WASHINGTON -- The undercover terrorism stings that the FBI has conducted in the years since Sept. 11, 2001, are coming under new scrutiny this week, with the government being portrayed as using compromised informants to go after vulnerable individuals who may have never done anything had they not been targeted by the feds.
A lengthy investigative report by Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute entitled “Illusion of Justice” takes on the controversial “sting” operations that law enforcement officials have defended as an essential element of the federal government’s counterterrorism strategy.
Separately, Al Jazeera aired an in-depth documentary on Sunday called “Informants,” which included interviews with some of the informants with shady backgrounds that have worked sting cases for the FBI. And HBO’s “The Newburgh Sting," airing Monday night, closely scrutinizes a high-profile terrorism case in which four upstate New York men were accused in 2009 of plotting to bomb Bronx synagogues and destroy airplanes.
The Human Rights Watch report found that all but four high-profile domestic terrorism cases in the past decade were actually FBI stings. In closely examining 27 federal terrorism cases -- including interviewing some of the targets who have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes -- the report finds that the government has gone after “particularly vulnerable” individuals, some with mental disabilities and others who were very poor.
Andrea Prasow, the deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch who co-authored the report, said the government needs to “stop treating American Muslims as terrorists-in-waiting” and said it was “almost impossible” for defendants to argue entrapment because the bar was so high.
Attorney General Eric Holder has defended the use of the stings, even recommending that U.S. allies adopt the FBI's tactics to combat extremism in their own home countries.
Counterterrorism officials say the pre-emptive strategy is essential and point out that law enforcement regularly uses undercover stings in other contexts, such as cases of child porn, public corruption, financial fraud and drug trafficking. “It’s only amateurish until something goes boom,” one official said of the criticism of terrorism sting operations.
But critics say the tactics have created mistrust within the Muslim community and argue the FBI would never use the same strategy to root out other kinds of religious extremists. Tarek Z. Ismail, one of the co-authors of the report, wrote a blog post for Just Security asking what would happen if the FBI adopted the same tactics to target right-wing Christians.
"Say the FBI deployed thousands of informants into conservative churches across the country, listening to the community buzz and drumming up conversations about the perils of abortion and immigration. Those informants would then follow parishioners to right-wing political gatherings and, after sufficiently riling them up, encourage Tea Partiers to take up arms against an intransigent, overbearing government. Imagine they helped their targets develop a plot, provided them with cash, training and weaponry, and then arrested them as terrorist masterminds," Ismail wrote.
The FBI has also run terrorism sting operations against individuals who weren’t young Muslim men, including four senior citizen militia members in Georgia and members of the Christian Hutaree militia in Michigan. While some charges against the elderly militia members stuck, the Hutaree case largely fell apart because a federal judge acquitted seven members of the group on conspiracy charges. Earlier this year, three Georgia men who allegedly used Facebook to plot an antigovernment militia uprising were charged in a case involving FBI informants.
The report additionally criticized the conditions of confinement for those convicted in terrorism-related cases, specifically the amount of time they were forced to spend in solitary and the restrictions on their communications with family members and the outside world.
Watch the Al Jazeera documentary below.