David Shipler writes in today’s New York Times about an interesting aspect of a series of ‘lethal terrorist plots’ that have been successfully interdicted by the nation’s law enforcement agencies:
[These] dramas were facilitated by the F.B.I., whose undercover agents and informers posed as terrorists offering a dummy missile, fake C-4 explosives, a disarmed suicide vest and rudimentary training. Suspects naïvely played their parts until they were arrested
Shipler goes on to describe the elaborate entrapment methods followed by the FBI and its agents and asks:
This is legal, but is it legitimate? Without the F.B.I., would the culprits commit violence on their own? Is cultivating potential terrorists the best use of the manpower designed to find the real ones? Judging by their official answers, the F.B.I. and the Justice Department are sure of themselves — too sure, perhaps.
In most cases, entrapment defenses do not hold up in court because ‘the law requires that they show no predisposition to commit the crime, even when induced by government agents.’ The entrapment schemes followed by the FBI are distinctive because, before the 9/11 attacks, ‘it would be very unusual for the F.B.I. to present a crime opportunity that wasn’t in the scope of the activities that a person was already involved in’ and that is because ‘There isn’t a business of terrorism in the United States’. So what the FBI has to do, apparently, is ‘find somebody who would jump at the opportunity if a real terrorist showed up in town.’ (Someone indulging in ‘Thought Crimes’ before those thoughts were directed toward action?)
The FBI’s entrapment includes not just providing material support but also at times, positive encouragement to those ‘terrorists’ that might be vacillating or reluctant. Read, for instance, the description of how James Cromitie, a defendant in the plot to bomb synagogues and shoot Stinger missiles at military aircraft was led on and maneuvered, which concludes with:
It took 11 months of meandering discussion and a promise of $250,000 to lead him, with three co-conspirators he recruited, to plant fake bombs at two Riverdale synagogues.
This pattern of entrapment and its distinctive nature was noted by Judge Colleen McMahon, who, even as she rejected Cromitie’s entrapment defense and sentenced him to 25 years, noted:
Only the government could have made a ‘terrorist’ out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope.
These activities of the FBI are not unknown, of course, they have been commented on before, most notably by Glenn Greenwald.
So it is worth wondering how many of these men would have remained at the level of grumbling malcontents unless they had been led on by their FBI handlers. Causal analysis and determination of intent in these cases seems especially murky and ambiguous, a little too indeterminate to warrant the crystal clear clarity of the sentence handed out.
In any case, as I read Shipler’s article I was reminded of a little passage in Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, which occurs in the chapter ‘The Revolutionary Tradition and its Lost Treasure’:
It certainly is not conspiracy that causes revolution, and secret societies – though they may succeed in committing a few spectacular crimes, usually with the help of the secret police (endnote 71) – are as a rule much too secret to be able to make their voices heard in public.
Endnote 71 notes:
The record of the secret police in fostering rather than preventing revolutionary activities is especially striking in France during the Second Empire and in Czarist Russia after 1880. It seems, for example, that there was not a single anti-government action under Louis Napoleon which had not been, inspired by the police; and the more important terroristic attacks in Russia prior to war and revolution seem all to have been police jobs.