June 24, 2013

TruthOut on the use of informants against political activists

Truthout published this story on the Chicago police's deployment of undercover informants against Occupy Wall Street activists who were protesting a NATO summit in 2012: Revealed: The Story Behind the "NATO 3" Domestic Terrorism Arrests. The trial of the NATO 3 is scheduled for September. From the story:

Accused of domestic terrorism in the course of the Chicago NATO summit, Brian Church, Brent Betterly and Jared Chase were arguably victims of police entrapment and the use of "Red Squad" tactics the Chicago police were formerly enjoined from employing....Dubbed the "NATO 3" in media reports, they face maximum sentences of 85 years in prison apiece if convicted, under a decade-old Illinois law that had never been used before. And that was without ever carrying out an attack....Their case is a big one. It's the new face of US counterterrorism investigations - a template for pre-crime arrests, performed through entrapment by police - to stop supposedly dangerous political acts before they happen.

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September 19, 2012

FP: Does the FBI Have an Informant Problem?

Foreign Policy just published this article on the troubling use of informants in domestic counter-terrorism: Does the FBI Have an Informant Problem? The piece analyzes the large challenges of using unregulated criminal informants to do law enforcement work, and discusses a series of recent examples. From the article:

Professional informants are paid by law enforcement to infiltrate criminal or extremist circles, sometimes on a full-time basis. Yet they're not considered employees of the government and are not subject to the same rules. From warrantless searches to sex with targets to constructing terrorist plots out of thin air, the informant problem is not new, but this powerful investigative tool is under pressure like never before after being exposed to the harsh light of day in a series of recent terrorism trials. Growing media scrutiny and a pending civil lawsuit in California are aggressively challenging whether the benefits of aggressive informant tactics outweigh the risk to civil liberties and are raising troubling questions about the legitimacy of terrorism investigations.

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September 29, 2011

Mother Jones article on FBI terrorism informants

Here is an major article--"The Informants"--from Mother Jones and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley on the FBI's use of informants in terrorism investigations. The year-long investigation examined 508 defendants in terrorism cases and found:

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.

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.


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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September 06, 2011

Two films on domestic terrorism to air on PBS this week

PBS is airing two films--one tonight (Sept. 6) and one on Sept. 13--that address issues of domestic terrorism. Tonight's film -- "Better this World" -- is centrally about the role of political informants and entrapment.

Here are the official descriptions:

Better This World is the story of Bradley Crowder and David McKay, who were accused of intending to firebomb the 2008 Republican National Convention, is a dramatic tale of idealism, loyalty, crime and betrayal. The film follows the radicalization of these boyhood friends from Midland, Texas, under the tutelage of revolutionary activist Brandon Darby. The results: eight homemade bombs, multiple domestic terrorism charges and a high-stakes entrapment defense hinging on the actions of a controversial FBI informant. Better This World goes to the heart of the war on terror and its impact on civil liberties and political dissent in post-9/11 America. (90 minutes)
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front explores two of America's most pressing issues — environmentalism and terrorism — by lifting the veil on a radical environmental group the FBI calls America's "number one domestic terrorism threat." Daniel McGowan, a former member of the Earth Liberation Front, faces life in prison for two multimillion-dollar arsons against Oregon timber companies. What turned this working-class kid from Queens into an eco-warrior? Marshall Curry (Oscar®-nominated Street Fight, POV 2005) provides a nuanced and provocative account that is part coming-of-age story, part cautionary tale and part cops-and-robbers thriller. A co-production of ITVS. Winner of Best Documentary Editing Award, 2011 Sundance Film Festival. (90 minutes)

You can view the trailers here and here.

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June 13, 2011

New documentary on domestic terrorism at NY and DC film festivals

A new award-winning documentary, "Better this World," is opening at film festivals in New York and Washington D.C. this month. The documentary follows the story of two young men and their relationship with an FBI informant that led to domestic terrorism charges in connection with the violence at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Schedules and ticketing information are below. Here's the synopsis:

The story of Bradley Crowder and David McKay, accused of intending to firebomb the 2008 Republican National Convention, is a tale of idealism, loyalty, crime and betrayal. Better This World follows the radicalization of these boyhood friends from Midland, Texas, under a revolutionary activist. The results: eight homemade bombs, multiple domestic terrorism charges and an entrapment defense hinging on a controversial FBI informant. The film goes to the heart of the war on terror and political dissent in post-9/11 America.

