The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting’s co-director, Trevor Aaronson, is the author of a new and provocative book, The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, which reveals the use of FBI informants and terrorism sting operations in Muslim communities nationwide.
A senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, Aaronson was also a 2010-11 fellow at the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley, where he produced an award-winning project about FBI counterterrorism operations for Mother Jones magazine.
A two-time finalist for the Livingston Awards (for journalists under the age of 35), Aaronson has won more than two dozen national and regional awards, including the Molly Prize, the international Data Journalism Award and the John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award.
Aaronson has been FCIR’s co-director since 2010. He edits FCIR’s investigations and blog posts and has written about for-profit online educator K12 Inc., a toxic spill at a U.S. Postal Service facility in Orlando and air polluters in Florida.
Since the publication of his book in January, Aaronson has discussed FBI terrorism sting operations on CBS This Morning, NPR’s All Things Considered, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, This American Life and On The Media, among others. He has also spoken about his work at Columbia University in New York and will talk about his reporting behind The Terror Factory at an FCIR-sponsored event at the University of Miami in the fall.
FCIR Contributing Editor John Dolen interviewed Aaronson about his new book:
John Dolen: Your book presents a fascinating inside account of FBI finances. How were you able to obtain, for example, amounts that individual agents were paid for certain jobs?
Trevor Aaronson: The amount of money the FBI pays informants — many of whom are criminals themselves — is a closely guarded secret. This information is generally exempted under the Freedom of Information Act, and even during Congressional testimony, FBI officials are hesitant to discuss the unseemly business of giving cash payments to criminals and crooks.
But you can get this information when terrorism cases go to trial. Defense lawyers will question FBI officials and informants under oath about how much the government paid the informant. From terrorism cases that have gone to trial since 9/11, we know that FBI informants are paid handsomely. An FBI informant who worked for a year on a case in Lodi, California, received $200,000 for his role in a sting operation that targeted a 22-year-old named Hamid Hayat. Closer to home, in Miami, the two informants involved in the 2006 Liberty City Seven case — in which the government charged seven Miami men with plotting to bomb the FBI office in North Miami Beach and the Sears Tower in Chicago — earned $85,000 and $21,000, respectively, for their work in the case over approximately a year.
As I write in The Terror Factory, these payments are particularly troubling because they give informants a financial incentive to see the targets of their investigations prosecuted. That is, in part, why we’ve seen an explosion of federal terrorism cases involving defendants who didn’t have the capacity to commit an act of terrorism were it not for the FBI providing everything, including fake bombs, transportation, even money for the targets of the investigations.
JD: Can you talk a little about the explosion of informants since the J. Edgar Hoover days, and whether Congress ever questioned the need for them, particularly in recent years?
TA: The FBI is also secretive about the number of informants it employs. The Bureau doesn’t publicly report this number to Congress on any regular basis, so we only have occasional glimpses from which to work. But from the data that is available, we know there was an explosion in the number of FBI informants, particularly in the decade after 9/11.
During the COINTELPRO days from 1956 to 1971 — when the FBI conducted counterintelligence programs on political organizations FBI Director Hoover described as “subversive,” such as communist and socialist groups as well as Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights organization and many others — the FBI had 1,500 informants. In the late 1980s, when the FBI was focused on organized crime and drug cases, the number of informants ballooned to 6,000. Today, we have 15,000 informants, a nearly threefold expansion since the 1980s, due in part to a post-9/11 directive from President George W. Bush to increase — to use the government’s term — “human intelligence” within the United States in order to identify would-be terrorists. So far, none of this has been much of a concern for Congress.
JD: Your footnotes indicate a massive research project. Could you tell us briefly how you organized and kept all this together?
TA: In addition to interviews with FBI officials and terrorism defendants, I reviewed the files of more than 500 international terrorism cases prosecuted in U.S. courts in the decade after 9/11. It was an enormous research task, and I had great help from Lauren Ellis, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, where I was a fellow in 2010 and 2011. I try to use data to support my reporting whenever possible. To tell the story of the FBI’s use of informants and sting operations in Muslim communities after 9/11, I had to quantify the FBI’s terrorism cases. For months, Lauren and I analyzed these cases, determining whether an informant was used, the role of that informant in the plot, and what connections, if any, the defendants had to international terrorist organizations. This information came from court records, testimony and interviews.
We fed the information into a database, and then linked the cases to court records stored on a shared drive. Early on, because I knew the amount of data would be enormous, I put together a simple but effective organizational system for the data and the source records. The database, when finished, allowed us to do a systematic and comprehensive analysis of terrorism cases in the decade after 9/11. It also allowed us to offer transparency to the reporting. My book grew from “The Informants,” a story I wrote for Mother Jones, and the magazine devoted considerable time and resources to put my data online and make searchable. The Mother Jones story won the international Data Journalism Award for national reporting in May 2012, beating out competition from The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal. For the awards ceremony in Paris, the magazine put together this video, which describes pretty well, and in under two minutes, the challenges of reporting the story:
JD: In one highly dubious terror plot hatched in Liberty City, in Miami, you suggest that there was politics in the timing of the indictment. Yet several pages later, you indicate that events within the sting prompted agents to act. Could you clarify this?
