Did the FBI Invent the D.C. Bomb Plot?

Last week the police arrested Farooque Ahmed for plotting a terrorist attack on the D.C. Metro system. However, it's not clear how much of the plot was his idea and how much was the idea of some paid FBI informants:

The indictment offers some juicy tidbits -- Ahmed allegedly proposed using rolling suitcases instead of backpacks to bomb the Metro -- but it is notably thin in details about the role of the FBI. It is not clear, for example, whether Ahmed or the FBI (or some combination of the two) came up with the concept of bombing the Metro in the first place. And the indictment does not say when and why Ahmed first encountered the people he believed to be members of al-Qaida.

Of course the police are now using this fake bomb plot to justify random bag searching in the Metro. (It's a dumb idea.)

This is the problem with thoughtcrime. Entrapment is much too easy.

EDITED TO ADD (11/4): Much the same thing was written in The Economist blog.

Posted on November 3, 2010 at 7:06 AM • 46 Comments

Comments

anonimizerNovember 3, 2010 7:35 AM

What if they didn't decide to arrest the guy... would this have been another bit of evidence to show how dangerous al-Qaida is?

Imperfect CitizenNovember 3, 2010 7:37 AM

I wish that our President would read Bruce's blog. Or maybe the IG of Justice.

On "informants" and leading questions
I can't tell you how many people have come up to me out of the blue since I was targeted and said
"Are you a Muslim?" Even when I'm wearing a cross and volunteering at a Christian homeless shelter. I say no. "Do you think this country deserved the events of 9/11?" I say no.
"What do you think of suicide bombers?"
"Do you want to know where Congressman so and so lives?" No.
You'll know if you get targeted, you'll get the weirdest questions from total strangers. But what will they report that your answers were? Who will record that/report it? Will they just say suicide bombing was discussed and not tell the truth? Will they say 9/11 was discussed? These folks bring it up. For goodness sakes. Its really pitiful that they have to keep stalking a middle aged housewife. Isn't it ridiculous? And I was originally targeted for having the nerve to ask my Congressman to oppose a bill funding torture in the name of Jesus.

caseyNovember 3, 2010 9:17 AM

Entrapment is usually about crimes of 'pleasure' such as drugs/prostitution. In this case, the defense would have a hard time suggesting that he was lured by gov't agents to do something he did not want to do. All they would have to find is a single post/letter against the US and I think prosecution would go forward. I am not saying it is right, just that for a violent action the bar for entrapment is pretty high. I would prefer the FBI not do this, but instead try to find those taking action without encouragement.

Clive RobinsonNovember 3, 2010 9:29 AM

There is a reason why those with psychiatry qualifications are often exempt from doing jury service...

We know that even original thought does not come without influence on the person. That is why we have "brainstorming".

We know that commities and other small assemblies of individuals usually develope a common ethos we call it "groupthink"

We know that those who go against a group are usually evicted from the group.

We also know the power of suggestion can be used to put words in peoples mouths.

We also know from experimentation that the sense of belonging is a powerful tool to use against people and from the tricks of "turning a back" or "sending to coventry". Few people can resist even these simple techniques.

In the UK we are seeing police officers involved in a so called "lawful shooting" playing games in court when giving testimony under oath. In that they have used "song titles" in a "one up manship" game.

Thus we know that people in groups are easily manipulated, and few are capable of resisting this sort of control.

We even give it a name "grooming".

Knowing this why on earth do we still belive this sort of nonsense from the likes of TLA's?

GrumpyNovember 3, 2010 10:54 AM

So... has anyone pointed out to the ordinary cops doing the searching that should they get lucky and actually find a suicide bomber it would probably be noticed several blocks away? I mean, it's not *that* likely that the fellow with the finger on the trigger would go "It's a fair cop" and just come quietly. That should put a stop to random searches right quickly. :-)

Not really anonymousNovember 3, 2010 11:13 AM

@Grumpy: What makes you think doing random searches is really about finding bombs? Bombs is just the excuse to legitimize the searches. The real purpose might be finding drugs or harassing people who don't belong in the area. (Uppity minorities and the like.)

BF SkinnerNovember 3, 2010 11:33 AM

@Grumpy "it's not *that* likely that the fellow with the finger on the trigger would ... come quietly"

Which seems to be what happened in Bagdhad over the weekend.

I'm still conflicted on this.

I conceed, and agree, that it's very easy for a vested law enforcement interest to abuse justice and make things appear other than they are in fact.

I come back to there are people within our society who pose a significant to catastrophic threat to us. The ability to join and provoke and therefore to pre-empt their plans is useful and appears on it's face to be very useful.

How do we control the risk here or isn't the question one of balanced risks.
Supervisors oversee individuals.
Agencies oversee collectives.
The Executive directs agencies and Congress oversees the Executive.
Voters oversee both and due process is supposed to protect them.

