Inside the FBI's terror sting operations.
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 targeted.
Michael German is a former FBI agent who currently works for the American Civil Liberties Union. These opinions are his own.