- Trevor Aaronson
author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, published in January. He is also co-director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a contributing writer at Mother Jones. His most recent piece is called "How the FBI in Boston May Have Pursued the Wrong 'Terrorist.'" Aaronson’s work has won more than two dozen national and regional awards, including the Molly Prize and the Data Journalism Award.
Questions are mounting over whether U.S. security officials failed to heed warnings that could have foiled the bombing of the Boston Marathon. After news emerged that the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was on the intelligence radar in the United States. As a result, there have been growing calls for federal agencies to re-examine their priorities, particularly to focus on sting operations that critics say constitute entrapment. We speak with Trevor Aaronson, author of “The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism,” published in January. He is co-director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a contributing writer at Mother Jones. His most recent article is called, "How the FBI in Boston May Have Pursued the Wrong 'Terrorist.'" In the piece, he writes while the FBI "decided to stop tracking Tsarnaev — whose six-month trip to Russia at that time is now of prime interest to investigators — the FBI conducted a sting operation against an unrelated young Muslim man who had a fantastical plan for attacking the U.S. Capitol with a remote-controlled airplane."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today with mounting questions over whether U.S. security officials failed to heed warnings that could have foiled the bombing of the Boston Marathon. This comes as authorities say the surviving suspect behind the bombing, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has confessed to planning further attacks in New York City. Speaking Thursday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the suspects intended to detonate the rest of their explosives in Times Square.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Last night we were informed by the FBI that the surviving attacker revealed that New York City was next on their list of targets. He told the FBI, apparently, that he and his brother had intended to drive to New York and designate additional in Times Square. They had built these additional explosives, and we know they had the capacity to carry out the attacks.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: According to New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the two brothers abandoned the plan only when they realized that the car they had hijacked did not have enough gasoline for the trip. In addition to carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings that left three dead and over 170 wounded, the brothers are also accused of shooting dead an MIT campus police officer last Thursday before being apprehended.
Meanwhile, at a news conference on Thursday in the Russian republic of Dagestan, the mother of the suspects, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, denied her sons had anything to do with the bombings and blamed the United States for robbing her of her children.
ZUBEIDAT TSARNAEVA: I’m like sure that my kids were not involved in anything. Yes, I, like, would prefer not to live in America now. Why did I even go there? Why? I thought America is going to, like, protect us, our kids; it’s going to be safe for, like, any reason. But it happened opposite, like it’s just—America took my kids away from me. Only America.
AMY GOODMAN: After news emerged that the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was on the intelligence radar in the U.S., there have been mounting calls for federal agencies to re-examine their priorities, particularly a focus on sting operations that critics say constitute entrapment. In an editorial on Wednesday, The Washington Post wrote, quote, "The FBI has devoted considerable resources to sting operations against people it judges to be terror suspects, sometimes on what look like dubious grounds. ... [I]t’s not clear that a sometimes far-fetched plot would have gone forward without the encouragement and help of FBI informants," they wrote.
For more, we go to Tampa, Florida, to talk to Trevor Aaronson, author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism. He is co-director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a contributing writer at Mother Jones. His most recent piece is called "How the FBI in Boston May Have Pursued the Wrong 'Terrorist.'" In the piece, he writes, while the FBI, quote, "decided to stop tracking Tsarnaev—whose six-month trip to Russia at that time is now of prime interest to investigators—the FBI conducted a sting operation against an unrelated young Muslim man who had a fantastical plan for attacking the US Capitol with a remote-controlled airplane."
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Trevor. Why don’t you lay out your point in this article? Who was this other person? And what happened to the tracking of the Boston bombing suspect?
TREVOR AARONSON: Well, what we know is that in January 2011 the FBI in Boston investigated two men that they suspected could be involved in terrorist organizations or somehow sympathetic to terrorist organizations. The first was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and we all know the story. They investigated him, looked at his web traffic and decided that he wasn’t a threat. And that’s where their trail essentially ended. In the same month, in January 2011, an FBI informant who was a heroin addict and was being paid thousands of dollars by the FBI came to the bureau and said, "I know a man named Rezwan Ferdaus. Rezwan Ferdaus said he wanted to commit an act of terrorism." And it was a ridiculous idea. He wanted to fly a remote-controlled airplane into the U.S. Capitol building and have it laden with grenades and and then explode it over the—or detonate it over the gold dome.
