In a Nation Ravaged by Banksters, FBI Can’t Afford the “Luxury” of Frivolous Counterterrorism Stings

In a JustSecurity post reviewing the same speech that I observed ignored US failures to prevent violent extremism, NYU Professor Samuel Rascoff defends the US use of counterterrorism stings, even in spite of the details revealed by HRW’s report on all the problems related to them. David Cole has an excellent response, which deals with many of the problems with Rascoff’s argument.

I’d like to dispute a more narrow point Rascoff made when he suggested that, because we have so many fewer trained militants than the Europeans, we “can[] afford” the “luxury” of stings.

There are now approximately 3,000 European passport holders fighting in Syria and Iraq. In the time that it took Najibullah Zazi to drive from Denver to New York, a fighter could drive from Aleppo to Budapest. What that means is that European officials are relatively more consumed than American counterparts in keeping up with, and tabs on, trained militants.   Orchestrating American-style sting operations is, in a sense, a luxury they cannot afford.

The claim is astonishing on its face, in that it suggests that, because we don’t have real militants like Europe does, we should engage in the “luxury” of entrapping confused young Muslim men and sending them to expensive decades-long prison terms.

Think a bit more about that notion of “luxury” and the financial choices we make on law enforcement. Here are some numbers taken from two sources: the HRW report (I basically searched on the dollar sign, though this doesn’t include every mention of dollars) and today’s Treasury settlement with Bank of America for helping 10 drug kingpins launder their money over a four year period, three years of which constituted “egregious” behavior.

First, HRW reports that FBI spends over $1.3 billion a year on counterterrorism, much of it stings, leaving less than $2 billion for all other investigations.

More than 40 percent of the FBI’s operating budget of $3.3 billion is now devoted to counterterrorism.

That allows the FBI to pay some of its informants and experts hefty sums.

Beginning in August 2006, the FBI paid Omar $1,500 per week during the investigation. Omar received a total of $240,000 from the FBI. This included: $183,500 in payment unrelated to expenses, and $54,000 for expenses incurred during the investigation including car repair and rent.


“Kohlmann is an expert in how to use the Internet, like my 12-year-old. He has found all the bad [stuff] about Islam, and testifies as if what he is reading on the Internet is fact. He was paid around $30,000 to look at websites, documents, and testify.”

These informants sometimes promise — but don’t deliver — similar hefty sums to the guys they’re trying to entrap.

Forty-five-year-old James Cromitie was struggling to make ends meet when, in 2009, FBI informant Hussain offered him as much as $250,000 to carry out a plot which Hussain—who also went by “Maqsood”—had constructed on his own.


The informant proposed to lend Hossain $50,000 in cash so long as he paid  him back $2,000 monthly until he had paid back $45,000.

Which is particularly important because many of these guys are quite poor (and couldn’t even afford to commit the crimes they’re accused of).

At the time he was in contact with the informant and the undercover [agent] he was living at home with his parents in Ashland and he didn’t have a car, he didn’t have any money and he didn’t have a driver’s license because he owed $100 and he didn’t have $100 to pay off the fine. In various parts of the investigation he didn’t have a laptop and he didn’t have a cellphone. At one point the informant gave him a cell phone.

And some of these crimes (the very notable exceptions in the HRW report include two material support cases, both of which are close calls on charity designations, but which involved very large sums, $13 million a year in the case of Holy Land Foundation) involve relatively minscule sums.

According to the prosecution, Mirza was the ringleader in collecting around $1,000—provided by the FBI agents and co-defendant Williams—that he handed to a middleman with the intent that it go to families of Taliban fighters.

So one theme of the HRW report is we’re spending huge amounts entrapping what are often poor young men in miniscule crimes so taxpayers can pay $29,000 a year to keep them incarcerated for decades.

These are the stakes for what Rascoff calls a “luxury.” At a time of self-imposed austerity, these stings are, indeed, a luxury.

Compare that to what happens to Bank of America, which engaged in “egregious” violations of bank reporting requirements for three years (and non-egregious ones for a fourth), thereby helping 10 drug kingpins launder their money. No one will go to jail. Bank of America doesn’t even have to admit wrong-doing. Instead, it will have to pay a $16.5 million fine, or just 0.14% of its net income last year.

This settlement came out of a Treasury investigation, not an FBI one.

But when DOJ’s Inspector General investigated what FBI did when it was given $196 million between 2009 and 2011 to investigate (penny ante) mortgage fraud, FBI’s focus on the issue actually decreased (and DOJ lied about its results). When FBI decided to try to investigate mortgage fraud proactively by using undercover operations, like it does terrorism and drugs, its agents just couldn’t figure out how to do so (in many cases Agents were never told of the effort), so the effort was dropped.

