'Snitch' Visa: Tool To Get Terrorism Suspects Talking
Last week, the government unsealed a plea agreement in a terrorism case involving Najibullah Zazi, the Denver shuttle bus driver the FBI arrested last September. He allegedly conspired to target New York City subways at the direction of al-Qaida.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said that Zazi's plot was the most dangerous on American soil since Sept. 11. He's pleaded guilty to terrorism charges.
Though he pleaded guilty, Zazi still faces life in prison. The question has been: Why would he agree to that?
It turns out Zazi is cooperating with prosecutors -- which might win him and his family a so-called "snitch" visa.
The 'Snitch' Visa
The visa is a little-known bargaining chip that the government can dangle before terrorism suspects who agree to cooperate with investigators and plead guilty. It can sweeten the idea of decades behind bars.
When I was a prosecutor, I remember that almost every foreign national that was a defendant in one of my cases wanted this visa.
"We always refer to the S visa as a snitch visa," says Patrick Rowan, who ran the national security division at the Justice Department during the Bush years. "It was always easy to remember because you would use the word snitch."
Rowan says the idea behind the visa program is simple.
"The essence of the S visa is there's people who are in the U.S. who you would want their cooperation in the context of a criminal case," Rowan says. "And you can gain them status in the U.S. so they can live here and work here and even have a path toward becoming a lawful permanent resident if they're granted an S visa."
So that's what the government can offer. Zazi's case helps explain what it might get in return.
Extracting Useful Anti-Terrorism Information
At a recent speech at the Brookings Institution, David Kris, who leads the Justice Department's national security division, addressed how the law enforcement process can extract useful anti-terrorism information.
"When the government has a strong prosecution case, the defendant knows this, and he knows he will spend a long time in a small cell which creates powerful incentives for him to cooperate with us," Kris said.
Kris told the audience that in the past snitches have given up al-Qaida telephone numbers and the locations of training camps and safe houses overseas. Zazi apparently is offering up valuable information too.
Law enforcement sources say he helped expose plots in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Norway. They also say that Zazi's information helped tie a senior al-Qaida leader to the New York City subway plot, among others. That al-Qaida operative, Adnan Shukrijumah, was indicted last week as a result.
Zazi's defense lawyer could not be reached for comment.
Julie Myers Wood, who used to work as a federal prosecutor and immigration chief, says the government only offers the snitch visa when a defendant provides valuable intelligence.
"The evidence that is provided by these criminal defendants and terrorists has to be extraordinary," Myers Wood said.
'Everyone Wants This Visa'
The information must be critical because it's possible the government could spare a convicted terrorist a life term in prison, in favor of a long but not life-ending sentence. Eventually, the suspect could be released, put in a witness protection program, and remain in this country.
So Congress set the bar high when it created the snitch visa after the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Lawmakers made the benefit permanent only days after the Sept. 11 attacks, when authorities were desperate for information to unravel the plot.
Now up to 50 terrorism informants each year can win a highly prized snitch visa for themselves and their families. But authorities say the number of visas approved rarely -- if ever -- has exceeded the limit.
Myers Wood said that's not for want of trying.
"Well, everybody wants this visa," she said. "When I was a prosecutor, I remember that almost every foreign national that was a defendant in one of my cases wanted this visa."
Whether Zazi, the defendant in the New York City subway plot, gets a snitch visa could turn on decisions at the highest level of the U.S. government.
Given the important information he's shared with authorities, he's a good candidate for one. Here's how it might happen: First, a prosecutor would have to recommend that he receive a snitch visa. Then that recommendation would go to immigration authorities. Ultimately, the secretary of state and the attorney general would have to sign off. And so would the judge.
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