But if it wasn’t bad enough that his idea was patently ridiculous, Rezwan had no capacity to even move forward in it. He didn’t have any money. He didn’t have any access to explosives. He didn’t really have any capacity at all to commit even the most minor crime. And yet, the FBI, instead of choosing to pursue Tamerlan Tsarnaev, chose to start a nine-month sting investigation, sting operation on Rezwan Ferdaus. They gave him $4,000, which he used to purchase a remote-controlled airplane. They then paid for a trip for him to scout out locations in Washington, D.C., where he could launch the airplane. And then, in the final stage, they gave him all the explosives he needed. They gave him C-4. They gave him grenades. And they delivered it to him. And at that point, the FBI arrested him and charged him with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. He did plead guilty to that, and he’s serving 17 years in prison. But what’s interesting about it is that the evidence in his case clearly showed that without the FBI’s assistance, without the FBI providing all of the means and opportunity, he never would have been able to commit his crime. And yet, at the same time, the FBI chose not to pursue the person who ultimately detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Trevor, we’ve seen this over and over again, and you’ve looked at it, the tendency of the FBI to use undercover informants who actually become instigators or co-conspirators in a plot to snag folks who otherwise would not be able to commit these crimes.
TREVOR AARONSON: That’s right. You know, since 9/11, there have been more than 175 defendants who have been caught in terrorism sting operations. And this is due to a very aggressive policy that has its roots in the current FBI mission of preventing the next attack at whatever cost. And so, what the FBI is looking for are men who they believe, you know, will become the terrorists of tomorrow. They want to catch today that terrorist of tomorrow. And so they look for people who are espousing radical beliefs, who say they want to commit some sort of act of violence, and then they set up, through undercover agents and informants posing as al-Qaeda operatives, these elaborate sting operations in which they provide everything that the target of the sting operation would need. You know, it can be the transportation. That can be the guns and the weapons. In some cases, that can be even the idea for the terrorist attack. And then they put it all together, let the person move forward in the plot, and when they push the button that would detonate the bomb, they then arrest them and announce to the public another terror plot foiled.
But if you look closely at these cases, it’s very clear that the men caught in these cases never could have committed their crimes were it not for the FBI providing the means and the opportunity. You know, these are men who are far more aspirational than operational, in the FBI’s parlance, and yet the FBI then arrests them and charges them, with the full extent of the law, as if they were terrorists. And, you know, the question I raised in my book, which came out in January before the Boston bombing, is: What are we missing as a result of pursuing these men, who are really of questionable importance, who are really of questionable danger? And I think what the Boston bombing shows is that as we’re—as the FBI has been pursuing these men in sting operations whose danger is very questionable, perhaps we’re missing the real dangerous guys, such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar.
AMY GOODMAN: The FBI has come under criticism after reports emerged, of course, that the agency interviewed the Boston suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in January 2011 and decided not to pursue his case. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended the FBI’s claim it did everything it could with the information it had at the time.
PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: You know, all of these—all of these issues are obviously under investigation. What we do know is that the FBI took action in response to that notification, investigated the elder brother, and investigated thoroughly, and came to the conclusion that there was no derogatory information, no indication of terrorist activity or associations, either foreign or domestic, at that time.
AMY GOODMAN: That was White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Your response, Trevor Aaronson?
TREVOR AARONSON: I think what this suggests is that the FBI is pursuing people for the wrong reasons. You know, for example, the FBI is limited in the law in how it can pursue people. It has 72 hours to do what’s called a threat assessment, to figure out if there is information that will allow them to establish a predicate to move forward in an investigation. And what’s ultimately happening is that the FBI is finding people like Tsarnaev, who may not have direct—you know, that they can’t find direct information on that they’re involved in crimes, and yet instead they’re finding these loudmouths who say they want to commit an act of terrorism, and then they move forward in these elaborate sting operations.
And I think what we really need to examine here is how the FBI targets and how the FBI puts on suspicion lists people they suspect might be involved in terrorism. I mean, saying you want to commit some sort of act of terrorism, being a loudmouth, is really enough to launch these elaborate sting operations. And yet, the people who are committing the real offenses, the real acts of terrorism, the, you know, Tamerlan Tsarnaevs or Faisal Shahzads, who—the Faisal Shahzad who delivered a bomb to Times Square that fortunately didn’t go off—the really dangerous guys aren’t being trapped in these sting operations, in part because, in a way, they’re not dumb enough to go into the local mosque or into the community and talk to an informant about how they want to commit an act of terrorism. The really dangerous guys aren’t being detected by the FBI. And so, I think we really need to examine how we consider the targets, how we target the targets, and ultimately, who we should be investigating for possible terrorist operations.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what have you been able to tell from the information that’s come out so far about this age-old problem of lack of coordination between the FBI and the CIA—the Russian intelligence actually contacted both agencies separately at different times about their concerns about Tamerlan—and whether there’s been any progress in terms of these agencies being able to coordinate their activities?
