Published on July 1, 2011 by AlterNet
By Bill Berkowitz
A new report from New York University’s The Center for Human Rights and Global Justice focuses on “three high-profile terrorism prosecutions” where “government informants played a critical role in instigating and constructing the plots that were then prosecuted”
Government infiltration of political organizations perceived as potential threats to national security, is as American as Twinkies, Elvis ripping off Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” and Newt Gingrich’s million-dollar line of credit at Tiffany’s.
The use of informants and agent provocateurs was perfected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), during the 1960s and 70s, when COINTELPRO (a program aimed at destabilizing New Left groups, and the Black and women‘s liberation movements) became a household word – at least in movement households.
According to a report by the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, also known as the Church Committee, the FBI relied on “secret informants . . . wiretaps, microphone ‘bugs,’ surreptitious mail opening, and break ins, [which gathered] vast amounts of information about the personal lives, views and associations of American citizens” and “conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”
(For the record, it is not only an American phenomena; regimes all over the world regularly use similar tactics.)
Often, as is seen now across the political spectrum, and was repeatedly evidenced during the Civil Rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements, undercover law enforcement officials infiltrate organizations in an attempt to undermine them, convince members of these groups to take either unproductive actions that could result in public scorn, and/or to pursue militant actions, often involving illegal and violent activities. Many infiltrators become provocateurs and actually provide the expertise and tools/weapons necessary to carry out violent actions including sabotage and bombing. Agents run amok carried out illegal actions sanctioned by far away government officers.
After 9/11, the re-ignition and ramping up of the so-called “War on Terrorism” has brought about an escalation of these methods by government agencies. While the tentacles of entrapment have stretched across political, religious and ethnic lines, they have been primarily focused on Muslim communities and organizations.
“Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has targeted Muslims in the United States by sending paid, untrained informants into mosques and Muslim communities,” reads the first sentence of the Executive Summary from a chilling new report about the misuse of government informants to manufacture a crisis. “This practice has led to the prosecution of more than 200 individuals in terrorism-related cases. The government has touted these cases as successes in the so-called war against terrorism. However, in recent years, former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, local lawmakers, the media, the public, and community-based groups have begun questioning the legitimacy and efficacy of this practice, alleging that – in many instances – this type of policing, and the resulting prosecutions, constitute entrapment.”
The report titled “Terror and Entrapment: Manufacturing the ‘Homegrown Threat’ in the United States“, was prepared by the New York University-based The Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.
“Terror and Entrapment” focuses on “three high-profile [New York-area] terrorism prosecutions” — the “Newburgh Four” with a focus on defendant David Williams; the “Fort Dix Five” with a focus on defendants Eljvir, Dritan, and Shain Duka; and the case of Shahawar Matin Siraj – “in which government informants played a critical role in instigating and constructing the plots that were then prosecuted.” (All of the cases are discussed in detail in the report.)
According to the report, the FBI and/or the New York City Police Department, “sent paid informants into Muslim communities or families without any particularized suspicion of criminal activity.” As the report points out, the use of informants has always been a dicey proposition since they are often working in areas of law enforcement for which they have no particular training. Equally problematic is that informants receive personal benefits for their work; the reduction of charges in a pending case, the lessening of a pre-existing prison sentence, a “change in immigration status,” or payment in exchange for “providing useful information,” which creates “a dangerous incentive structure.”
In the cases examined by “Terror and Entrapment,” “the government’s informants held themselves out as Muslims and looked in particular to incite other Muslims to commit acts of violence. The government’s informants introduced and aggressively pushed ideas about violent jihad and, moreover, actually encouraged the defendants to believe it was their duty to take action against the United States.”
Government agents preyed upon the “defendants’ vulnerabilities – youth and poverty,” in its methods. The government appears to have also taken full advantage of the lack of sophistication and street smarts of many of those lured into participating in the “concocted plots.”
During an interview with the authors of “Terror and Entrapment,” Alicia McWilliams, the aunt of David Williams, one of the “Newburgh Four,” raised another important concern: “Newburgh is an extremely impoverished town. How much money did they spend on this whole production? They need to be investing in our communities for the future, not spending millions of dollars on a fake case that makes nobody safer.”
The report’s authors found that ‘”In all three cases, the government selected or encouraged the proposed locations that the defendants would later be accused of targeting. In all three cases, the government also provided the defendants with, or encouraged the defendants to acquire, material evidence, such as weaponry or violent videos, which would later be used to convict them.”
The report points out that those convicted, “are facing prison sentences of 25 years to life.”
The report maintains that “Counterterrorism law-enforcement policies and practices are undermining U.S. human rights obligations to guarantee the rights to nondiscrimination; a fair trial; freedom of religion expression and opinion; as well as the right to an effective remedy when rights violations take place.”
Since 9/11, it has been documented that “there have been more instances of politically-motivated violence in the U.S. committed by non-Muslims than there have been by individuals claiming to be motivated by Islam.”
In an recent email exchange, a conservative friend pointed out that he thought that the Department of Homeland Security’s report on the right-wing threat was an example of the DHS seeking to, “manufacture a crisis and crimes where there were none, to, in essence, use the document itself as the provocateur, provoker, and twister-of-facts.” The Report is, he noted, “in and of itself, an ‘informant’ that twists the truth for its own purposes.”
Regardless of how much one believes that there is a palpable threat of terrorism from homegrown Muslims, white supremacists and/or Christian patriots, the government’s methodology used to uncover real, or manufactured plots, needs to be thoroughly examined. In order to justify escalating and profligate spending on anti-terror projects, the government understands that it must show results. The use of agent provocateurs and informants almost guarantees a steady stream of pyrrhic anti-terrorist victories.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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