Reporting from Washington and Portland, Ore. — Terrorism suspect Mohamed Osman Mohamud pleaded not guilty Monday to a federal charge of trying to explode a car bomb at a crowded holiday celebration last week in Portland, Ore., and his lawyers suggested that he was entrapped by the FBI.
The 19-year-old Somali American at the center of the latest allegation of homegrown terrorism said, "Yes, your honor," in a soft tone when U.S. Magistrate Judge John V. Acosta asked if he understood his rights.
Mohamud, who was shackled at the ankles, was otherwise silent during his first appearance in U.S. District Court in Portland. He sat slumped for part of the 15-minute hearing, and did not acknowledge his mother, Mariam Barre, his sister Mona, several former classmates or other supporters who packed the courtroom.
Stephen R. Sady, chief deputy federal public defender, complained to the judge that federal officials had given media interviews and a 36-page FBI affidavit "as a press release" to detail the alleged plot. The arrest, he said, was "obviously timed for maximum impact and maximum publicity."
Sady said undercover FBI agents had been "basically grooming" Mohamud for months to commit a terrorist act. He also cited the FBI's failure to record the agents' first meeting with Mohamud, although all subsequent meetings were bugged.
"In cases involving potential entrapment, it's the first meeting that matters," Sady said. "The first meeting was not recorded."
According to the FBI affidavit, the undercover agent who held the first face-to-face meeting with Mohamud in a Portland hotel room July 30 carried a concealed recording device, but the equipment failed "due to technical problems."
Under the law, a judge may rule that improper entrapment has occurred if law enforcement agents induce a suspect to commit a crime that he otherwise would be unlikely to commit. A defendant may be found not guilty if the government goes too far to orchestrate a crime.
In this case, Sady said, the FBI "may have exceeded these limits."
Sady tendered the plea of not guilty to a charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. If convicted, Mohamud could face up to life in prison.
Acosta set a tentative date of Feb. 1 for a 15-day jury trial.
Ethan Knight, an assistant U.S. attorney, told the judge that Mohamud was a flight risk and a danger to the community. Defense lawyers did not ask for bail.
After the hearing, Sady and Steven Wax, the federal public defender, released a statement saying the FBI's sting "raises significant concerns about the government manufacturing crime — or entrapment."
"The affidavit reveals that government agents suggested key actions to this teenager, spent thousands of dollars on him, specified components, drove Mr. Mohamud around, and were instrumental in setting up" the purported bombing attempt, they said.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. denied that Mohamud was a victim of FBI overreaching. Speaking to reporters Monday, Holder said he was "confident that there is no entrapment here, and no entrapment claim will be found to be successful."
Holder said undercover FBI agents gave Mohamud numerous chances "to retreat, to take a different path. He chose at every step to continue."
The defense lawyers urged the public to withhold judgment as the legal proceedings unfold.
"The issue this case raises regarding the proper balance between public safety and government-created crime are difficult and complex," they said. "The presumption of innocence is an American value that should not be sacrificed to fear and sensationalism."
Drogin reported from Washington and Choi, a special correspondent, reported from Portland.