Banks commits crimes on a far grander scale than most of these sting targets. But FBI throws the big money at its counterterrorism stings, and not the banks leaching our economy of its vitality.

Rascoff accuses HRW’s and similar interventions of being one-dimensional.

[F]or all the important questions about official practices that critics raise, they have tended to ignore some hard questions about the use of stings and the tradeoffs they entail.Instead, their interventions have an exaggerated, one-dimensional quality to them.

But he himself is guilty of his own crime. Because every kid the FBI entraps in a $240,000 sting may represent an actual completed bank crime that will never be investigated. It represents an opportunity cost. The choice is not just sting or no sting or (more accurately, as David Cole points out) sting or community outreach and cooperation.

Rather, the choice is also between manufacturing crimes to achieve counterterrorism numbers or investigating real financial crimes that are devastating communities.

So long as we fail to see that tradeoff, we fail to address one major source of the economic malaise that fuels other crimes.

Ignoring bank crimes is, truly, something we don’t have the luxury of doing. Nevertheless, we continue to choose to go on doing so, even while engaging in these “luxurious” counterterrorism stings that accomplish so little.

18 replies
  1. Ben Franklin says:

    The Newburgh Four are safely behind bars after being entrapped by ‘informant’ Hussain, so it’s all good. /s

  2. orionATL says:

    “…there are now approximately 3000 european passpprt holders fighting in syria and iraq…”

    who says a young man volunteering for military adventure will return home to engage in terrorism there? this leap of imagination involves assumptions about “radicalization” and its transferability to another conflict as well as assumptions about a young man’s motives – including implying they don’t change.

    “militants”, like “rebels”, “terrorists”, “seperatists”, et al., are media words that carry little meaningful content but ominous connotations.

    there is no reason to believe most of these guys are going to end up life-long jihadist crackpots. one war – if they are lucky enough to survive it – will probably be enough.

    of prof roscoff’s 3,000 militants i’d be astonished if more than 5-10% went any further than syria or iraq.

    so, “…keeping tabs on trained militants…” will be such a BIG job for europe because every god damned one of them will be a crazy jihadist bomber for a lifetime.

    this couldn’t be arguing from a stereotype, could it?

  3. Dan says:

    So, does the FBI issue 1099’s for all this income they are handing out? Or are they abetting the crime of tax evasion?

    • Thierry Guerrant says:

      The Attorney General’s Guidelines on the use of confidential informants actually instruct federal agents to tell informants that the payments they’re given are taxable income. The guidelines don’t refer to issuing 1099s, but they do require a lot of documentation on payments because of incidents in which federal agents have invented informants to steal payment money or have skimmed payments made to actual informants.

      The IRS Manual is public information and perhaps indicates how federal agencies generally approach the issue of taxing informants. It states in regard to the IRS’s own confidential informants (CIs):

      Every January CIs must be advised of the total amount of taxable payments made to them in the previous tax year. The SACs [Special Agents-in-Charge] will direct the imprest fund cashiers to summarize the payments made to each confidential informant (SOC 9101 expense) and advise the controlling special agents of these amounts. In accordance with the LEM [Law Enforcement Manual], special agents will contact the CIs and advise them of the total taxable amount paid and document the contact in a memorandum of contact. This memorandum will be placed in the control file and a copy forwarded to *CI-HQ-SIT-Confidential Informants.

      • Dan says:

        Thanks for the feedback. I guess the only remaining question is: do they actually enforce the guidelines or is it just another case of official rules published tomplacate the people, while ignored by the department. “Guidelines” of course are optional.

  4. P J Evans says:

    Since Aleppo is in Syria, and there are at least two international borders to cross, I suspect it would take rather longer to drive from Aleppo to Budapest than it does to drive from Denver to New York.

    Also, why the hell is the FBI putting everything else on hold while it entraps might-possibly-wannabe terrorists?

  5. Les says:

    Remember the Federal Reserve, Bank of America, and other major banks had them devote much of their counterterrorism task force to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I recall that at one time some 5000+ agents and local police were tasked to track and break up OWS. The issue of counterterrorism resources diverted to Occupy and sting operations came up during the Boston Marathon Bomber case in a few newspaper articles, but was generally ignored by the media.

    • emptywheel says:

      Thanks for the reminder. Some of my tweets were actually among the ones monitored by the local fusion center rather than the Tsarnaev brothers.

  6. bevin says:

    “…There are now approximately 3,000 European passport holders fighting in Syria and Iraq.”

