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Is the FBI Catching Terrorists, or Coaching Them?

A new investigation by Mother Jones reveals that the FBI has cultivated a huge network of informants and spies, many of whom are directed to seek out disgruntled Muslims. “And then, in case after case, the government provides the plot, the means, and the opportunity” to commit terrorist attacks, Trevor Aaronson writes.

The number of informants has ballooned from 1,500 in 1975 to roughly 15,000 now.

The FBI has taken an aggressive approach, trying to identify and lock up potential terrorists before they can attack the country, but the sting scheme comes awfully close to entrapment.

The Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley collaborated on the story. Some of the key findings are below. — PZS

Mother Jones:

  • Nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money (operatives can be paid as much as $100,000 per assignment) or the need to work off criminal or immigration violations. (For more on the details of those 508 cases, see our charts page and searchable database.)
  • Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants. Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur—an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.
  • With three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings. (The exceptions are Najibullah Zazi, who came close to bombing the New York City subway system in September 2009; Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian who opened fire on the El-Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles airport; and failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.)
  • In many sting cases, key encounters between the informant and the target were not recorded—making it hard for defendants claiming entrapment to prove their case.
  • Terrorism-related charges are so difficult to beat in court, even when the evidence is thin, that defendants often don’t risk a trial.

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