saeed Torres, who goes by name of “Shariff” during investigations. Torres is an overweight, older man with a checkered past: a member of the Black Panther Party during the ‘60s and ‘70s, he went to prison for robbery and impersonation of a government employee. He was released early after agreeing to become an FBI informant. At the time of filming, Torres claimed to have participated in at least eight investigations on behalf of the government.
A devoted single father with aspirations of owning a specialty cupcake bakery, Torres is an unconventional subject: smoking joint after joint while on assignment in Pittsburgh, the informant states, “If they need me to do surveillance, or whatever the case may be, I’ll do it because I need the money.”
Sutcliffe and his fellow director, Lyric R. Cabral, expose the investigation covered in “(T)error” as deeply flawed in execution. His attempts to befriend his target unravel, as the suspicious young man quickly discovers Torres’ real motives.
As the credits of “(T)error” rolled, Sutcliffe returned to the front of the room and began a discussion by highlighting the FBI’s informant program, which he described as rooted deeply in racist ideology and a misguided definition of “terrorism.”
“The national security policies are used in a very racist fashion,” Sutcliffe said.
“I saw these relationships: people who are young and stupid, to be crude, who post stuff on Facebook,” the director continued, referring to the targets of FBI informant investigations, “and the FBI says, ‘what else can we make them do?’”
“Does the FBI purposefully seek out informants with a criminal past?” asked senior Brandon Reda, directing his question toward Sutcliffe.
“My theory is they want criminals to commit crimes during investigations, so the FBI doesn’t look dirty,” Sutcliffe responded, adding he perceives the FBI’s approach to terrorism investigations as, “‘Oh, we need a criminal to catch a criminal.’”
Sutcliffe blamed the media in part for the U.S. government’s targeting of Muslim-Americans.
“This suspicion of Muslims is the product of the media,” he said, “white extremists have killed twice as many people than Muslim extremists.”
Michael Svechin, a senior, asked what happened to Torres after the conclusion of the “(T)error” operation, which Torres proclaimed as his last.
“He’s depressed and feels he’s been cast aside by the FBI,” Sutcliffe answered.
“I don’t doubt the good intentions of FBI agents,” the director said as he initiated the conclusion of the Q&A, restating he finds fault in the intelligence agency’s tactics, and not in the agents themselves.
Before attendees left, Sutcliffe passed out safety pins, asking audience members to affix them to their clothing, as a way to express solidarity with oppressed groups in America.
“It’s a symbol of protection,” he said.
The documentarian concluded the screening by telling audience members to fight against injustice:
“It’s your duty, your moral obligation, to speak out against what you’re seeing.”