Check before you rent: How a TED Fellow is holding New York City landlords accountable

RentCheck.me, a new website created by TED Fellow Yale Fox, aims to make renting an apartment in New York less of a guessing game. Image: RentCheck

RentCheck.me, a new website created by TED Fellow Yale Fox, aims to make renting an apartment in New York less of a guessing game. Image: RentCheck

Cockroaches. Moldy walls. Stolen deposits. Bad landlords happen to all of us, and it can be impossible to tell before moving into a property whether the experience will be a good one, especially in housing-short cities like New York, where landlords seem to hold the cards. But TED Fellow Yale Fox is looking to change that with RentCheck — a new rental search engine that not only finds apartments but rates properties and landlords based on consumer reviews and the city’s open data.

RentCheck launches today in New York City, and will ultimately be rolled out in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Toronto and Vancouver, too. On launch day, the TED Blog asks Fox to tell us more.

Did RentCheck come out of a bad personal experience with renting?

Yeah — every place I’ve ever rented in my entire life, especially in New York. When my fiancée and I first moved to New York from Los Angeles, we rented a place and put down three months up front — our entire nest egg. It was a brand-new building, three years old. I had a broker check it out for me, and he said everything was okay. But when we got there, after a minute or two of looking around, we said, “What the hell happened in here?” The bathroom was disgusting. There was a dead bird, and insects rolled up in the blinds. It was vile. But all the management said was, “Sorry, man. Welcome to New York.” Because of our contract, we ended up having to stay for six months before we could finally leave.

To put this in perspective, I’m talking about a new building. There are many people who live in far worse conditions in New York — people who have to turn on their stove or oven to heat their place because the landlord won’t fix the radiator, for example. That can cause fires. With RentCheck, we’ve created a platform that increases the amount of transparency involved in a simple, common real estate transaction — the signing of a lease. The whole idea is that RentCheck can help renters avoid these bad situations in the first place. Additionally, it’s a place for renters to report problems publicly — all backed up by official city data.

How does RentCheck work?

RentCheck is an apartment rental search engine, but what makes us unique is that we give renters information about that property and landlord that has never before been easily available — such as cleanliness, pest problems, maintenance problems, landlord responsiveness and even information on whether or not they returned a security deposit on time, or at all. To express this, we compute a “RentCheck Rating” — a letter grade from A to F, which describes the quality of life in the building. The rating has nothing to do with the quality of the building itself; it’s not about whether it’s a fancy high rise or a brownstone. It’s about what will happen if you have a problem — how issues are handled. If you live in a B building, for example, it’s going to be fine. Repairs will likely be handled appropriately.

Everything you'd want to know about your future home: RentCheck shows available properties and scores landlords based on publicly available city data. It also lets renters post reviews. Image: RentCheck

Everything you’d want to know about your future home: RentCheck shows available properties and scores landlords based on publicly available city data. It also lets renters post reviews. Image: RentCheck

Where do you get this information?

Much of the information comes from New York City’s open data and public records. In fact, RentCheck would not have been possible two years ago: I was inspired to create it when New York City made its city data open in September 2013. You see, in New York, if you have a problem with the landlord, you call 311 to register your complaint. You say, “Hey, there are roaches, and my landlord won’t get rid of them.” A day or two later, the city will send an inspector, and if they find the roaches, they’ll mark it as a violation. Typically, it stops there. If landlords don’t want to do anything about a problem, they don’t really have to. Most tenants either accept it, deal with it themselves, or go to court. But all this information gets filed in the city records. So at RentCheck, we take all that information and score every residential building in New York — and there are 1.1 million of them.

We’ve also gathered our own information based on renter reviews we solicited ourselves prior to launch. We hold contests where if you post a review about your landlord you’re automatically entered to win a year’s supply of unlimited MetroCards. The response has been great. Some people go on Yelp to write reviews of property managers and properties. But Yelp has a few thousand reviews in the New York City real estate space, whereas we have 10,000 — and that’s on launch day.

 To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

5 ways to kill your dreams: Bel Pesce

We all want to invent that game-changing product, launch that successful company, write that best-selling book. Yet so few of us actually do it. In this recently released talk — which has already almost hit a million views — Brazilian entrepreneur Bel Pesce breaks down five easy-to-believe myths that ensure your dream projects will never come to fruition.

