Terror Probes Have FBI's Informant Numbers Soaring

Originally published on August 22, 2011 3:51 am

In today's post 9/11 America, there are 15,000 informants working with the FBI. That's nearly three times as many as there were 25 years ago.

Over the years, when there has been a surge in the number of informants the FBI recruits and uses, there's a specific target in the FBI's sights — first organized crime, then drug smuggling, and now counterterrorism.

And while the FBI uses many informants the traditional way — pointing the finger at wrongdoers — a new review of post-9/11 prosecutions reveals the increasing presence of informants in terrorism investigations.

"The informants play larger roles where they acted almost as agent provocateurs, where they provided not only the opportunity for the person to commit this act of terror, but also the means," Mother Jones contributor Trevor Aaronson tells NPR's Laura Sullivan. "Providing them with the plan, with the so-called weapons that were needed to ultimately create the act of terror that these people are them prosecuted for," Aaronson says.

Mother Jones partnered with the University of California-Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program where Trevor Aaronson is an investigative fellow. Aaronson writes about the FBI's informant boom in the current issue of the magazine.

And how are the FBI agents finding so many informants willing to infiltrate mosques and Muslim communities? Sometimes, the money is alluring Aaronson says. In other cases, the money has nothing to do with it at all.

"A big reason, especially within the Muslim community and in counterterrorism investigations is that the FBI is able to use immigration against people," Aaronson says. "If you are going to recruit an informant and you realize that he has an immigration violation, often times the FBI will be able to use that as a form of leverage to say 'well if you work with us, we'll work with the immigration authorities to make sure you're not deported'."

Prevention Or Entrapment

For some critics, this use of coercion by the FBI to recruit informants is questionable. According to Aaronson's article, the FBI denies it blackmails informants, but does acknowledge that the bureau has prevented helpful informants from being deported.

But the larger problem for those opposed the FBI using informants to plan terrorism stings is whether the informants play an overactive role in convincing people to commit acts of terrorism.

"That's exactly the question is whether any of these people would be able to commit this plot or construct this plot on their own," Aaronson tells Sullivan. "The truth is when we looked closely at a lot of these cases the people who are leading these so-called plots or so called terrorist cells are not exactly the smartest people." In addition, informants seek out subjects that tend to be very poor, economically desperate and in some cases have a very elementary understanding of Islam, Aaronson says. "The informant is able to take advantage of that."

And then comes the question of entrapment. "I think in many of these cases nothing would have happened were it not for the FBI going in and making a plot possible," Aaronson says. "But I think it's important to understand that the legal definition of entrapment and what you and I would see as entrapment are very different. There hasn't been a case yet that's met the legal definition of entrapment."

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LAURA SULLIVAN, Host:

The FBI is notoriously secretive about the informants it uses to collect information, but occasionally, details slip out. And in 1976, a congressional committee found that the FBI had 1,500 informants. Four years later, the agency told Congress it had 2,800. And today in the post-9/11 world, the FBI has 15,000 informants.

That's according to Trevor Aaronson. He's a fellow at the University of California, Berkeley's investigative reporting program. He spent a year researching the FBI's efforts to recruit informants, and he writes about it in the issue of Mother Jones magazine that hits newsstands tomorrow.

TREVOR AARONSON: People work for the FBI as informants for a variety of reasons. A big reason, especially within the Muslim community and in counterterrorism investigations, is that the FBI is able to use immigration against people. So if you're going to recruit an informant and you realize that he has an immigration violation, oftentimes, the FBI will be able to use that as a form of leverage.

SULLIVAN: You guys listed 500 cases. A lot of them involved informants. What did you find? Was there a problem with that?

AARONSON: In half of the 500 cases, informants were used. In some cases, they were used in ways that you would might expect them to be used, where it was someone tipped off the FBI to someone who potentially was up to something, you know, very destructive or some kind of criminal or terrorist activity.

In other cases, the informants play larger roles where they acted almost as agent provocateurs where they provided not only the opportunity for the person to commit this act of terror, but also the means.

SULLIVAN: So you're saying that they - in some ways, the FBI helped create a scenario where they could commit a crime that they may or may not have committed on their own?

AARONSON: Exactly. You know, one case that's worth noting along this line is a man in Illinois named Derrick Shareef. He was down on his luck. An informant approached him while he worked at a video game store, and Derrick expressed an interest in, you know, committing some sort of violence within the United States, and the informant kind of pushed him along and, in fact, introduced him to an undercover FBI agent who was posing as an arms dealer. And the arms dealer was going to provide Derrick with grenades, but in fact, Derrick Shareef was so broke that he didn't even have $100 to buy the grenades from the FBI agent.

And so as a result, the FBI agent agreed to accept as trade speakers that Derrick had in exchange for the grenades. And ultimately, they were able to prosecute Shareef on that terrorism conspiracy, and he received 35 years in prison.

I think a question that's raised in a case like that is whether someone like Derrick Shareef would've had the opportunity to commit the crime he was convicted for, were it not for the FBI informant and were it not for the undercover agent providing the means and opportunity for him to do so.

SULLIVAN: Critics of the way the FBI uses informants would say that this is entrapment, that the FBI is creating crimes in order for people to commit them.

AARONSON: What the FBI says is that they're preventing these terrorists or these alleged terrorists from committing future acts of terror or potential acts of terror were they given the capability and the means by an actual terrorist.

SULLIVAN: Is there any sign that the FBI is going to scale back its program, or are they just moving full steam ahead?

AARONSON: I think informants are a critical part of the FBI. That's not, you know, exclusive to the Muslim community. It's a part of the FBI's investigation, you know, no matter what it's investigating.

SULLIVAN: That's writer Trevor Aaronson, who joined us from Berkeley, California. Today, we have a link to his story on our website, npr.org. Thanks so much for joining us, Trevor.

AARONSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.