The New York Times is taking a look at the FBI’s battle against terrorism (not the first time it’s done this) — namely, its near-total reliance on sting operations to round up would-be terrorists. As the Times’ Eric Lichtblau points out, stings used to be a last-resort tactic. Now, it’s standard operating procedure. Two out of every three terrorism prosecutions begin with undercover agents nudging citizens and immigrants toward acts of violence and “material support.” In some cases, the FBI agents are doing all the work themselves.
The FBI, of course, maintains that these terrorists would have acted on their own without the agency’s intercession — even though it seems to be placing a rather heavy finger on the scale.
While F.B.I. officials say they are careful to avoid illegally entrapping suspects, their undercover operatives are far from bystanders. In recent investigations from Florida to California, agents have helped people suspected of being extremists acquire weapons, scope out bombing targets and find the best routes to Syria to join the Islamic State, records show.
According to the agency, this stuff that looks like entrapment is nothing more than expedience.
“We’re not going to wait for the person to mobilize on his own time line,” said Michael B. Steinbach, who leads the F.B.I.’s national security branch. He added that the F.B.I. could not afford to “just sit and wait knowing the individual is actively plotting.”
I guess this all depends on your definition of “actively plotting.” In cases we’ve covered here (and mentioned in the NYT article), federal agents have done everything from script and film “declaration of intent” videos to purchase all of the supplies needed for a “terrorist attack” they planned from start to finish.
The rogues gallery compiled by the FBI over the past half-decade is hardly threatening. It includes senior citizens,mentally-disabled teens, would-be terrorists who weren’t even threatening enough to get their mothers to give them back their passports, and an assortment of extremely-impressionable young men who were all talk and no action.
While the FBI maintains it’s doing nothing wrong, former FBI agents and intelligence community members aren’t so sure.
“They’re manufacturing terrorism cases,” said Michael German, a former undercover agent with the F.B.I. who researches national security law at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. In many of the recent prosecutions, he said, “these people are five steps away from being a danger to the United States.”
Karen J. Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, said undercover operations had become the norm for the F.B.I. in the most recent Islamic State cases, with little debate or understanding of how the bureau actually conducts its investigations, especially its online stings.
“I think the F.B.I. is really going down the wrong path with a lot of these ISIS cases,” she said…
When pressed to defend aggressive sting operations, FBI officials fall back on one their favorite scapegoats:encryption.
“When the bad guys turn to encrypted areas, we’re dark, and the only way to gain a better understanding of what we’re up against may be through an undercover,” Mr. Steinbach said.
But exactly how much terrorism is this stopping? There’s no way to gauge the effectiveness of these tactics other than to count up successful prosecutions, as the FBI likes to do. What the FBI says is the “least intrusive” method of fighting terrorism often appears to be nothing more than padding the stats. As long as the FBI can continue to chalk up terrorism prosecutions, it can avail itself of a nearly-bottomless well of funding. The agency has shifted its focus to intelligence rather than law enforcement since 2001, and nothing brings in the bucks like counterterrorism efforts.
Does it make us safer? That’s also unquantifiable, although every day that goes by without a successful domestic terrorist attack could theoretically be added to the “win” column. But it’s hard to believe these sting operations are actually taking credible threats out of circulation.
The FBI’s tactics have a lot in common with the DEA/ATF’s reliance on stash house robbery stings — busts in which no actual drug dealers, weapons suppliers, weapons, or drugs are actually taken off the street. Everything inside the bogus stash houses exists only in the minds of the undercover agents. The only tangible aspect of the sting operations are the sentences handed down, the length of which is determined by the total amount of drugs federal agents say was “present” in the stash house that never existed and was never robbed.
Both “wars” being fought by law enforcement seem to be incredibly counterproductive. Four decades of drug warring has done almost nothing to stop the flow of illicit drugs into the country. What it has done, however, is turn the manufacturing countries into violent hellholes.
As for the War on Terror, the only terrorists being locked up appear to be those pushed and cajoled into acting out undercover agents’ fantasies. The terrorist threat in other parts of the world remains almost unchanged, despite a decade-plus of FBI counterterrorist operations and CIA drone strikes. Here, too, there appears to be a certain amount of “looking busy” — treadmill-like activity that does little to attack the threat but still guarantees a healthy budget year after year.