Announcing our new TED Fellows channel on Medium.com

The TED Fellows have found a new home on Medium.com, where they’ll be sharing their stories in their own voices. Here, a piece of art created by Safwat Saleem for a story on what to pack for TED. Illustration: Safwat Saleem

The TED Fellows have found a new home on Medium.com, where they’ll be sharing their stories in their own voices. Here, a piece of art created by Safwat Saleem for a story on what to pack for TED. Illustration: Safwat Saleem

The TED Fellows are an extraordinary group of 368 people — artists, scientists, entrepreneurs and more — each at the beginning of a landmark career, and each with a story to tell, a truly unique voice. So when the folks at Medium.com asked us to create a publication for the TED Fellows, we jumped at the chance. Created by Twitter founder Evan Williams, Medium is a publishing platform that celebrates the act of writing and reading, and champions high-quality long-form journalism online.

The TED Fellows have been publishing on Medium for a few weeks now, and you’re invited to come check out what they’ve been up to. Every other week, you’ll find fresh stories and essays made by the TED Fellows just for Medium, like:

At the same time, we’re also selecting excerpts from our favorite Fellows interviews and freshening them up with new headlines and art. Enjoy some of these treats:

That’s just the beginning — there’s much more to come. So please pop over, have a browse and let us know what you think.

Reposted from the TED Blog >>>

The day I stood up alone: Boniface Mwangi

Photographer Boniface Mwangi wanted to protest against corruption in his home country of Kenya. So he made a plan: He and some friends would stand up and heckle during a public mass meeting. But when the moment came, he stood alone. What happened next, he says, showed him who he truly was. As he says, “There are two most powerful days in your life. The day you are born, and the day you discover why.” Warning: this talk contains graphic images.

To delve into Mwangi’s story more deeply, read this full-length interview: “Why I chose to stand up, alone“.

 

There’s a better way to die, and architecture can help: Alison Killing

In this short, provocative talk, architect Alison Killing looks at buildings where death and dying happen — cemeteries, hospitals, homes. The way we die is changing, and, she argues, maybe the way we build for dying should too. Listen to this fascinating take on a hidden aspect of our cities and lives, and to learn more about Killing and her work, read “Design for dying: Alison Killing on the architecture of death” on the TED Blog.

An unexpected family photo album: LaToya Ruby Frazier

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Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier’s new book The Notion of Family is a powerful visual chronicle of historic steel town, Braddock, Pennsylvania. It’s also an intimate portrait of the artist’s own family, Braddock natives who witnessed its boom, decline and — in recent years — its rebranding as an icon of Rust Belt renewal and destination for the so-called creative class. Frazier, who’s a TED Fellow, talked to Karen Eng about the origins of this ambitious project.

Tell us about the people in The Notion of Family.

The book features my grandmother, mother, and me, and looks through the three of our lives as people who grew up in three different social and economic periods in Braddock. Each one of us represents a different time period. My grandmother grew up in the 1930s when it was prosperous and had everything going for it; my mother grew up in the 1960s when there was the white flight, desegregation; and I grew up there in the 1980s, once the factories were dismantled and the town itself was left kind of abandoned, economically.

Grandma Ruby and Me 2005, from “The Notion of Family” (Aperture 2014).

Grandma Ruby and Me 2005, from “The Notion of Family” (Aperture 2014).

You said in your talk that by the 1970s most of the steel mills were gone — but there is one mill left, the Edgar Thomson Steel Works.

Yes, it’s a historic steel mill; it was the first in the region and the last one still in operation. Braddock is not post-industrial the way people like to talk about in the mainstream media. The narrative there is that it’s a new frontier — that “urban pioneers” should come forth and reclaim the land and open up restaurants and art studios. But in reality, people have been there for generations, and are still trying to exist within a framework of industry and environmental degradation. No one trying to redevelop the land wants to talk about the EPA levels there, or the fact that it’s a Superfund site, or a brownfield. So the environment’s eroding — and so are our bodies, from our terminal illnesses.

Has your own family suffered from illness?

