A government surveillance photo of the "Newburgh Four" casing a potential bombing site.

The Sting of Entrapment

I will never cease to feel a twinge of annoyance when journalists decline to come up with their own descriptive syntax and instead opt to use the same tired phrases over and over again. The White House is “in damage-control mode” right now because of leaked diplomatic cables. Joe Biden? He’s ”prone to gaffes.” And recently, the FBI has been “foiling terrorist plots” left and right, it seems.

This last one, though, worries me a bit. Are they really “foiling” – that is, defeating – these plots? Or are FBI informants acting as instigators, luring vulnerable members of society into doing something they might not have done on their own?

Slate.com’s Ted Conover is clearly in the latter camp. He brings up the case of the “Newburgh Four,” a group of African-American men offered a variety of enticements by an FBI informant in exchange for bombing a synagogue. Far from a brood of cold-blooded, rational ideologues, this was a rather ragtag group: All of them at one time or another were involved in drugs, and one was a paranoid schizophrenic. All were poor and bounced from job to job, and none of them had ever even tried to make contact with Al Qaeda.

The FBI’s informant reportedly offered them $250,000 and a car for carrying out the plot, and paid for their meals at restaurants. Their defense lawyer argued at trial – which recently resulted in a guilty verdict – that none of the men would have even been capable of carrying out the plot without the informant, who allegedly even assembled the explosives for the group when the four men couldn’t understand his directions. No one in the group had a driver’s license or a car. Personally, I am highly skeptical that these men would even think about threatening U.S. security were it not for enticements of the informant.

Indeed, this whole idea of arresting people who could be capable of committing a crime reminds me of Minority Report , in which “criminals” were arrested before they committed crimes because the police knew they would commit them. It’s a lot of technological wizardry that enables police in the movie to foresee the crimes; here it’s an informant who plies the would-be criminals with the plan, the materials to carry it out and promises of extra cash. Even though under this altered set of circumstances the “terrorists” are capable of committing a crime, the government has no right to lure them into committing serious crimes, then arrest and incarcerate them for it. Everyone has a breaking point at which he or she will commit a crime – and these men’s were lower than others’.

Even still, I don’t believe this means the FBI should unequivocally drop its sting programs. When deployed responsibly, they can most certainly prevent would-be terrorists from carrying out mass crimes.

Last week’s arrest of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-born college student who attempted to set off a car bomb at a Portland, Ore., Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony provides an example of when a sting is indeed prudent. Mohamud had not only been in contact with, but had also been writing articles for two of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s online magazines, run by Samir Kahn. But such writings are not illegal per se, and neither was the e-mail Mohamud sent to a Pakistani jihadist in 2009. It was through this e-mail that the FBI became aware of Mohamud’s desires. After that, undercover agents contacted the teenager and began the meetings that would lead to his eventual arrest. From his virulent ideology and contact with actual Al Qaeda agents, it is clear that Mahamud did indeed pose a threat to U.S. security. This is the time to use a sting operation.

But where do you draw the line? What must a person do to be considered a threat worthy of a sting operation? What do you think?

Posted by Laura Williams on Dec 01, 2010

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