In an unusual turn of events last week, a terror plot suspect’s desire to talk to local media put him at odds with his attorneys and landed a Cincinnati television station in federal court.
At issue was a taped audio interview with Christopher Cornell and whether the station could broadcast that interview.
Cornell is accused of plotting to attack the U.S. Capitol. The 20-year-old — who claims in the interview that he is affiliated with ISIS — was arrested on January 14, months after his social media habits and talk of jihad put him on the FBI’s radar, according to court documents obtained by CNN at the time of his arrest.
Two days after his arrest, a court order was issued barring public contact with Cornell, who is being held at the Boone County Jail across the river in Kentucky.
Last week, Cornell made a collect call to CNN affiliate WXIX, said news director Kevin Roach. That phone call initiated what ended up being an hourlong interview, Roach said.
Cornell’s attorney, Richard Smith-Monahan, argued that WXIX was in contempt of court for violating a January order “directing the detention facility holding the Defendant not to permit outside contact by anyone with the Defendant without [defense counsel’s] express approval.”
Cornell spoke with reporter Tricia Macke. In that interview, he refuses to tell Macke how or when he first came in contact with ISIS, but he did give the reporter details on a plot to kill President Barack Obama, members of Congress, as well as an attack on the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
“I would have took my gun,” he said. “I would have put it to Obama’s head. I would have pulled the trigger. Then I would unleash more bullets on the Senate and House of Representative members. And I would have attacked the Israeli Embassy and various other buildings full of Kafir who want to wage war against us Muslims.”
When Macke asked him why he would plot such an attack, he said “Obama is an enemy of Allah, therefore an enemy of us, of Islamic State.” He said his plan for an attack on the U.S. Capitol was retaliation for “the continued American aggression against our people and the fact that America, specifically President Obama, wants to wage war against Islamic State.”
Cornell told Macke he was planning what would have been a “major attack” to take place in Washington on September 20, repeatedly referring to himself as a member of ISIS. “I’m with the Islamic State,” he said at one point. “I have connections with many brothers over there. We’ve been corresponding for quite some time now, actually. The FBI finally caught on this past year.”
Cornell told Macke that he used “encrypted messaging” to communicate with ISIS members. He said they discussed “how we should wage jihad in America. We should form our own groups and alliances with the Islamic State,” he continued.
Cornell said he was serious about his plans. “I’m very dedicated,” he told Macke. “Like I said, I’m a Muslim. I’m so dedicated that I risked my life. That should say a whole lot.”
He also warned that there were others like himself. “We are indeed here in America,” he said. “We’re in each and every state. We’re here in Ohio. We’re more organized than you think.”
The interview was taped in three 20-minute segments and was recorded by the jail and WXIX.
Roach said the jail’s taping system only allows for 20 minutes of taping at one time, so each time the recording would stop and the phone call ended, Cornell called the station back to tell his side of the story.
CNN listened to the audio recording.
During the 6:30 p.m. newscast on Thursday, the station aired a brief clip of the audio recording, previewing a longer story that was to air later that night, in the 10 p.m. newscast.
According to Mike Allen, legal analyst and attorney for WXIX, a producer from the station called him about 7:30 Thursday evening; Cornell’s attorney had filed a “show of cause” order in Cincinnati’s federal court and an emergency hearing was scheduled for 8:30 p.m.
During that hearing, the judge continued the case for Friday morning and WXIX agreed to delay broadcasting the interview until Friday, pending a decision.
In addition to the contempt of court argument, Smith-Monahan was also asking the court to issue a restraining order against the station, an order that would keep the station from broadcasting the interview with Cornell, according to court documents.
During the hearing, which lasted five hours, a lieutenant at the Boone County facility testified that one of Cornell’s attorneys had given him a phone. In that testimony the lieutenant stated that he reminded the attorney that giving Cornell a phone meant he would be able to call anyone he wanted to, which seemed at odds with the spirit of the January court order.
At the end of Friday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith ruled that the order prohibiting Cornell from contact with the public was vaguely written and the station was not in violation of the order.
Additionally, the judge ruled it would be unconstitutional for the news station to be barred from broadcasting the interview, according to Allen. The judge also stated in court that while Cornell has the right to remain silent, he also has the right to freedom of speech.
“At the end of the day, the judge made the right decision,” Allen said.
CNN on Saturday reached out to Smith-Monahan, Cornell’s defense attorney, but so far has received no response.
WXIX aired a portion of the interview on Friday night, and plans to broadcast more this week.