TREVOR AARONSON: Well, what is interesting in the Boston case, for example, is, you know, the Russian government contacted both the FBI and the CIA and expressed a concern about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. That wasn’t enough for them to really pursue an investigation against him any more than they did. And yet, you know, the nine-month sting operation they conducted on Rezwan Ferdaus was brought to them through an FBI informant who had a heroin addiction and was working for money for the FBI. I mean, I certainly think a threat—a possible threat coming from the Russian government is much more credible than an informant, but yet the FBI chose to follow the informant’s tip over the Russian government’s.
But what this also gets at, as you mention, is that there has been—has long been competition between the intelligence agencies in the United States. The CIA doesn’t get along well with the FBI; the FBI doesn’t get along well with the CIA. The FBI also doesn’t get along well with the NYPD’s intelligence division. There’s a real competition here. And that was illuminated very clearly in the 9/11 report, where lack of communication really exacerbated the problems of intelligence at that time. And while we’ve seen improvements, what clearly this shows is that those improvements haven’t been good enough.
AMY GOODMAN: We hear you fine.
TREVOR AARONSON: Those improvements haven’t been good enough.
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Trevor. We hear you fine.
TREVOR AARONSON: OK. Those improvements haven’t been good enough. I mean, the problem has been that the—that here’s a case where both the CIA and the FBI were looking at the same defendant, both from information from the Russian government, and they weren’t communicating at all. And I think, you know, this really needs to be addressed, which is, you know, shouldn’t we have been pursuing someone much more thoroughly who was—came to our attention through the Russian government, as opposed to coming to our attention through an FBI informant who, you know, has a financial incentive in finding terrorists and, you know, knows he can get a payday if he can bring someone to the FBI who says he wants to commit some sort of act of terrorism?
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the question of informants, that you’ve been discussing, and how they’ve been used by intelligence agencies in counterterrorism work, especially after 9/11. We have been reporting on this for years. I’m going back to 2010 to Imam Salahuddin Muhammad of Newburgh, New Jersey, about—of Newburgh, New York, 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.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Imam Salahuddin Muhammad of Newburgh, New York. Trevor Aaronson, your final comment?
TREVOR AARONSON: You know, it’s important to realize that since 9/11 we’ve had an explosion of informants. You know, in the COINTEL days of the '60s, there were 1,500 informants. Today there are 15,000. And most of them are targeting Muslim communities, and many of them are acting as agent provocateurs. Their mission is to go into Muslim communities, find people who are espousing violence or say they want to commit some sort of act of terrorism, even if they have no means, even if they have no capability of committing that crime, and then putting everything together—you know, getting the idea, then saying to them, "Well, I can provide the bombs, I can provide the weapons," and then the FBI, in an elaborate sting, provides the transportation, provides the weapons and everything that they need to move forward in a terrorism sting operation. And then, when they arrest them, they announce to the public: "Another terrorism plot foiled. Here's the FBI. Here’s us keeping you safe. Here’s us doing our jobs." But I think the real question we need to ask is, you know: Through these sting operations, have we exaggerated the threat of Islamic terrorism in the United States, while at the same time missing the real threats, missing the Tamerlan Tsarnaevs, missing the Faisal Shahzads, missing the Nidal Hasans? Because the FBI has a clear record of being able to set up in sting operations people who want to commit violence but don’t have the means, while at the same time it misses the really dangerous threats, like what we saw in Boston.
AMY GOODMAN: Trevor Aaronson, I want to thank you for being with us, author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, also co-director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and contributing writer at Mother Jones. We’ll link to your piece, "How the FBI in Boston May Have Pursued the Wrong 'Terrorist.'" Trevor Aaronson’s work has won more than two dozen national and regional awards, including the Molly Prize and the Data Journalism Award.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to rural Georgia, where young black and white women have decided that they’re not going to go to segregated proms any longer, and they’re having their own prom tomorrow night. We’ll speak with them. Stay with us.