The film will have its New York premiere during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 18, 19 and 20 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. Screening times: Saturday, June 18 at 6:30 p.m., Sunday, June 19 at 4:00 PM, Monday, June 20 at 4:00 PM. Tickets available here; trailer available here. The film will play in DC at Silverdocs Film Festival on June 22 & 23 in Silver Spring. Info here.

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May 19, 2011

NYU Law School report criticizes use of domestic terrorism informants

NYU Law School's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice has just released this report: Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the "Homegrown Threat" in the United States. The report examines three recent high profile domestic terrorism cases, in all of which informants played a central role, and argues that the use of compensated informants is creating the perception of a threat in U.S. Muslim communities where none may have existed before. From the executive summary:

Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has targeted Muslims in the United States by sending paid, untrained informants into mosques and Muslim communities. This practice has led to the prosecution of more than 200 individuals in terrorism-related cases. The government has touted these cases as successes in the so-called war against terrorism. However, in recent years, former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, local lawmakers, the media, the public, and community-based groups have begun questioning the legitimacy and efficacy of this practice, alleging that--in many instances--this type of policing, and the resulting prosecutions, constitute entrapment.

In the cases this Report examines, the government's informants held themselves out as Muslims and looked in particular to incite other Muslims to commit acts of violence. The government's informants introduced and aggressively pushed ideas about violent jihad and, moreover, actually encouraged the defendants to believe it was their duty to take action against the United States. In two of the three cases, the government relied on the defendants' vulnerabilities--poverty and youth, for example--in its inducement methods. In all three cases, the government selected or encouraged the proposed locations that the defendants would later be accused of argeting. In all three cases, the government also provided the defendants with, or encouraged the defendants to acquire, material evidence, such as weaponry or violent videos, which would later be used to convict them.


The report argues that the ways that the U.S. government uses informants to target Muslims threatens such basic legal principles as the right to a fair trial, the right to non-discrimination, and the rights to freedom of religion and expression. The report concludes with numerous policy recommendations.

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March 08, 2011

New article: "The Terrorist Informant"

There is increasing public and media interest in the government's use of terrorism informants, particularly with respect to issues of entrapment, and the impact on Muslim American communities. Professor Wadie Said at the University of South Carolina Law School has just published this article: The Terrorist Informant, 85 Washington Law Review 687 (2010), on this important subject. Here is the summary:

A man sets himself on fire in front of the White House in a dispute with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He has been working as an informant for the FBI in a high-profile terrorism prosecution and is unhappy with the $100,000 he has been paid so far. He has also been recently convicted of bank fraud. As a result, the government declines to call him as a witness, given the damage his actions have on his credibility and trustworthiness. This incident underscores the difficulty inherent in relying on paid informants to drive a prosecution, where material considerations such as money and legal assistance are often the price the government pays for an informant's services. In the years since September 11, 2001, informants have been at the heart of many major terrorism prosecutions. The entrapment defense, perhaps the only legal tool available to defendants in such prosecutions, has proven ineffective. This is evident when one considers the context of generally heightened suspicion of the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States. Further, a closer look at several of these prosecutions reveals repeated instances of suggestive and provocative activity by informants geared at obtaining a conviction, calling into question whether a genuine threat to U.S. national security actually existed in the first place. This Article argues that the government should cease its current practice of using informants to generate terrorism prosecutions.

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December 11, 2010

Afghan drug lord was paid CIA and DEA informant

From today's NY Times "Jailed Afghan Drug Lord was Informer on U.S. Payroll":

When Hajji Juma Khan was arrested and transported to New York to face charges under a new American narco-terrorism law in 2008, federal prosecutors described him as perhaps the biggest and most dangerous drug lord in Afghanistan, a shadowy figure who had helped keep the Taliban in business with a steady stream of money and weapons. But what the government did not say was that Mr. Juma Khan was also a longtime American informer, who provided information about the Taliban, Afghan corruption and other drug traffickers. Central Intelligence Agency officers and Drug Enforcement Administration agents relied on him as a valued source for years, even as he was building one of Afghanistan's biggest drug operations after the United States-led invasion of the country, according to current and former American officials. Along the way, he was also paid a large amount of cash by the United States.
For more on the increasingly common terrorism/drug informant connection, see David Headley: another drug/terrorism informant works both sides.

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November 23, 2010

The debate over domestic terrorism informants

For the debate over the FBI's practice of sending paid informants into Muslim communities to ferret out domestic terrorists, compare these two pieces in the wake of the conviction of four men in Newburgh, NY:

From Slate: The Pathetic Newburgh Four: Should the FBI really be baiting sad-sack homegrown terrorists?