Many people in the community have died from different types of cancer. My grandmother died from diabetes and pancreatic cancer. My mother suffers from an unknown neurological disorder. I myself have lupus — I’ve been battling it most of my life. A lot of the portraits in the book show this: they are taken after surgery, before surgery, during lupus attacks. The steel industry is still there polluting the town. Meanwhile, community hospitals in working class communities that are predominantly made up of elderly people, single parent households, and African-American communities are being dismantled.

And you don’t see the media telling this story?

My work isn’t just counter-narrative. There are parallel realities in this town. I see my work as telling a longer, sustained story covering material that the mainstream press doesn’t have time for. They come in and out, they tell the quickest highlighted story they can, and they go.

It’s creative class versus working class. I come from both, as an artist who comes from an impoverished working class background. So in a way, I stand in that gap as a witness to both. My hope is that the same resources that are available to the privileged creative class will become available to the working class. They should not be pitted against each other.

“For the past 12 years, my mother and I have made collaborative portraits together, disrupting the idea that the privileged photographer comes from the outside,” says LaToya Ruby Frazier. Mom Relaxing My Hair 2005, from “The Notion of Family” (Aperture 2014).

“For the past 12 years, my mother and I have made collaborative portraits together, disrupting the idea that the privileged photographer comes from the outside,” says LaToya Ruby Frazier. Mom Relaxing My Hair 2005, from “The Notion of Family” (Aperture 2014).

How did this project originate?

In 1999, during my first undergraduate photo class at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, we were given an assignment based on philosopher Roland Barthes’ idea that in a photograph, there’s a “punctum” and a “studium.” A punctum is the thing in the photograph that pricks you, that wounds you, that gives you some emotional charge. And the studium is the subject. The assignment was to bring in a photograph that had both.

One of the examples that was passed around in the classroom was Dorothea Lange’s iconic image Migrant Mother. Everyone kept calling it “Dorothea Lange’s photograph.” The  image was passed to me — and I realized I didn’t know that woman’s name. So I brought that up. “Who’s the woman in the photograph?” None of us knew. In that moment it just hit me. This is an iconic image, but we don’t know the woman’s name in the photograph, we only talk about the photographer and the government. How do you bring agency and power to the subject that everyone else is benefiting from? As it happens, her name was Florence Owens Thompson, she died destitute, and her children never received royalties from those images.

That’s where it began. Considering the difficult reality my mother, my grandmother and I were living in, I thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be a great way to honor Florence Owens Thompson by thinking about what her portraits might have looked like had she photographed herself?” And so I ran with that idea.

I started as a teenager, and so of course I didn’t have all the knowledge I have now, but it was that concept that gave the work the visual aesthetic of the black-and-white gelatin silver print. It’s the reason why my work looks like social documentary.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Ideas Blog >>>

 

 

 

 

Signs of friendship: A conversation between Christine Sun Kim & Renée Hlozek

Above, Christine Sun Kim and Renée Hlozek share a snippet of conversation using American Sign Language and the Big Words app. Christine has been teaching Renée American Sign Language so they can communicate more directly.

Renée Hlozek is a cosmologist from South Africa who studies the cosmic microwave background, radiation left over from the Big Bang. Christine Sun Kim is a deaf artist who investigates the relationships between sound and silence. What could they possibly have to talk about?

When the two TED Senior Fellows first met at TED2013, the pair decided to try and communicate with each other directly as much as possible using American Sign Language (ASL). Kim attends TED with ASL interpreters and often relies on text, such as the app Big Words, to communicate. In the last two years, Hlozek has continued learning ASL to better communicate with Kim. Here at TED2015, we asked them to let us in on their friendship — and to tell us more about how Hlozek’s insistence on learning ASL has affected their relationship. Read the interview below, then watch the videos above for some simple ASL lessons between the two.

Renée Hlozek: When I met CK, I wanted to be able to communicate better on my own, like if the interpreter wasn’t around” But the more I got to know her, and thought about it. I realized:  if I don’t learn sign language, how involved am I in our relationship? Or rather, how am I communicating that involvement in our relationship? It became much more of an imperative for me, rather than a fun thing to do.

Christine Sun Kim: That’s why I appreciate our relationship and what’s it’s evolved into. You serve as a reminder for me that ASL is fundamental to my being. In the art world I’m often interacting with people that don’t know ASL, so I rely on textual communication, be it BIG words or email and electronic communication. But I’m signing less in my everyday life, and that’s a pity.

