The FBI's Spies

Trevor Aaronson has a very important piece in Mother Jones questioning the nature of the FBI's many sting operations that involve the arrest of suspects who commit to carrying out FBI-facilitated terror plots, but I think this part of the piece is a bit unfair:

Ever since 9/11, counterterrorism has been the FBI's No. 1 priority, consuming the lion's share of its budget—$3.3 billion, compared to $2.6 billion for organized crime—and much of the attention of field agents and a massive, nationwide network of informants. After years of emphasizing informant recruiting as a key task for its agents, the bureau now maintains a roster of 15,000 spies—many of them tasked, as Hussain was, with infiltrating Muslim communities in the United States. In addition, for every informant officially listed in the bureau's records, there are as many as three unofficial ones, according to one former high-level FBI official, known in bureau parlance as "hip pockets."

The informants could be doctors, clerks, imams. Some might not even consider themselves informants. But the FBI regularly taps all of them as part of a domestic intelligence apparatus whose only historical peer might be COINTELPRO, the program the bureau ran from the '50s to the '70s to discredit and marginalize organizations ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to civil-rights and protest groups.

The "15,000 spies" number as Aaronson describes it seems not only to include actual spies like Craig Monteilh, who infiltrated a California mosque only to be turned in by the very people he was supposed to be spying on, but also local community leaders who agree to work with the FBI. Maybe I'm misreading Aaronson's piece, but these are really two different categories of people, and one can be skeptical of the FBI's surveillance without probable cause and not see community outreach as similarly invasive.

Separately, Aaronson identifies a practice that points to why the administration doesn't want to eschew civilian prosecutions of terrorists--the many coercive options federal prosecutors have:

People cooperate with law enforcement for fairly simple reasons: ego, patriotism, money, or coercion. The FBI's recruitment has relied heavily on the latter. One tried-and-true method is to flip someone facing criminal charges. But since 9/11 the FBI has also relied heavily on Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with which it has worked closely as part of increased interagency coordination. A typical scenario will play out like this: An FBI agent trying to get someone to cooperate will look for evidence that the person has immigration troubles. If they do, he can ask ICE to begin or expedite deportation proceedings. If the immigrant then chooses to cooperate, the FBI will tell the court that he is a valuable asset, averting deportation.

The above scenario can happen even if the individual is in the U.S. legally but they have relatives who aren't or who are here conditionally. Military commissions prosecutors simply can't do stuff like this. They don't have the authority. So while military commissions may be stilted towards convictions, federal prosecutors have far more tools than military attorneys do for leveraging cooperation beforehand. This is playing rough, surely, but a lot more ethical than waterboarding someone.

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