Event Monday: Is the FBI Creating Terrorist Plots to Stop Them?

This Monday at noon, Cato hosts “The Newburgh Sting and the FBI’s Production of the Domestic Terrorism Threat.” The event will consider how the FBI and others elements of our domestic security apparatus now generate a sense of the terrorist danger that they combat. David Heilbroner will show clips from his 2014 documentary on the Newburgh four terrorist case, which aired on HBO. Naureen Shah of Amnesty International and John Mueller of Cato and Ohio State will comment. RSVP here.

You can get a sense of the issue from this 2007 headline, from The Onion: “U.S. Counter-Counterterrorism Unit Successfully Destroys Washington Monument.” The counter-counterterrorism unit, the satirical article says, was “created in 2004 in response to the lack of terror activity since the Sept. 11 attacks,” and tasked with “raising awareness among the American public of the ‘myriad unknown threats’ that still face the country,” by demonstrating vulnerability to terrorism.

That’s make-believe, of course. No U.S. government agency has been bombing monuments, or anything else on U.S. soil. But still, like other good satire, the article gets at truth more effectively than conventional rendering of facts.

The standard view remains that the trauma of the September 11 attacks awakened Americans to their vulnerability to terrorism from without and within—terrorists groups overseas like al Qaeda and the “lone-wolf” self-starters they inspire. While our leaders, over the last decade, have become less prone to warn of imminent apocalyptic attacks, they still mostly contend that skilled terrorists lurk among us, evaluating our vulnerabilities, exploiting technologies and always growing more diabolical. That view, of course, is what justifies several of our ongoing military campaigns, various curtailments of civil liberties, and vast expenditures of our wealth for domestic security. Its proponents cite as evidence the terrorist plots found in the country since 2001.

But as The Onion suggests, our fear of terrorism and defenses against it are something of a self-licking ice cone. The surge of political pressure to find the terrorists among us in the early 2000s created a great hunt. The hunters include 104 Joint Terrorism Task Forces, roughly 80 fusion centers, depending on how you count, police at three levels of government, their paid informants, federal prosecutors, intelligence agencies, elements of the Department of Homeland Security, and all of us, at least insofar as we heed officials exhortions to maintain vigilance against something. Institutionalizing the hunt, I like to say, heightens fear of the danger hunted. That occurs not only due to greater scrutiny, but also due to the tendency to expand the definition of danger–essentially creating criminals by criminalizing more conduct.

With its terrorism stings, the FBI has taken things a step further. Relying on the meager odds of a successful “entrapment” defense and thousands of informants, the Bureau creates fraudulent plots to bait people into becoming terrorists. A variety of recent works, most notably Trevor Aaronson’s The Terror Factory, document how many of the terrorists caught (or created) by these plots are too foolish, incompetent, or mentally ill to have produced a terrorist plot without the FBI’s aid.

You may ask: aren’t we better safe than sorry? Might not even a nincompoop, whose “buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope” (the judge’s description of one of the Newburgh defendants) become a true threat without prophylactic policing? Might it be impossible or at least very inefficient to filter out buffoons and catch only real bad guys? These are points that FBI leaders would raise. The panels will address them and also consider the costs of such methods — whether Newburgh-type cases take attention and manpower from bigger dangers, alienate Muslim immigrants, or preserve a sense of insecurity that generates foolish policies.