RH: I think it’s really important that the tools improve your ability to interact with random strangers and make your access to the world much larger. But at the same time, it makes it much easier for hearing people to pretend you’re not deaf and pretend you don’t sign.

I have the technology to type to you. It’s easy – but then I’m always looking at the screen, not at you — and there’s a delay because you have to read and then type in the response. I much prefer when you sign, because it’s all your personality, all the time, and it’s very visible. That’s why I like ASL. Even though the interpreters are fantastic — it’s different for me when you and I sign. It’s different, right? Do you feel isolated sometimes, behind the texting and the interpreters?

CSK: I’m not sure if I would say isolated… maybe I feel a bit less connected on interaction level, but that’s reality. I can’t expect that everyone will learn ASL.

RH: I’m militant. THEY MUST!

CSK:  That’s right. You’re fighting for me! <laughs> But the reason I focus on textual means of communication is that it makes it easier for hearing people to interact with me. Especially in the art world, I feel I can go to places far and wide if I meet them where they’re at, rather than them meeting me where I’m at.

RH: I kind of want to be an ally. Sometimes I see it’s difficult for you to see your interpreter, or someone doesn’t appreciate that if they slow down when they speak it will help you. Just little things. People are lazy, because they know if they mess up, YOU can get out the Big Words app, and it will be okay. But that’s not fair, because you do all the work.

CSK: I think I also have this messed-up idea about how the world should perceive me. I want the world to treat me as “normal,” but sometimes that comes at a cost. But sometimes when people treat me just like everyone else, I’m actually losing information, or denied access to information.

For example, when the interpreter is present, I’m treated as just another person at an event. People view that accommodation as “filling in the gap” — but that’s not enough, because placement of the interpreters, and thus where I can sit, is restricted. I do need some flexibility in terms of accommodation that allow me to access the environment.

RH: I like what you just said about redefining “normal.” Why is it not normal that I learn to sign? If you were French and I wanted to talk to you, I would learn French. I would think about it. But because you’re Deaf it’s a BIG thing that I’m doing. People say to me, “Why are you learning ASL?” and I say, “Because my friend speaks ASL.” It’s a no-brainer.

CSK: Yeah, what is normal anyway? One great thing is that you are very active in asking for signs, “What’s the sign for this?” Sometimes I’ll remind you to sign when we’re out. But also it’s become the norm that if you don’t know a sign, you will ask for it.

I think my attitude has changed in terms of how I interact with people because of your willingness to learn ASL. Because you are so assertive in your learning I have to learn to put the phone away to make sure I’m signing with you. And I appreciate that, even if it takes a bit longer to get through a conversation. So much more information get across, and it helps us connect better because we are looking at each other.

RH: Sometimes I feel shy because it’s super slow and you’re very patient. Like when I’m spelling… you’re like…ugh… and you wait for me, but I like it because it forces me to learn.

CSK: You always say, “Thank you for being patient.” But you are also patient when you’re communicating with me, so it’s a two-way street.

I’ve noticed that when I text with someone for four or five days at a conference, our relationship is temporary and can be superficial. But when I sign with someone like you, someone motivated to learn ASL, I develop a deeper and more meaningful relationship and friendship because you took the time to connect with me on my level.

Rooming with you has given me the opportunity to learn about myself, too. Sometimes we have opposite schedules, so I’ll be coming into the room after you’re already asleep. And I had warned you to bring earplugs because of my snoring.

RH: One funny thing is, you are very considerate about making noise. You sent me an email saying, “I snore a bunch,” so I brought earplugs. But I’ve never needed to use them. Also you woke up really early one morning but were typing super softly. It’s interesting because I think your understanding is that any noise will wake me — or you just entrenched consideration about not wanting to make noise.

CSK: It’s because I’m obsessed with the range and volume of sound. I don’t know if something is loud or something is quiet. But at the same time, how people hear and perceive sound vary. So I don’t know if that typing sound wouldn’t bother you, but might bother another hearing person. I have to figure out how to accommodate your sound needs. … I just wanna be a good hotel roommate!

