An Investigative Reporting Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, where he developed a yearlong project about the FBI’s informants in U.S. Muslim communities in 2010-2011. He wrote the cover story for Mother Jones magazine, "The Informants." He is also associate director and co-founder of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit journalism organization.
A retired FBI agent who worked for the Bureau for 35 years. He also ran an anti-corruption squad in Sacramento.
staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The FBI has built a massive network of spies to prevent another domestic terrorist attack. But are they busting plots—or leading them? That’s the question addressed by a year-long investigation in Mother Jones magazine. It suggests FBI informants are not only busting terrorist plots, they are actually leading them so the FBI can later claim victories in the so-called "war on terror." In collaboration with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, reporter Trevor Aaronson examined more than 500 terrorism-related cases and found that nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by cash rewards up to $100,000 per assignment. We speak with Aaronson and are also joined by James Wedick, a retired FBI agent who worked for the Bureau for 35 years, and Gadeir Abbas, staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to the Federal Bureau of Investigation—or is it the Bureau of Instigation? That’s the question raised by a new exposé in Mother Jones magazine called "The Informants." According to the article, the FBI has built a massive network of spies to prevent another domestic terror attack. But it suggests these spies are not only busting terrorist plots, they’re actually organizing them so the FBI can later claim victories in the so-called "war on terror."
Over the past year, Mother Jones and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, examined more than 500 terrorism-related cases. Their probe found that nearly half of the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by cash rewards up to $100,000 per assignment.
Democracy Now! 's Anjali Kamat and Big Noise Films' Jacquie Soohen reported on this phenomenon last year. They spoke to Imam Salahuddin Muhammad of Newburgh, New Jersey, about FBI informants within the Muslim community.
IMAM SALAHUDDIN MUHAMMAD: I believe that what we are seeing today with the FBI surveillance and the FBI allowing for agent provocateurs to enter into Muslim communities is the same thing that happened in the '60s with a lot of the black nationalist organizations. That’s what I see happening today in the Islamic community. The FBI, they are sending these agent provocateurs into the community, and they are cultivating and nurturing and actually creating situations that would never have occurred if they didn't have their man in there to do that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the new article in Mother Jones says all except three of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings. In many cases, key encounters between the informant and the target were not recorded, making it nearly impossible for defendants claiming entrapment to prove their case.
We turn now to the reporter who broke this story, Trevor Aaronson. He joins us from the University of California, Berkeley, where he’s an investigative reporting fellow. Trevor is also co-founder of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit journalism organization.
We’re also joined by James Wedick in Salt Lake City, Utah. He’s a retired FBI agent who worked for the Bureau for 35 years. Wedick also ran an anti-corruption squad in Sacramento.
And Gadeir Abbas remains with us here in New York City. He’s a staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
We invited the FBI to participate in our conversation, but they declined our request.
Welcome, all of you, to Democracy Now! And could you lay out for us the story that you wrote in Mother Jones magazine, Trevor Aaronson?
TREVOR AARONSON: Sure. So, our story is looking at the effects of a policy known in the FBI as a policy of "prevention," which is that, following the September 11th attacks and in the years following, the FBI no longer believed that al-Qaeda was—had the potential of launching a spectacular coordinated attack like we saw on 9/11. The threat then became, in the FBI’s view, a lone wolf, someone who was infected or inspired by ideas on radical message boards to go out and commit some kind of act of violence on their own.
To prevent such lone wolves, the FBI has recruited a network of informants that today numbers 15,000. And their job is to go out into the communities and find people who are likely to commit acts of violence, then assign other informants, who will go and offer them the means. So, for example, if someone is mouthing off about how they want to, you know, set a bomb off in a shopping mall, an informant will go up to them and say, "Hey, we can provide you with the bomb that you need."
What we found in our investigation was that of the 500 terrorism prosecutions since 9/11, half of those involved the use of an informant. In some cases, the informant was used in ways you would suspect: he provided information that allowed the FBI to launch an investigation that came to a prosecution. In other ways, the FBI used informants in far more aggressive roles. They went in and acted as facilitators of the plot. They, in some cases, provided the plan, in other cases, provided the means for them to go in and create or move forward in this terrorist plot that ultimately they are prosecuted for.
AMY GOODMAN: What were you most surprised by, Trevor, in this year-long investigation that you did?
TREVOR AARONSON: Well, part of it was that—how much money there is to make in counterterrorism as an informant. One informant, for example, who worked a case outside New York City, the Newburgh case that you played footage of a moment ago, was paid $100,000 in that case.
