A Nation of Spies and Snitches

The United States is pretty darn good at infiltrating terrorist groups -- at home and abroad -- these days. But should we be worried about the social costs?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, one of the most stinging criticisms leveled at the CIA was that it had utterly failed to penetrate al Qaeda with a human source.

That worm turned this week when headlines erupted with the story of how a Saudi spy, working in conjunction with the CIA, penetrated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), preventing an attack on a U.S.-bound airliner, providing critical intelligence to guide a drone strike against a sought-after AQAP commander, and delivering an intact bomb design for U.S. intelligence to dissect.

It was, by any measure, a spectacular intelligence coup going to the heart of the al Qaeda branch believed to be most actively conspiring to kill Americans. But as plaudits began to traverse one vector of the press and the blogosphere, a backlash emerged in another. One of the more prominent expressions of the latter came in a typically overwrought posting by Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald:

So just as virtually every "domestic Terror plot" is one conceived, directed, funded and controlled by the FBI, this new Al Qaeda plot from Yemen was directed by some combination of the CIA and its Saudi partners. So this wasn’t merely a failed, nascent plot which is causing this fear-mongering media orgy: it was one controlled at all times by the U.S. and Saudi Governments.

Greenwald was not alone in making this questionable assessment. Dozens, if not hundreds, of bloggers and pundits of various stripes were right behind him, ranging along the edges of mainstream politics and spreading enthusiastically in more aggressive anti-establishment circles.

Infiltration and other spy games hold a particular fascination for the American psyche. When a terrorist attack succeeds, Americans demand to know where their intelligence services were and how they could have missed the warning signs. When all’s quiet, however, Americans are generally happy enough to look the other way — so long as the dirty work of keeping the country safe stays out of sight.

But a growing number of "foiled cases" — from Rezwan Ferdaus’s plan to fly a remote-controlled model plane into the U.S. Capitol as a member of an FBI-provided terrorist cell to this week’s double-agent revelation — has voices expressing dismay over just how far those services are willing to go.

The penetration of a well-established foreign organization like AQAP is a far cry from most domestic infiltration programs. To be clear, none of the reporting currently on the table even vaguely suggests the CIA "conceived, directed, or funded" this attempted bombing, which is nearly identical to the one AQAP tried on Christmas Day 2009 without even being detected by U.S. intelligence. But the aggressive approach to intelligence and prevention that evolved after 9/11 in response to perceived failures is increasingly counterweighted by a new perception that the U.S. government has gone too far, a perception that is now spilling over to taint what seems on the face of it to be an unqualified success story.

Since 9/11, more than 300 U.S. residents have been prosecuted for crimes related to homegrown terrorism. About half were targeted by law enforcement using infiltration techniques — confidential informants, undercover operations, or in some cases both. Claims about the breadth of infiltration run from the foot-soldier level to nearly the top. In a posthumous article published last week, Anwar al-Awlaki, the notorious American who played an important role in AQAP, claimed that both the CIA and the FBI tried to coerce him into becoming a mole.

These tactics have become increasingly controversial for a number of reasons, including a perception that they target Muslims exclusively and do so by means of entrapment (which, it should be remembered, is a legal claim that rarely succeeds in court).

But infiltration — including the use of undercover agents and paid informants — was employed extensively long before 9/11. And it isn’t just about Muslims, or even terrorism. In recent months, informants and undercover agents have played a key role in criminal cases involving anarchists in Ohio associated with the Occupy movement and right-wing extremists in Georgia, Arizona, and Michigan (where a rare terrorism acquittal was recorded after charges the government had overstated its case).

Even the Mafia is not immune. "Anyone who’s out there should realize that if they look to the left or look to the right, they should realize someone is working with the FBI or wearing a wire," defense lawyer Anthony Cardinale told the Boston Globe in an article this week.

The tarnishing of what should be a major triumph for the CIA points to a growing societal concern about the cumulative effect of infiltration tactics on targeted communities and the broader public. There are legal rules and guidelines regarding infiltration and entrapment, and the courts have almost universally upheld the government’s use of these tactics since 9/11.

As anyone who has been in a relationship knows, however, you can be technically right and still end up in the wrong place in an argument. The political and practical motives for saturation coverage of would-be extremists are easy to understand — nobody wants dead Americans on their watch. What we are only beginning to examine are the social costs created by filling a country with spies and snitches.

The national conversation about infiltration remains mired in the formative phase. Open outrage is still found mostly on or over the edges of mainstream discourse. Nagging worries about these tactics are creeping toward the center, however, and the subject is likely to become even more important in the months and years ahead as we adjust to life in a post-post-9/11 world.

Journalists, academics, law enforcement officials, and politicians need to start working now to inform this emerging conversation with facts and context. It’s all too easy to get swept up in waves of emotion and truthiness.

The fringe thesis, expressed often and loudly, is that the government is deliberately staging these terrorist incidents to inflate its successes and generally cow the public into submission. It boils down to an absurdly subtle method for achieving an absurdly blunt goal. Why invent underwear bombs when you can invent suitcase nukes? Why disclose the role of informants and agents at all? The list of logical fallacies is nearly endless.

Nevertheless, there is no question that the age of infiltration raises important challenges and thorny questions that need to be discussed in a fact-rich environment. It’s time to bring this conversation in from the shouting periphery of American dialogue and into the realm of informed debate.

J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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