It’s interesting — David Eagleman just spoke [watch his talk,  “Can we create new senses for humans?”] about the advancements that have been made with sensory technology, and now there’s a vest that can translate sound (or speech) into vibration patterns. Which was really cool. And I have to say, I fell for it. Then I looked at you and said “That’s a politically smart move.” Because with cochlear implants, the Deaf community can be vocal about their opposition of the device. But now, David Eagleman, has shifted the focus from the ear to sense of touch and these vibration patterns. But then you came in with your observations.

RH: I said no. It’s making it the Deaf person’s problem. “You must perceive sound.” So that means a hearing person has even less reason to learn ASL.

CSK: Right. And then I caught myself. Why should I receive training on how to recognize speech through vibration patterns? I’m falling into that same behavioral trap again. The vest is mediating communication, but the problem is that it’s only mediating it one way, making the hearing person understood by me. Still, I was thinking that vest could be a cool tool in terms how to localize sound. For example, if someone came in from behind me making a sound, I could receive a vibration pattern alerting me to that, and I would be able to localize.

RH: That’s actually why I subtitle videos. I want to make sure all people can watch my science videos. I want everyone to have access to them by default. We often talk about “helping” Deaf people. But I don’t want to help you. I want to include you. I want you and other Deaf people to learn science. And astronomy.

CSK: But also I mean, both Deaf people and hearing people have privilege. And all people benefit from accessible design.

RH: True.

CSK: [teaching Renee how to sign TRUE]

RH: And false is?

CSK: [teaches Renee how to sign FALSE]

On the 12th anniversary of Iraq invasion, Matt Kenyon presents The Notepad to Al Gore

TEDFellow Matt Kenyon presents The Notepad to Vice President Al Gore at TED2015, Vancouver.

TEDFellow Matt Kenyon presents The Notepad to former US Vice President Al Gore at TED2015, Vancouver.

Yesterday here at TED2015, artist Matt Kenyon met briefly with former US Vice President Al Gore and gave him a Notepad — an artwork that looks like an ordinary yellow legal pad, but whose lines contain, in microtext, the names, dates, and locations of Iraqi civilian casualties resulting from the US-led invasion of Iraq, which began 12 years ago today.

On the TED Fellows stage at TED2015, Kenyon spoke of this monument of transgressive data, which he has smuggled into the stationery supplies of US and coalition governments. Kenyon also meets one-on-one with members and former members of coalition governments — including Former United States Attorney General and “torture memo” author Alberto Gonzales — presenting them with The Notepad and sharing its meaning with them.

“I spoke to him about the details of the project, as well as two of my oil and gas extraction related art works – Supermajor and Puddle” says Kenyon.

Gore’s response? “He asked about how to read the text, practical questions about type and kind of enlarger. He talked about Indian Prime Minister Modi’s suit, which has pinstripes stitched on it spelling out his name — a smart and witty connection to the work.”

Above, watch Matt Kenyon presenting The Notepad to Former United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Live from TED2015: TED Fellow donate their bodies to science

When you become a TED Fellow, you never know when you’ll be called upon to give up your free will. Yesterday at TED2015, DIY neuroscientist Greg Gage, hooked up two TED2015 Fellows — quantum scientist Jonathan Home and photographer Jost Franko — to demonstrate how electrical activity from one subject’s brain communicates with the ulnar nerve of a second subject to trigger involuntary motion. Gage’s company Backyard Brains creates low-cost, DIY kits designed to make neuroscience education accessible, affordable, and fun for young people.

The FBI & the theater of terror: Q&A with Trevor Aaronson

Trevor Aronson speaks during Fellows Session 2, TED2015 - Truth and Dare, March 16-20, 2015, Kay Meek Center, West Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

Trevor Aaronson speaks during Fellows Session 2, TED2015 – Truth and Dare, March 16-20, 2015, Kay Meek Center, West Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

On Monday, investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson made a rather startling allegation from the TED Fellows stage: that the FBI is responsible for more terrorism plots in the United States than Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab and ISIS combined. (Read a full recap of his talk on the TED Blog.)

Incited by the post-9/11 mandate to find terrorists before they strike, said Aaronson, the FBI orchestrates terror plots, framing mentally ill and economically desperate Muslim-Americans as would-be terrorists, helping them to create — then foiling — the plot in a sting operation and scoring points in the War on Terror. On Monday, he published a report in The Intercept releasing leaked sealed records, offering evidence that the FBI knows what it’s up to. We sat down with Aaronson after his talk to find out more.

