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How the FBI's Network of Informants Actually Created Most of the Terrorist Plots "Foiled" in the US Since 9/11

The FBI has built a massive network of spies to prevent another domestic attack. But are they busting terrorist plots—or leading them?

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If this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because such sting operations are a fixture in the headlines. Remember the  Washington Metro [21] bombing plot?  The New York subway [22] plot? The guys who planned to blow up the  Sears Tower [23]? The teenager seeking to bomb a  Portland Christmas tree [24] lighting? Each of those plots, and dozens more across the nation, was led by an FBI asset.

Over the past year,  Mother Jones and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley have examined prosecutions of 508 defendants in terrorism-related cases, as defined by the Department of Justice. Our investigation found:

  • Nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money (operatives can be paid as much as $100,000 per assignment) or the need to work off criminal or immigration violations. (For more on the details of those 508 cases,  see our charts page [6] and searchable database [25].)
  • Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants. Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur—an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.
  • With three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings. (The exceptions are Najibullah Zazi, who came close to  bombing [26] the New York City subway system in September 2009;  Hesham Mohamed Hadayet [27], an Egyptian who opened fire on the El-Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles airport; and failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad [28].)
  • In many sting cases, key encounters between the informant and the target were not recorded—making it hard for defendants claiming entrapment to prove their case.
  • Terrorism-related charges are so difficult to beat in court, even when the evidence is thin, that defendants often don't risk a trial.

 

"The problem with the cases we're talking about is that defendants would not have done anything if not kicked in the ass by government agents," says Martin Stolar, a lawyer who represented a man caught in a 2004 sting involving  New York's Herald Square [22] subway station. "They're creating crimes to solve crimes so they can claim a victory in the war on terror." In the FBI's defense, supporters argue that the bureau will only pursue a case when the target clearly is willing to participate in violent action. "If you're doing a sting right, you're offering the target multiple chances to back out," says Peter Ahearn, a retired FBI special agent who directed the Western New York Joint Terrorism Task Force and oversaw the investigation of the  Lackawanna Six [29], an alleged terror cell near Buffalo, New York. "Real people don't say, 'Yeah, let's go bomb that place.' Real people call the cops."

Even so, Ahearn concedes that the uptick in successful terrorism stings might not be evidence of a growing threat so much as a greater focus by the FBI. "If you concentrate more people on a problem," Ahearn says, "you'll find more problems." Today, the FBI follows up on literally every single call, email, or other terrorism-related tip it receives for fear of missing a clue.

And the emphasis is unlikely to shift anytime soon. Sting operations have "proven to be an essential law enforcement tool in uncovering and preventing potential terror attacks," said Attorney General Eric Holder in a December  2010 speech [45] to Muslim lawyers and civil rights activists. President Obama's Department of Justice has announced sting-related prosecutions at an even faster clip than the Bush administration, with 44 new cases since January 2009. With the war on terror an open-ended and nebulous conflict, the FBI doesn't have an exit strategy.

 
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