The other surprise was how—the profile that we were able to kind of come to as—of targets in these sting operations. In many cases, these are people who are on the fringes of society. They are economically desperate. They are not the smartest of people. And in many cases, they have very crude and elementary understandings of Islam, all of which the informant is able to use against them in the plot. That is, by offering money, for example, or telling the target that the Quran says something that in fact it does not.
AMY GOODMAN: What about cash incentives?
TREVOR AARONSON: Cash incentives are a big problem. And this is something that pervades the federal system. Informants who go to trial are often offered what’s called a "performance incentive," which is that if the prosecution is able to get a conviction, they’ll, quote-unquote, "take care of" the informant. In most cases, these informants never know exactly how much they’ll be paid. They do know, however, that if they’re able to successfully bring a sting operation to an indictment and then see that indictment through to a conviction, there’s a lot of cash on the line for them. So they have a direct financial incentive in seeing an investigation turn into indictment, and that indictment, in turn, turn into a conviction.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to bring in James Wedick, a former FBI agent who worked for the Bureau for 35 years. This whole issue of some of the people who are caught up in and arrested in these conspiracies and their real capacity to carry out these conspiracies, could you talk about that and your own experiences?
JAMES WEDICK: Sure. Since leaving the Bureau, I’ve become involved in a number of these cases, working as a consultant to a number of attorneys defending these individuals. And what is obvious is that most of the gentlemen not only did not have the capacity to commit the crime, but they didn’t have the means. And when you look closely, you find that, as Trevor just indicated, many involved instances where informants were used, and informants were paid huge sums of money, while at the same time the Bureau did not monitor them 24/7, giving them motivation, reason, opportunity to lie, cheat and steal, literally. And as a result, because conversations are not recorded, we have an entrapment argument that may not be sustained simply because judges have not ruled that it was necessary that the conversations be recorded.
AMY GOODMAN: In a speech before a Muslim advocacy group in December of 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder denied allegations that government anti-terrorism tactics are overly aggressive and stood behind FBI methods used in recent undercover operations. This is some of what he said.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Those who characterize the FBI’s activities in this case as entrapment, I believe simply do not have their facts straight or do not have a full understanding of the law. Our nation’s law enforcement officials deserve our gratitude and our respect. Without their work and their willingness to place public safety above personal security, governments simply could not meet its most critical responsibility of protecting American lives.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Attorney General, Eric Holder. James Wedick, you worked for the FBI for over 30 years. What’s your response?
JAMES WEDICK: You know, that’s simply—and I hesitate to say this, but I feel that I must. It’s simply not true. If you look at the FBI’s history with respect to informants, it wasn’t until the Bureau received responsibility to investigate narcotics that we started to use a more aggressive individual to capture or arrest evildoers willing to commit crimes. Since that time, we all saw 9/11, the buildings came down, and the Bureau was caught with its pants down and should have stopped some of these individuals before the buildings collapsed. And as a result of that, we went to a means of aggressive informants, giving them the gentle nod to go ahead, to look for these individuals in minority neighborhoods, if you will. We pay them huge sums of money.
And what Mr. Holder has to admit is that a number of these cases, when you look closely, you find that there are conversations that were not recorded that should have been recorded. You know, years ago, I used to conduct a number of undercover operations and was an undercover agent myself. I used to have a recorder that I used to have to wear on my back that literally was maybe four inches by four inches by two inches. Today, we have equipment and the technology to record conversations where you would never suspect the device that we use is the device that’s recording the conversations. And so, with this technology, it just does not make sense that the conversations are not recorded.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, especially given the enormous expansion of the number of undercover agents—as Trevor’s story reports, there are about 15,000 now compared to about 1,500 back in the '70s. That’s a tenfold increase in the number people that are out there gathering this kind of information. I'd like to ask Gadeir Abbas, your reaction to this story, as well, and to the implications once again, in terms of the impact on the Muslim community within the United States?
GADEIR ABBAS: Yeah. So, the effort to set up plots for people in the Muslim community, the only thing that we see are the cases that go to prosecution. What we don’t end up seeing is how many times has the FBI attempted to enlist an American Muslim into some plot like this. And so, for instance, if you take, for example, the Craig Monteilh case, where a convicted felon is enlisted by the FBI to go throughout the Los Angeles area Muslim community, recording conversations and talking about jihad and committing acts of violence. Well, in that case, the Muslim community there reported to the FBI their own informant, and when the FBI didn’t do anything, they went to court and got a restraining order against the FBI’s informant in the community. And that’s—you know, that’s revealing for two reasons. First, there is a disposition inside the community that rejects acts of violence. And two, the efforts of the FBI are essentially an ongoing attempt to monitor the thoughts and proclivities of members of the Muslim community inside the U.S.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Trevor Aaronson. Let’s talk about profiling, some cases: one of them, Miami Liberty—the Miami Liberty Seven case, another Newburgh Four in New York. Start with Miami Liberty, very quickly.
