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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.


Green is the new red: Will Potter on the problem of treating environmentalists like terrorists



When Chicago Tribune reporter Will Potter went to pass out animal rights leaflets, he had no idea the FBI would single him out and pressure him to become an anti-activism informant, threatening his future if he refused. Here, we talk to the TED Fellow and author of Green is the New Red about this experience, which sent him into a whole new area of research. The crux of what he found: environmental and animal-rights activists are now considered the United States’ number-one domestic terrorism threat, and they are being prosecuted as criminals.

Do you think of yourself as an activist?

I don’t consider myself an activist, but there’s certainly an advocacy component when I’m talking about civil rights issues. My background’s in newspaper and magazine reporting. For a long time I tried to pursue the traditional newsroom path, and I was on it for quite a while. Then, when I was working at the Chicago Tribune, I had some experiences with the FBI that put me in a different direction in terms of the issues I was focused on. Then some good friends of mine were wrapped up in different terrorism prosecutions. These experiences immersed me in the issues unexpectedly, and that definitely changed the path that I was on.

What happened with the FBI?

At the Tribune, I was covering breaking news, shootings, murders and local government, and it was all horribly depressing. It was not the type of thing I went into journalism to do. I had a background in college in environmental activism, and protesting the World Trade Organization and the economic sanctions on Iraq, and I wanted to be involved in something positive like that again. So I went out leafletting with a group of people. We just passed out pieces of paper in a residential neighborhood about animal testing. I thought that was the most I could do as a working journalist — something so benign. And of course, since I have the worst luck ever, we were all arrested and charged. It was the only time I’ve been arrested. Those charges were later thrown out, of course. It was a frivolous arrest. And it’s still lawful to pass out handbills.

A couple weeks later, I was visited by two FBI agents at my home, who told me that unless I helped them by becoming an informant and investigating protest groups, they would put me on a domestic terrorist list. They also made some threats about making sure I wouldn’t receive a Fulbright I had applied for, and making sure my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t receive her PhD funding. I really want to think that I wouldn’t be affected by something like that, especially given my activist background, but it just scared the daylights out of me. It really did. That fear eventually turned into an obsession with finding out how this happened, how nonviolent protestors are being labeled as terrorists.

Did they not realize that you were a journalist?

They did, and they obviously didn’t think of the potential of me writing or talking about it. They specifically said, “You are the one of this group that has everything going for you.” They knew everywhere I worked, they knew my editors at the Tribune, they knew different journalism awards I received — and their message was, “Help us or we’re going to put you on a different path.” And they kept saying, “Don’t throw all this away.”

And so at one point, I just said, “What are you going to make go away? This is a class C misdemeanor for leafletting, there’s no way it’s going to hold up in court, and you’re talking about ruining my life.” I of course never became an informant, and never thought about doing anything like that, but — it changed the focus of my work, without a doubt.

Did they bother you after that?

Well, you know, it’s one of those things. It made me realize the power of fear. Because in a situation like that, you don’t know what actually is happening or will happen. There’s no way to find out. Certainly just a few months after 9/11 when this happened, but even today, with the extent of the government’s counterterrorism powers and how they’re being used. So when they talk about making sure I don’t receive a Fulbright, I didn’t receive it, but is that just because I’m not smart enough? Was it because my application wasn’t good enough? I don’t know. It’s impossible to know these things.

Years later, after my book came out, we did a Freedom of Information Act request. I found out that the counterterrorism unit has been monitoring my speeches and book and website. But in terms of day-to-day problems, I really haven’t had any.

How did environmental activism come to be treated as a terrorist crime?

I think the most important thing I found out in my research is that all of this was actually created by the industries that are being protested. In the mid-1980s, these corporations got together and created a new word called “eco-terrorist” — because at the time, these protest movements were growing very quickly and effectively, and they had widespread public support. There clearly was a concern that unless public opinion shifted, there’d be a really big problem on their hands.

So they made up this new word, and then started using public relations campaigns, lobbying, and held congressional hearings. Eventually, that language changed the popular discourse of how we talk about protest. And it was incredibly effective, to the point that now not only does the FBI label animal rights and environmentalists as the number-one domestic terrorism threat — even though they’ve never harmed a single human being — but we have new legislation that singles these protesters out for felonies and as terrorists for what are, in some cases, nonviolent protests.

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