- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Inside the FBI's terror sting operations.
by Michael German
January 15, 2013
The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI's Manufactured War on Terrorism, by
Trevor Aaronson, Ig Publishing, 256 pages, $24.95.
Imagine a country in which the government pays convicted con artists and
criminals to scour minority religious communities for disgruntled,
financially desperate, or mentally ill patsies who can be talked into
joining fake terror plots, even if only for money. Imagine that the
country's government then busts its patsies with great fanfare to
justify ever-increasing authority and ever-increasing funding. According
to journalist Trevor Aaronson's The Terror Factory, this isn't the
premise for a Kafka novel; it's reality in the post-9/11 United States.
The Terror Factory is a well-researched and fast-paced exposé of the
dubious tactics the FBI has used in targeting Muslim Americans with
sting operations since 2001. The book updates and expands upon
Aaronson's award-winning 2011 Mother Jones cover story, "The
Informants." Most readers have likely heard about several alleged
conspiracies to attack skyscrapers, synagogues, or subway stations,
involving either individuals that the FBI calls "lone wolves" or small
cells a credulous press tagged with such sinister appellations as the
"Newburgh 4" or the "Liberty City 7." Many of these frightening plots
were almost entirely concocted and engineered by the FBI itself, using
corrupt agents provocateurs who often posed a far more serious criminal
threat than the dim-witted saps the investigations targeted.
Drawing on court records and on interviews with the defendants, their
lawyers, their families, and the FBI officials and prosecutors who
oversaw the investigations, Aaronson portrays an agency that has adopted
an "any means necessary" approach to its terrorism prevention efforts,
regardless of whether there are real terrorists being caught. To the
FBI, this imperative justifies recruiting informants with extensive
criminal records, including convictions for fraud, violent crimes, and
even child molestation, that in an earlier era would have disqualified
them except in the most extraordinary circumstances.
In addition to providing leniency, if not forgiveness, for heinous
crimes, the FBI pays these informants tens to hundreds of thousands of
dollars, creating a perverse incentive for them to ensnare dupes into
terror plots. Aaronson quotes an FBI official defending this practice:
"To catch the devil you have to go to hell."
Such an analysis might make sense when police leverage one criminal to
gain information about more serious criminal conspiracies—in other
words, to catch a real "devil." But Aaronson's research reveals that the
targets in most of these sting operations clearly pose little real
threat. They may have a history of angry anti-government rhetoric, but
they take no steps toward terrorist acts until they receive
encouragement and resources from government agents.
Aaronson takes pains to avoid portraying those caught in the stings as
completely innocent of malice. But he demonstrates that they almost
universally lack violent criminal histories or connections to real
terrorist groups. Most importantly, while they may have talked about
committing violent acts, they rarely had weapons of their own and lacked
the financial means to acquire them. Yet the government provides them
with military hardware that would cost thousands of dollars and would be
extremely difficult for even sophisticated criminal organizations to
obtain, only to bust them in a staged finale.
This aspect of Aaronson's narrative is most troubling to me, as a former
FBI agent who worked undercover in domestic terrorism investigations
before 9/11. My concern is partly that the artificially inflated scope
of the threat in these cases appears to be specifically designed to
overwhelm judges, jurors, and the general public, who might otherwise
view these methods as illegal entrapment. Indeed, the judge in a case in
which an informant offered a seemingly reluctant James Cromitie $250,000
to participate in his plot, severely criticized the investigation,
stating: "Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr.
Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope." Yet
she let the jury's conviction stand and sentenced Cromitie to 25 years
in prison. Of 150 defendants charged in these schemes, Aaronson
documents only two acquittals. The majority plead guilty to mitigate
draconian penalties. Law enforcement has no business staging theatrical
productions that intentionally exaggerate the seriousness of a
defendant's criminal conduct.
More unsettling is the flawed reasoning that drives the use of these
methods. FBI agents have been inundated with bigoted training materials
that falsely portray Arabs and Muslims as inherently violent. The FBI
has also embraced an unfounded theory of "radicalization" that alleges a
direct progression from adopting certain beliefs, or expressing
opposition to U.S. policies, to becoming a terrorist. With such a skewed
and biased view of the American Muslim community, the FBI's strategy of
"preemption, prevention, and disruption" results in abusive
surveillance, targeting, and exploitation of innocent people simply for
exercising their First Amendment rights.
One area where Aaronson is off the mark, however, is in failing to
recognize these tactics are neither new to the FBI nor exclusively used
against Muslims. The FBI's earliest documented use of agents
provocateurs was revealed during congressional investigations of labor
"radicals," pacifists, and socialists in 1918. And the Church
Committee's investigation of the FBI's COINTELPRO investigations
revealed covert operations that targeted groups for First
Amendment–protected activities from the 1950s through the 1970s.
In both cases, reform of these practices was implemented by restricting
FBI intelligence activities and requiring a reasonable suspicion of
criminal activity before initiating investigations. Conversely, the
rapid increase in sting operations under the Obama administration is
directly attributable to some 2008 amendments to the FBI's guidelines,
which authorized the use of informants without requiring any factual
predicate of wrongdoing.
The FBI has also used these dubious tactics against aged anti-government
militiamen and misfit anarchists, so it there's more than Muslims in the
crosshairs: Without reforming the FBI guidelines, anyone holding
unorthodox views or challenging government policies could be similarly
Michael German is a former FBI agent who currently works for the
American Civil Liberties Union. These opinions are his own.
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News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
Thurston Howell III: No one? Good heavens, this is anarchy!
-- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"