What is the significance of the leaked documents published Monday in The Intercept?

This story gives access to sealed transcripts of conversations the FBI had in private when they were working the sting operation that targeted Sami Osmakac, who was accused of planning terrorist attacks. In the recorded conversation, FBI agents themselves suggest that they didn’t think Osmakac was dangerous. They call him a “retarded fool” who doesn’t have “a pot to piss in.” They say his plans are “wishy-washy.” This is in stark contrast to the government portrayal of Osmakac after his arrest as a truly dangerous terrorist.

The greater significance is that Osmakac’s is not a unique case. These types of sting operations have targeted more than 175 people in the United States. What this offers is a rare, if not first-ever, look into such a sting operation as it unfolded.

So you’re saying the FBI knows exactly what it’s doing.

Yes. The greatest piece of evidence that the government had on Sami Osmakac was that he had provided $500 to an undercover agent posing as a weapons supplier, and the government used that to say he had the commitment and capacity to commit an act of terrorism. From the sealed transcripts, it’s clear that the FBI agents knew Sami didn’t have any money. He didn’t have the ability to raise any money, and the FBI gave him a job through an informant, paid that informant, then through that informant gave Sami Osmakac $500. So the money that is ultimately being used as incriminating evidence against Sami has its origin in the US government.

An excerpt from the leaked transcript published Monday in The Intercept, in which FBI squad supervisor Richard Worms refers to the hoped-for "Hollywood ending" to their undercover sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

An excerpt from the leaked transcript published Monday in The Intercept, in which FBI squad supervisor Richard Worms refers to the hoped-for “Hollywood ending” to their undercover sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

How does one identify an event that appears staged versus something that really seems like a threat?

Take, for example, someone like Faisal Shahzad, who delivered a bomb to Times Square that thankfully didn’t go off. He was in contact with terrorist organizations. He went to Pakistan to train, came back, worked on his bomb, delivered it to Times Square, and the government had no idea who he was until that bomb was in New York City.

The difference between Faisal Shahzad and someone like Sami Osmakac is that Faisal Shahzad got his capacity by training overseas and had his own weapons. Sami Osmakac and these 175 others never had connections overseas, never had weapons of their own and often didn’t even have two nickels to rub together. It was the FBI agent or undercover informant who gave them the opportunity or money to move forward in the attack.

The FBI is really great at finding those types of terrorists, who on their own can’t do much. Maybe say they want to, and the FBI empowers them. The record of the FBI catching people before they strike, people who are actually dangerous like Faisal Shahzad, or the Boston Marathon bombers, is not very good.

What is the FBI’s motivation for staging terror plots?

I think it’s a bureaucratic evil. Congress sets the FBI’s budget, and gives them $3.3 billion for counterterrorism. They can’t go back to Congress every year and say, “Hey, we spent your $3 billion and we didn’t find any terrorists.” These sting operations are a very convenient mechanism for the FBI to say, “Hey, look at us keeping you safe.” I think there are true believers in the FBI who think that someone like Sami Osmakac could become a terrorist if, say, he one day met a real Al Qaeda operative, or an Islamic State operative, who’d provide the bomb.

It’s a reasonable argument, but in the 14 years since 9/11, there hasn’t been a case yet that a wannabe terrorist like Sami Osmakac meets a true international terrorist who provides the means and opportunity.

As an FBI agent, once you get one of these cases, you can get promoted, so there is incentive for agents themselves to find these types of cases. In turn, the FBI agents incentivize informants, many of whom are hardened criminals, to find people who are interested in committing acts of terrorism. So instead of finding the Faisal Shahzads, they are finding the mentally ill guy who is mouthing off at the mosque, and they get him to move along in a sting operation.

Photo from the Sami Osmakac sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

Photo from the Sami Osmakac sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

So are people like Osmakac simply innocent people being targeted for money by corrupt informants?

You can’t paint it that starkly, because the truth is, Sami says things in the undercover recordings that make him an unlikeable, even odious, person. He does, in these recordings, condone violence. He does say various things justifying violence against the American public because of the government’s policies overseas. But how much of this came from him, and how much of this is the result of manipulating a mentally ill man?