"Why does the government's anti-terror net catch such unconvincing villains: black men near mosques who, in exchange for promises of money, sign on to knuckleheaded schemes that would never exist if it weren't for the informants being handsomely paid to incite them? [One of the] supposed plotter[s], a Haitian, was a paranoid schizophrenic (according to his imam), which was the reason his deportation had been deferred (according to The Nation's TomDispatch.com), and who kept bottles of urine in his squalid apartment (according to the New York Times). The last two, both surnamed Williams, have histories of drug busts and minimum-wage jobs in Newburgh. At trial the government asserted that the plot was driven by anti-American hatred. But in papers filed in court by defense lawyers before the trial began, Cromitie is quoted in government transcripts explaining to Hussain that the men "will do it for the money. ... They're not even thinking about the cause.""

From Business Week: NY Bomb Plot Convictions Vindicate Use of Informant

"The convictions of four men for conspiring to bomb New York synagogues vindicated the post-9/11 strategy of using an informant to identify individuals deemed likely to engage in terrorism and encourage them up to the point of arrest, legal experts said. After being approached by one defendant who said he wanted "to do something to America," the informant testified, he sought to gain their trust, urging them forward with gifts, scouting targets with them and eventually supplying them with dud bombs. Undercover informants played similar roles in three other recent terrorism cases, helping develop, then foil alleged plots to detonate a bomb near Chicago's Wrigley Field, attack a federal courthouse in Illinois and blow up a Dallas skyscraper."

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November 09, 2010

David Headley: another drug/terrorism informant works both sides

According to the New York Times, David Headley, drug-dealer-turned-informant-turned-terrorist, was working for the DEA while collaborating with Pakistani terrorists who eventually attacked Mumbai, India in 2008. Headley has pleaded guilty to his role in that attack, and is currently cooperating with the government in an effort to avoid the death penalty. Story here: DEA Deployed Mumbai Plotter Despite Warning. Part of India's anger over the incident stems from the fact that the DEA had been warned repeatedly by several people who knew Headley that he sympathized with terrorist groups, but, ignoring the warnings, the DEA nevertheless persuaded a court to take Headley off probation and sent him to Pakistan in 2001. From the Times:

In recent weeks, United States government officials have begun to acknowledge that Mr. Headley's path from American informant to transnational terrorist illustrates the breakdowns and miscommunications that have bedeviled them since the Sept. 11 attacks. Warnings about his radicalism were apparently not shared with the drug agency that made use of his ties in Pakistan.

The director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., began an investigation into Mr. Headley's government connections after reports last month that two of the former drug dealer's ex-wives had gone to American authorities between 2005 and 2008, before the Mumbai attacks, to say they feared he was plotting with terrorists. Combined with the earlier warning from the former girlfriend, three of the women in Mr. Headley's life reported his ties to terrorists, only to have those warnings dismissed.

An examination of Mr. Headley's story shows that his government ties ran far deeper and longer than previously known. One senior American official knowledgeable about the case said he believed that Mr. Headley was a D.E.A. informant until at least 2003, meaning that he was talking to American agencies even as he was learning to deal with explosives and small arms in terrorist training camps.

An NPR story this morning explains the breakdown in official communication by noting that the DEA would have been protective of its informant and unlikely to share his identity with other agencies, Warnings Overlooked in Case of American Tied to Mumbai Attacks. But this is only part of the story. As the Times points out, the DEA ignored the warnings precisely because Headley was a long time and valuable informant. This is the same blindspot that earlier this year led CIA officials to bring a prized informant to a base in Afghanistan, only to see him turn suicide bomber -- see Afghan suicide bomber was informant-double-agent.

This debacle illustrates the significant costs of the criminal informant compromise. First, informants avoid punishment for their own crimes--Headley served less than two years in prison although he could have faced up to nine years for distributing 15 kilograms of heroin. Second, as the government grows increasingly reliant on its criminal sources, officials come to tolerate informant crime, double-dealing and inaccuracy as a routine part of the compromise. Because the dominant culture of informant management is one of secrecy, even as between government agencies, this further weakens the process of intelligence-gathering, information-sharing, and law enforcement. Since the government maintains that it cannot conduct the war on terror without informants, it is time to rethink the rules of this risky public policy.

