The New York Times is taking a look at the FBI’s battle against terrorism (not the first time it’s done this) — namely, its near-total reliance on sting operations to round up would-be terrorists. As the Times’ Eric Lichtblau points out, stings used to be a last-resort tactic. Now, it’s standard operating procedure. Two out of every three terrorism prosecutions begin with undercover agents nudging citizens and immigrants toward acts of violence and “material support.” In some cases, the FBI agents are doing all the work themselves.
The FBI, of course, maintains that these terrorists would have acted on their own without the agency’s intercession — even though it seems to be placing a rather heavy finger on the scale.
While F.B.I. officials say they are careful to avoid illegally entrapping suspects, their undercover operatives are far from bystanders. In recent investigations from Florida to California, agents have helped people suspected of being extremists acquire weapons, scope out bombing targets and find the best routes to Syria to join the Islamic State, records show.
According to the agency, this stuff that looks like entrapment is nothing more than expedience.
While the FBI maintains it’s doing nothing wrong, former FBI agents and intelligence community members aren’t so sure.
“They’re manufacturing terrorism cases,” said Michael German, a former undercover agent with the F.B.I. who researches national security law at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. In many of the recent prosecutions, he said, “these people are five steps away from being a danger to the United States.”
Karen J. Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, said undercover operations had become the norm for the F.B.I. in the most recent Islamic State cases, with little debate or understanding of how the bureau actually conducts its investigations, especially its online stings.
“I think the F.B.I. is really going down the wrong path with a lot of these ISIS cases,” she said…
When pressed to defend aggressive sting operations, FBI officials fall back on one their favorite scapegoats: encryption.
“When the bad guys turn to encrypted areas, we’re dark, and the only way to gain a better understanding of what we’re up against may be through an undercover,” Mr. Steinbach said.