TA: On June 22, 2006, federal agents arrested seven men from Liberty City — a very poor section of Miami — and charged them with conspiring to bomb the FBI office in North Miami Beach and the Sears Towers in Chicago. The media quickly dubbed them the Liberty City Seven. None of the men had connections to international terrorist organizations, and the plot hinged on an aggressive FBI informant who posed as an Al Qaeda recruiter and promised the men thousands of dollars.
As I discuss in The Terror Factory, the timing of the arrests was suspicious. The U.S. Department of Justice announced the case on the same day that the New York Times reported on its website about a secret Bush administration program that permitted the CIA and Treasury Department to review, without warrants or subpoenas, the financial transactions of U.S. citizens. The Times had been working on the story for months, and by announcing the Liberty City Seven case on the day the story was revealed, the government gave the media another great story, which competed for attention with the Times’ investigation.
Also making the timing suspicious was the fact that the Liberty City Seven did not represent any danger. By the time FBI agents arrested them, the Liberty City Seven had largely broken up as a group. One member had moved out of town. Others weren’t speaking to each other. But at the same time, after having spent more than a year investigating the group, the FBI was a looking at a case that was slowly falling apart. If members of the group weren’t talking to each other any longer, how much of a conspiracy could there be? So that gave agents an incentive to move toward arrests, and doing it on the same day as the release of the Times investigation helped overshadow what was an embarrassing story for the Bush administration.
In the end, it took three trials to convict five of the seven accused terrorists. And as I write in the book, the Liberty City Seven was something of a bellwether case. After prosecutors won convictions, the FBI felt more emboldened to use sting tactics, and we’ve seen an explosion of sting cases since the Liberty City Seven defendants were sent to prison.
JD: The gullibility of many in the media to announcements of these stings is exposed again and again. Has the press lost its edge?
TA: Yes. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that the press is getting its edge back, and at the risk of chest-thumping, I’d like to think my reporting has played a part in the change. Seven years ago, when the Justice Department announced the Liberty City Seven case, the news media were willing to portray these cases as dangerous plots involving capable terrorists, effectively accepting the government’s allegations and rarely paying much attention to the fact that defendants never had connections to terrorists and would not have had the means were it not for the FBI.
But in the last 18 months, since my Mother Jones article came out, I’ve noticed a shift in how the news media report these cases. The media are reporting on these cases with skepticism, and sometimes with some attitude too. Foreign Policy magazine wrote a blog item asking: “How many idiot jihadis can the FBI fool?” When the New York Times reported on the arrest of Quazi Nafis, who plotted with an undercover FBI agent to bomb the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the newspaper included in the fifth paragraph a substantial explanation of the criticism of these sting cases. There’s been a real shift in the coverage, so much so that I discussed this topic recently on WNYC’s On The Media.
JD: While high marks for your book have come in from an ex-assistant FBI director and a former FBI agent, a Wall Street Journal review by another former FBI agent is more critical. While applauding your exposure of how FBI tactics in the Muslim community have “backfired and alienated potential allies,” it asks why you didn’t include the cases of shoe bomber Richard Reid, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla and Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to bomb Times Square. How do you respond?
TA: The Wall Street Journal review essentially takes up the FBI criticism of my work. In fact, a Justice Department spokesman cited the Journal review to a Kentucky newspaper reporter in asserting that my reporting was “erroneous.” But I thought the Journal review was great, because it proves my book’s central point.
The reviewer, former FBI agent Ali Soufan, cites Reid, Padilla and Shahzad as reasons we should support terrorism sting operations and why my critique is wrong. But Soufan never discloses in his review that none of those men was caught in a sting operation. In Shahzad’s case, the FBI didn’t know anything about him until after he delivered a bomb to Times Square. Shahzad is an example of a true lone wolf terrorist we should fear — a man with the intent and capability to launch a deadly terrorist attack. But despite the FBI’s thousands of informants and these aggressive sting operations conducted nationwide, Shahzad went undetected. At the same time, while missing the Shahzads, FBI sting operations are catching desperate men on the fringes of Muslim communities who have no capacity for terrorism on their own. Most recently, an FBI sting caught a 28-year-old in California with a history of mental illness.
JD: By spending $3 billion every year on counterterrorism, you say the FBI is shortchanging efforts that could have been made in other areas. Like the Bernie Madoff case, for example?
TA: We’ll never know if federal law enforcement could have caught a Ponzi artist like Madoff had funding been different. But what we do know is that in the decade after 9/11, when counterterrorism represented the largest part of the FBI budget, financial and mortgage fraud was rampant and the fraud that was committed seriously wounded the world economy. Ponzi artists including Madoff scammed away $10 billion from investors in that decade, and prior to 9/11, financial and mortgage fraud was among the FBI’s areas of expertise.
I think the question I ask in The Terror Factory is a fair one: Had the FBI not been chasing terrorists of its own creation, would agents have instead cracked down on those dangerous crooks wearing expensive suits?
Read More, Support FCIR
You can read an excerpt from The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism at the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. You can also watch a video of Trevor Aaronson’s speech at Columbia University, and if you sign up for FCIR’s newsletter, we’ll tell you more about the upcoming FCIR-sponsored event at the University of Miami.
From March 25 to April 30, as part of a spring fundraiser, FCIR is offering a signed copy of The Terror Factory to everyone making a contribution of $50 or more. Your tax-deductible donation will make future FCIR journalism possible. We hope you’ll support our spring fundraiser. If you cannot give a $50 contribution, please give what you can. Every dollar counts, and every dollar goes to supporting accountability journalism in Florida.