How the FBI Helps Terrorists Succeed

Is the FBI's informant program at all related to the New York City Police Department operation that paid informants to infiltrate mosques and spy on Muslims?

Aaronson: While they're not connected, there are a lot of similarities. The New York Police Department used taxi shields as leverage to recruit informants from within New York City Muslim communities. The FBI does a similar thing, but instead of using taxi shields, they use immigration. So, many of the informants who have been recruited from Muslim communities since 9/11 have been recruited under duress; that is, the FBI comes to them and says, "Unless you work with us, you may face deportation." Or, "'We know your family wants to come over from Syria, or Lebanon, and unless you work with us, that's not going to happen."

(Editor's note: The Associated Press, which broke the story of the NYPD program, reported the following:)

"Early in the intelligence division's transformation, police asked the taxi commission to run a report on all the city's Pakistani cab drivers, looking for those who got licenses fraudulently and might be susceptible to pressure to cooperate, according to former officials who were involved in or briefed on the effort."

How does the "entrapment" argument play in court? And are you the only journalist scrutinizing the FBI's approach to terrorism?

Aaronson: In all of these cases, the issue of entrapment is front and center. And so far the courts have been unwilling to agree that these are entrapment cases. We've had 11 defendants go to trial so far and formally argue entrapment, and none has been successful. At the same time, I think you're beginning to see a growing skepticism, criticism of these cases by the press. For example, when the U.S. government announces these cases, they often announce how horrific and awful the plot would have been had it moved forward, and really downplay the fact that the people accused of the crime never could have committed it on their own. And it's taken a long time, but now we're beginning to see a real criticism of these cases by the media.

Your book has been out a few weeks now. Has the FBI reacted, either directly or indirectly?

Aaronson: The only official response of sorts was a [book] review by a former [FBI] agent, Ali Soufan, who wrote a review of my book in "The Wall Street Journal" that was very critical. And Ali Soufan's response to my book is typical of the FBI's response, which is to say that there are real dangerous terrorists out there and these sting operations get them off the street.

But the problem with that is that Ali Soufan, in his review, and other agents I've talked to, consistently cite Faisal Shahzad, for example -- he's the man who came close to bombing Times Square -- or Najibullah Zazi, who came close to bombing the subway system. They cite these men as examples of real terrorists and why sting operations are so necessary, but the problem with their argument, I think, is that neither of those men was actually caught in a terrorism sting operation. To date, we have yet to find the real would-be terrorist: someone who was about to strike, who had the weapon, who had the means, who is thwarted by a sting operation.

(Editor's Note: RFE/RL requested comment from the U.S. Department of Justice. Dean Boyd, a spokesman for its national security division, said he has not read Aaronson's book, but he sent the following statement:)

First, it is important to note that undercover sting operations have been used by law enforcement for decades to combat all types of crimes, including child pornography, public corruption, financial fraud, murder-for-hire, drug trafficking, and others.

Second, it should be noted that sting operations are just one of many different tools that law enforcement may use to neutralize a violent plot. Many counter-terrorism cases do not involve undercover operations. The use of this technique depends entirely on the facts and circumstances of each case and is determined during the course of the investigation. Undercover sting operations have been used, where appropriate, to thwart certain violent plots and protect the public.

Third, there are strict guidelines governing the use of undercover sting operations, which involve extensive legal reviews and senior-level approvals. Furthermore, U.S. laws provide a robust defense against entrapment. Legally, a person is entrapped when he or she is induced or persuaded by law enforcement to commit a crime that he or she had no previous intent to commit. Whenever an undercover operation is used in the counter-terrorism arena, the government works diligently to ensure that entrapment does not occur.

Fourth, there is a lengthy public record of guilty pleas and convictions in such cases. Federal courts and juries have overwhelmingly upheld the use of undercover operations in terrorism sting cases. While entrapment may routinely be cited as a defense in these cases, to date, no terrorism defendant since 9/11 has won acquittal using such a defense.

Finally, whenever an individual concocts a plan to commit violence - and is determined to follow through - law enforcement has an obligation to take action to protect the public. Allowing individuals intent on committing violence to proceed without a response is not an option, given that they may take action on their own or find others willing to assist them.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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