I think you can make a solid argument that Sami had some very misguided ideas and that he was also mentally ill. He’s been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. His misguided ideas were encouraged by the FBI agent and the informant. When Sami was left on his own, he said he wasn’t interested in violence — he only wanted to go overseas and marry a Muslim woman. But when he talked to the informant, he was more like, “Hey, how can we get involved in a terrorist attack?”

It’s difficult. If someone came up to you or me and said, “Want to place a bomb somewhere?” We’d say, “No way!” Most people would say that, but the FBI is finding people who are willing to say yes. But having bad thoughts isn’t a crime. It’s a crime if you commit an act of terrorism. The people in these 175 cases, like Sami’s, never would have had the capacity to get involved in a crime of that caliber were it not for the FBI providing the means and opportunity — and in many cases the idea for the act itself.

Where did you find the evidence for the 175 cases? How long has this all been known?

I was an investigative reporting fellow at UC Berkeley in 2011, and my project then — which became a Mother Jones story and later a book, The Terror Factory — was to look at all of the terrorism cases in the 10 years after 9/11. We were able to break down, of the 508 terrorism cases we looked at, there were 149 people caught in stings. I’ve kept that running tally going since then, as more cases are announced, and now we’re up to more than 175. Whenever the government announces a case, it goes in my database of cases. My data has been used by Human Rights Watch in their recent report. It also went to the FBI, and they have never challenged it.

Given that the FBI stop the would-be terrorists just in time, and it’s all staged, surely one could make the argument that there was no harm done?

The key phrase you’ll hear when the FBI announces a sting is, “The public was never in harm’s way.” Of course they weren’t — the FBI is staging the whole thing. They have a very specific formula for how they do this. In Sam Osmakac’s case, he loaded an inert in his car, and started to deliver it. As soon as he started to back out, FBI agents arrested him. In other cases, the FBI has had people deliver a bomb and dial a cell phone, and when the bomb doesn’t detonate, they are arrested. They take the target all the way to the end of the operation so that prosecutors can say to the jury, “This guy intended to do it — he went all the way.” But of course the plot is under the FBI’s control the entire time. FBI agents are monitoring them, and the only weapons these people have are fake ones provided by the undercover government agents.

Photo of Sami Osmakac taken during the sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

Photo of Sami Osmakac taken during the sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

Of course, Osmakac thinks he is working with real terrorists.

Exactly. Then he’s busted, having no idea that the FBI was with him the entire way.

Based on jury verdicts, this is not something that the US public is uncomfortable with. Federal prosecutors have a near-perfect record of conviction on cases like this. Sami Osmakac was the 12th person to argue entrapment as a result of these sting operations, and he wasn’t successful, None has been successful. I think that it raises questions about whether a Muslim charged with terrorism in the United States right now can really get a fair trial. These counterterrorism sting operations have been criticised by a number of organizations, including Human Rights Watch.

Is Osmakac really the only victim in all of this?

He’s going to spend 40 years in prison. I think you could make a strong argument that Sami Osmakac deserved to go to a mental hospital and spend some time there, and sort out what’s going on. It’s a harder argument to make that he’s a terrorist and should be in federal prison under maximum security. A lot of these guys are mentally ill, and I think if we perhaps had a better-funded mental health system in the United States, these are the type of people who would be swept into that system. Instead, they are swept into an FBI dragnet, portrayed to the public as terrorists, and spend the majority of their lives in federal prison, charged as terrorists, under laws that were written, and with mandatory sentencing guidelines that intended, for the Osama bin Ladens of the world.

Now that the Intercept story is out, what do you think the response will be?

I’ve been writing about this topic for five years now and the FBI policy hasn’t changed. Positive things have happened. Human Rights Watch coming out with a report last summer that supported my reporting was certainly nice. But there has yet to be a congressional committee that looks at these issues; there has yet to be significant congressional oversight of these issues.

I think this most recent story about Sami Osmakac advances the narrative on FBI counterterrorism stings. From the transcripts, It is clear that the FBI agents were cynical and even at times mean-spirited in their private jokes about Osmakac. It’s also clear from the transcripts that they didn’t think he was dangerous — but was simply a patsy, someone they could prosecute.

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