TREVOR AARONSON: Sure. In the Miami case, this was a group of seven men who had a religion that mixed aspects of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. An informant had reported to the FBI that these men were interested in committing an act of terror, and the informant, himself, had financial incentives and motivations at the time. The first informant was unable to get them to engage in very much talk of a plot. A second, more aggressive informant, who was used in a previous counterterrorism case, had moved the plot along with the men and talked to them about bombing the Sears Tower, as well as the FBI office in Miami.
In that particular case, there’s recording after recording of the men consistently asking the informant, who’s posing as an al-Qaeda operative, about whether they’re going to be able to get money, when the money was going to be transferred. And there was certainly a suggestion in the tapes that the men were perhaps even trying to hustle the informant or the supposed terrorist. Ultimately, they were able to get an indictment and, after three trials, a conviction, in large measure because most of the evidence had to do with a supposed oath to al-Qaeda. The informant led these men in an oath—of course, very fake—the only connection to al-Qaeda was this supposed terrorist. In the—I’m sorry, the supposed informant.
In the Newburgh case, this was a group of four men led by—
AMY GOODMAN: Let me—let me stop you there for a second—
TREVOR AARONSON: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: —because I want to get James Wedick to weigh in. James Wedick, retired FBI agent, who—you’ve called informants "the most dangerous individuals on the planet." You were called by the defense in the Liberty Seven case. Why? What was your assessment of what happened there?
JAMES WEDICK: Well, when you look at that case, it’s very problematic, as Trevor said. One, the Bureau informant literally took the gentlemen around to show them the federal buildings that they should photograph and maybe would like to bomb. They didn’t have a camera. The Bureau bought the camera for them. And there are several tapes where you literally can hear the informant tell the suspects how to buy the camera and what camera they should buy. And so, when you begin to read these transcripts and you start to look at this case—and I’d like to remind Trevor that it literally was tried three times before three juries, and it wasn’t until the third jury that they convicted the gentlemen, simply because, once you look at the details, you realize how slimy the informant is and how little the case is with respect to substantive evidence that these guys had the ability to carry out any terrorist threat.
AMY GOODMAN: And on to Newburgh.
JAMES WEDICK: And I might add one—
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead. What did you want to say, Jim Wedick?
JAMES WEDICK: I might want to add one other thought. There are a number of agents that work these cases. You know, upper management pushes these cases. But, you know, the agents that are required to have the informants and conduct the interviews and do the footwork, they themselves have, over the last 10 years, agents coming into different offices. When they’re asked to work terrorism, there’s a sense that they would rather do something else, because a lot of these cases are not your bread-and-butter terrorists, but rather an individual, lone wolf, hapless type, who, without the informant, had no means to carry out the plot.
AMY GOODMAN: Trevor Aaronson, we only have about 30 seconds, but Newburgh Four in a nutshell?
TREVOR AARONSON: Sure. The Newburgh Four involved an informant who trolled the mosques in the Newburgh area for nearly a year until he ran into a man named James Cromitie, who was a stocker at Wal-Mart and had a history of mental problems. Over the course of nearly a year, the informant helped Cromitie get involved in a plot with three others to bomb synagogues in the Bronx. But, in fact, the informant in that case provided all of the transportation, all of the money necessary, in fact, even the bombs and the Stinger missile that they were going to later use to bomb airplanes taking off from Stewart International Airport. That’s a specific case of—and the questions raised in that case were whether these men could have committed the crime, were it not for the FBI informant offering them the specific opportunity and means to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds, Gadeir, as you read this piece, where things need to go, do you feel?
GADEIR ABBAS: There needs to be an acknowledgment that entrapping lowlifes and people on the fringes of society is not making anyone safer, and it’s dedicating valuable resources to a problem that the FBI is manufacturing.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us, and we will certainly link to the Mother Jones investigation, took more than a year. Gadeir Abbas of CAIR; James Wedick, joining us from Salt Lake City, retired FBI agent; and Trevor Aaronson, investigative reporting fellow at University of California, Berkeley, where he developed this year-long project about the FBI’s informants in the U.S. Muslim communities, wrote the Mother Jones story, "The Informants."