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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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That informant, Craig Monteilh, is a convicted felon who made his money ripping off cocaine dealers before becoming an asset for the Drug Enforcement Administration and later the FBI. A well-muscled 49-year-old with a shaved scalp, Monteilh has been a particularly versatile snitch: He's pretended to be a white supremacist, a Russian hit man, and a Sicilian drug trafficker. He says when the FBI sent him into mosques (posing as a French-Syrian Muslim), he was told to act as a decoy for any radicals who might seek to convert him—and to look for information to help flip congregants as informants, such as immigration status, extramarital relationships, criminal activities, and drug use. "Blackmail is the ultimate goal," Monteilh says.

Officially, the FBI denies it blackmails informants. "We are prohibited from using threats or coercion," says Kathleen Wright, an FBI spokeswoman. (She acknowledges that the bureau has prevented helpful informants from being deported.)

FBI veterans say reality is different from the official line. "We could go to a source and say, 'We know you're having an affair. If you work with us, we won't tell your wife,'" says a former top FBI counterterrorism official. "Would we actually call the wife if the source doesn't cooperate? Not always. You do get into ethics here—is this the right thing to do?—but legally this isn't a question. If you obtained the information legally, then you can use it however you want."

But eventually, Monteilh's operation imploded in spectacular fashion. In December 2007, police in Irvine, California, charged him with bilking two women out of $157,000 as part of an alleged human growth hormone scam. Monteilh has maintained it was actually part of an FBI investigation, and that agents instructed him to plead guilty to a grand-theft charge and serve eight months so as not to blow his cover. The FBI would "clean up" the charge later, Monteilh says he was told. That didn't happen, and Monteilh has alleged in court filings that the government put him in danger by letting fellow inmates know that he was an informant. (FBI agents told me the bureau wouldn't advise an informant to plead guilty to a state criminal charge; instead, agents would work with local prosecutors to delay or dismiss the charge.)

The class-action suit, filed by the ACLU, alleges that Tidwell, then the bureau's Los Angeles-based assistant director, signed off on Monteilh's operation. And Tidwell says he's eager to defend the bureau in court. "There is not the blanket suspicion of the Muslim community that they think there is," Tidwell says. "We're just looking for the bad guys. Anything the FBI does is going to be interpreted as monitoring Muslims. I would tell [critics]: 'Do you really think I have the time and money to monitor all the mosques and Arab American organizations? We don't. And I don't want to.'"
 

Shady informants, of course,  are as old as the FBI; one saying in the bureau is, "To catch the devil, you have to go to hell." Another is, "The only problem worse than having an informant is not having an informant." Back in the '80s, the FBI made a cottage industry of drug stings—a source of countless Hollywood plots, often involving briefcases full of cocaine and Miami as the backdrop.

It's perhaps fitting, then, that one of the earliest known terrorism stings also unfolded in Miami, though it wasn't launched by the FBI. Instead the protagonist was a Canadian bodyguard and, as a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, newspaper  put it in 2002 [54], "a 340-pound man with a fondness for firearms and strippers." He subscribed to  Soldier of Fortune [55] and hung around a police supply store on a desolate stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, north of Miami.

 
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