    Yup! And they are all armed, trained and paid by the CIA.

  7. bloopie2 says:

    Off topic and late, but … someone out to FOIA the Government Printing Office to see (1) how many copies of the “secret” Watchlist Guidance book were printed, and (2) whether the PDF version thereof is of the “non-copyable” type. Would help courts in determining threshold limitations as to what is a state secret, no?

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Shiny pennies are so much more enticing than the green paper with Ben’s face on it, aren’t they. Comforting thought, but one that would let the Feds off the hook for a policy, not of stupidity or neglect, but of intention, one that immunizes the banksters and keeps the money flowing to their lobbyists, lawyers and pet congresscritters. For the banksters, the profits made based on those lobbying costs is probably the best investment they’ve ever, or ever will make. Now that bankster corporations are considered political “persons”, with human-like civil rights (actually, better), those profits may go up.

    • Ben Franklin says:

      “Intent’ is an important element in criminal law. It’s an indictment of every DOJ action, like the poison fruit. Just as the US bars any attempts to bring Israel to the Hague, they restrict any notion of justice with their informant policies, whether dealing with illicit drugs or terrorism. They know this house of cards can easily fall with the correct wind, and that must be deflected for, if nothing else, self-preservation.

  9. Schuey1981 says:

    Another great atricle Marcy, & I wholeheartedly agree with most of it. Entrapping young destitute people who are likely angry because of their situation is doing no one any good. The only things I would change about the article I what to do about it, and the so called self imposed austerity you mentioned.
    1: Immediately slash the FBI’s counter terrorism budget as it has proven by countless studies & deplorable, probably illegal conduct that it is unable to focus on real threats. This keeps more people out of prison, saves money allowing prison budgets to be cut also a bonus.
    2: I disagree with the self imposed Austerity America’s budgets are becoming a serious threat to it’s own national security. Many countries are beginning to abandon the dollar in trade, if you believe inflation is a problem now,(unless youre Krugman) wait until the trillions of dollars overseas start coming home because countries no longer want or need dollars. So to say self imposed austerity I believe is a bit unfair, Americas budget by necessity must start to shrink drastically, not to mention how many countries they are imposing financial sanctions and other draconian reporting agreements on if you’ve looked at fatca. Long story short the US has lived much beyond it’s means for years because of it’s reserve status, the perpetual war, surveillance & the like is all gonna have to be drastically scaled back not mention most entitlements. It’s a harsh reality, but no reserve currency last forever & the US dollars dominance is coming to an end, gonna mean many more tough choices ahead.

    • P J Evans says:

      The only reason we’re having that conversation is that there are way too many politicians who will run wars off-budget, won’t fund anything that helps people, and won’t raise taxes to pay for the (mostly non-functional) military and intelligence equipment (and contractors to run them) that they think is necessary.

  10. Schuey1981 says:

    So why put any faith in a failed political system to solve your problems? Let it collapse & remake the republic in the image it was created to be. A private property, liberty & privacy protecting individualist society. Frankly after the last century of Central Banking & big government, you’d think rational people would understand politics is NEVER the answer. Marcy’s articles on NSA reform are a case in point, it’s all about the fascist & partially socialist status quo, which is clearly a spectacular failure. Americas roots in individual liberty are where it’s at, a few tweaks to your original Constitution & the world would be rid of the criminal American bully.

  11. lefty665 says:

    “When FBI decided to try to investigate mortgage fraud proactively by using undercover operations, like it does terrorism and drugs, its agents just couldn’t figure out how to do so…”
    It has long been the opinion in the intel community that most of ’em at the FBI couldn’t find the bathroom without a paid informant. That does not seem to have changed. Not a lot of bright lights over there.
    Thanks for all you do Marcie. We’re all one hop away these days. F*** ’em all.

  12. DWBartoo says:

    Since you refer to the Banks, EW, we must also allow ourselves the luxury of the unequal application of the law. Forfeiture laws are used to strip accused “drug kingpins, drug overlords”, average people, in other words, of ALL of their assets … allowing them little opportunity of defending themselves in a court of “law” … while the Banks are not, ever, subject to such measures, although, “corporations are people too”. Right now, we have the “luxury” of making a complete mock of the Rule of Law … And frankly, have blatantly been doing so since Bush v. Gore. Prior to that it was hidden, more or less. Now, we torture the law in public, for fun and profit. I guess that is a form of “transparency” and we should luxuriate in it.

    Is this democracy? Not so much.

    I guess the real question, so far as I am concerned, is whether there is any real and interest, among people, in actually having … or building, the real thing?


Comments are closed.