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August 13, 2010

Informant lawsuit against FBI offers window into messy world of anti-terrorism

By the end of his stint working for the FBI, informant Craig Monteilh was earning over $11,000 a month to secretly film and record worshippers at the Islamic Center of Irvine, California. Monteilh, who has a lengthy rap sheet of his own, is now suing the FBI for allegedly instructing him to plead guilty to criminal charges of grand theft so as to maintain his cover. The Associated Press report on Monteilh's lawsuit reveals details of the informant's world that the public rarely gets to see, particularly the government's ability to use private individuals/informants to obtain information that the government would otherwise need evidence of wrongdoing and a warrant to obtain: US Judge gives informant time to amend FBI lawsuit. From the story:

In court papers and his ACLU declaration, [Monteilh] says he was asked to work as an informant for local law enforcement in 2004, when he became friendly with some police officers in a local gym. By 2006, he was promoted to the FBI's counterterrorism operations. Monteilh alleges he gathered phone numbers and contact information for hundreds of Muslim-Americans and recorded thousands of hours of conversation using a device on his key fob or cell phone during his stint with the FBI. His said his handlers told him to work out with Muslims at gyms, asked him to get codes for security systems so they could enter mosques at night and encouraged him to ask mosque members about "jihad" and supporting terrorist operations abroad. In June 2007, however, mosque members became suspicious of Monteilh and requested a restraining order, saying that he had spoken repeatedly about engaging in jihad.

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January 06, 2010

Afghan suicide bomber was informant-double-agent

The NY Times reports here and here that the Jordanian militant who killed numerous CIA and Jordanian intelligence operatives was considered by the CIA to be one of its most promising informants. From the Times:

American intelligence officials said Tuesday they had been so hopeful about what the Jordanian might deliver during a meeting with C.I.A. officials last Wednesday at a remote base in Khost that top officials at the agency and the White House had been informed that the gathering would take place.

Instead, the discovery that the man, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, also known as Humam Khalil Mohammed, was a double agent and the killing of seven C.I.A. operatives in the blast were major setbacks to a spy agency that has struggled to gather even the most ephemeral intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.


Terrorism informants represent the most extreme version of the snitching gamble: the government's hope that working with criminal insiders will produce more benefits than are lost by tolerating the informant's own criminal activities. In the terrorism arena, the gamble appears especially necessary. As the Times points out,
few criticized the agency's impulse to chase any credible lead about the locations of Al Qaeda's top leaders. "This is the C.I.A's top priority, and when I was in Afghanistan, if any intelligence came about the possible whereabouts of Zawahri or bin Laden, you dropped everything to run it to ground," said a former senior C.I.A. officer. "Everyone would have wanted to be on the team that caught Zawahri. That's the kind of thing that makes careers."

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December 23, 2009

FBI informants infiltrating Muslim communities

The New York Times just ran this piece entitled Muslims Say FBI Tactics Sow Anger and Fear. The piece describes the perennial tension between law enforcement's need to gather information and the needs and rights of groups and communities against whom informants are used. From the article:

Since the terror attacks of 2001, the F.B.I. and Muslim and Arab-American leaders across the country have worked to build a relationship of trust, sharing information both to fight terrorism and to protect the interests of mosques and communities. But those relations have reached a low point in recent months, many Muslim leaders say. Several high-profile cases in which informers have infiltrated mosques and helped promote plots, they say, have sown a corrosive fear among their people that F.B.I. informers are everywhere, listening. "There is a sense that law enforcement is viewing our communities not as partners but as objects of suspicion," said Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, who represented Muslims at the national prayer service a day after President Obama's inauguration. "A lot of people are really, really alarmed about this."

The book's section on political informants discusses the law and history of this longstanding tension. On the legal side, the government has substantial authority to use informants to monitor religious and political activities. Notwithstanding the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech and association, courts have made clear that the use of informants and infiltrators alone does not infringe the First Amendment rights of political or religious groups. This means that the FBI can legally send informants into mosques and churches to observe people and events. If those informants go further and actively interfere with constitutionally protected activities, the First Amendment may be violated.

The implications of informant infiltration, however, go beyond legal rules. Cases from the Vietnam War and civil rights eras describe how government informants undermined anti-war, civil rights, socialist, and other political organizations by provoking conflict and instigating illegal activities. Thirty years ago, MIT sociology professor Gary Marx wrote a seminal piece on the informant provocateur phenomenon entitled "Thoughts on a Neglected Category of Social Movement Participant: The Agent Provocateur and the Informant," 80 Am. J. Sociol. 402 (1972). Marx argued that informants can actually become an integral and problematic part of social organizations, warning that "undercover agents can seriously distort the life of a social movement; they can serve as mechanisms of containment, prolongation, alteration, or repression."

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