In the 14 years since 9/11, you can count about six real terrorist attacks in the United States. These include the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, as well as failed attacks, such as the time when a man named Faisal Shahzad tried to deliver a car bomb to Times Square. In those same 14 years, the Bureau, however, has bragged about how it's foiled dozens of terrorism plots. In all, the FBI has arrested more than 175 people in aggressive, undercover counterterrorism stings.
These operations, which are usually led by an informant, provide the means and opportunity, and sometimes even the idea, for mentally ill and economically desperate people to become what we now term terrorists.
These informants nab people like Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif and Walli Mujahidh. Both are mentally ill. Abdul-Latif had a history of huffing gasoline and attempting suicide. Mujahidh had schizoaffective disorder, he had trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy. In 2012, the FBI arrested these two men for conspiring to attack a military recruiting station outside Seattle with weapons provided, of course, by the FBI. The FBI's informant was Robert Childs, a convicted rapist and child molester who was paid 90,000 dollars for his work on the case. This isn't an outlier. – Trevor Aaronson, TED Talk, March 2015
The FBI has a problem. Not enough terrorists are plotting to attack the United States, so agents find they must manufacture more of them. The method appears to be working, too. Dozens of FBI-appointed terrorists now sit safely in prison and no longer threaten the "Homeland."
Unfortunately, Trevor Aaronson's reporting suggests most of these people never threatened the Homeland in the first place. They had two problems. First, they suffer from serious mental illness. Second, they trusted the FBI's paid informants.
In an earlier era, we called this "entrapment" and law enforcement officials discouraged it. They weren't especially concerned about civil rights, but budgets were tighter and they had plenty of other low-hanging fruit.
All this changed after 9/11 when anti-terrorism became the FBI's top priority. The bureau found itself awash in cash and under pressure to deliver results. A national paranoia had citizens seeing potential terrorists behind every tree.
Something else happened, too. The number of people diagnosed with serious mental illness shot higher while the nation's capacity to care for them plummeted. Jails found themselves operating as de facto psychiatric wards, their cells filled with people who had tenuous connections to reality.
This neat coincidence helped the FBI solve its problem. Agents dangled cash to recruit informants who would then entice their "friends" into fictitious terror plots. The Bureau would then bust these plots open to great fanfare, allowing it to show success and keep the budget growing.
The strategy had the beneficial side effect of bolstering public fears. With terror plots in the headlines almost every month, voters gladly accepted loss of civil liberties and lavish anti-terror spending. News accounts routinely shaded over the missing connections to actual terrorists.
So, we are now in a "minority report" nation where the mere inclination to commit a crime, if given the opportunity, is enough to imprison people for life. How far will the FBI push this logic?
Practically everyone pushes the bounds of legality every day. We drive through intersections without making a complete stop. We drive 20 miles per hour over the limit when we don't see any police cars. We put liquids in our carry-on bags. Would we push the law even more if a trusted friend encouraged it? Probably so, but we would draw a line somewhere.
The FBI knows this. Targeting people with impaired judgment greatly increases their odds of "success." Mentally ill people often don't know when to stop. The strategy is working well, so it will likely continue.
As with most government programs, this one will probably expand far beyond its original intent. What else might we see? Maybe fake accountants advising people how to dodge taxes? Faux pharmacies dispensing drugs without prescriptions? Imitation taxidermists selling endangered species fur?
The possibilities are endless. So, apparently, is government's hunger for control.
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