What happens with game changers who see checks and balances as fundamental wishy washy civil liberty prop wash? Wasting time and money for trials and incarcerations when everyone accepts they are guilty and mad dog dangerous to live. Do away with due process and place citizens on shoot to kill lists. Disappear people to extra-legal facilities. (and as someone pointed out on cspan yesterday the Obama rendition policy is the same as Bush's and claimed that renditions were higher during the Clinton administration than during Bush terms.) Well, true to say, no President ever gave back the power ceded to him by Congress and the People.

And, if they were avaliable, it would come down to numbers.
How effective is the agency and it's people?
(The reason NOLA did away with it's surveillence cameras was that the system wasn't effective. Leave aside for the moment whether it could be made effective.)

Now how many threats are there?
Based on the number of attacks and arrests before attacks made by stings?
Darn few and of those darn stupid.

How many investigations are there?
How much in agency resources are being dedicated there and taken from investigating bank fraud or violent crimes. (what is their request for increase in budget)
How many prosecutions. How many convictions

It is the system that's supposed to be able to review, down to the granular level, of an individual investigator how effective it is. To enforce the rules and sanction power abusers.

If we can't trust that system the balance of threat shifts from the evil intentioned terrorist to organizations in search of enemies. That should be measurable. And if our Justice system was a either a system or a monolithic entity we might be able to but records are scattered in every jurisdiction in the country. And, as the feebies UCR has shown us, people will game the recording system.

Rob SheinNovember 3, 2010 11:42 AM

On one hand, it bothers me...greatly...that the FBI engages in actions like this. Other "terrorists" have been caught, and in the course of things it has come to light that the FBI (either directly or through an informant) was the one egging them on towards taking action. But, on the other hand, when I place myself in the position of the person being prosecuted, I think of what my reaction would be to such inducements. Which would be, "What...are you F&$#ING CRAZY???" So, the argument can be made that they're going after nascent threats, people who are prone to taking such action and who would tend to feel that such things are acceptable or even noble. It's still a slippery slope, however, and I'm not sure where the line should actually be drawn.

NedNovember 3, 2010 11:57 AM

You could almost say the government is disappointed there aren't more attacks. So much so that it's trying to "fill in the gaps."

ConfusedNovember 3, 2010 12:15 PM

They pretend to be buyers to go after the big dealers...and go after the Johns to 'reduce the demand'...I'd just like to see some actual law enforcement where the undercover FBI arrests the undercover LEO and vice versa and all parties do hard time because they're all doing something illegal (selling or buying).

With today's surveillance technology it should be easy to monitor a terrorist's actions and use that to convict them than instead of participating in the terrorism to drum up enough illegal intent to put them away.

BF SkinnerNovember 3, 2010 12:16 PM

@Ned "to "fill in the gaps."

How many Indians are in this picture?
If you can't see any but 'know' there are then it's easy to project into the picture. Categorical confusion.

Heartland was told that they weren't PCI certified...they were hacked ergo they couldn't be PCI.

Trichinosis USANovember 3, 2010 12:40 PM

Always look at the timing of these cries of "wolf". Timing is always a factor. These are pseudo-events designed to manipulate public opinion toward the justification of a fascist police state. Very often they coincide with elections or other events (Wikileaks, the Rally for Sanity/Fear) which have the potential to erode that agenda. At the very least, they're designed to drive something else off the front pages.

Jay MuntzNovember 3, 2010 1:26 PM

The fact that the FBI continues to use these techniques (which obviously are entrapment) makes me wonder if there isn't a method to this madness that hasn't been considered.

My basic idea is that by periodically manufacturing a terrorist plot situation through basic entrapment, it might cause distrust amongst actual terrorist potters -who will worry that their co-conspirators are actually government agents.

The people arrested and tried in these situations are collateral damage - innocent lives ruined. However, perhaps the FBI thinks that this is an effective way to throw sand in the workings of actual terrorist plots even when they have no idea about the who, what, where, or how of the next "for-real" attack.

I'm curious what people here think of this idea.

no way, no howNovember 3, 2010 2:35 PM

@Jay Muntz: "The people arrested and tried in these situations are collateral damage - innocent lives ruined. "

Umm, how are potential conspirators "innocent"?

If I'm at the local anti-government rally, and some chap comes up to me and asks if I want to "do something", will I join him, or will I run the other way?

I think that those who do join a possible terrorist cell should be investigated, since any honest and sane person will keep their distance.

David ThornleyNovember 3, 2010 3:09 PM

Let's look at how this can proceed.

A few people are harmlessly griping about the government or something. An agent joins them, and tries to talk them into doing something illegal. He pushes them into coming up with a plan. Likely that plan involves acquiring something, perhaps something completely innocuous in itself. One of the people acquires said basically innocuous item by legitimate means, perhaps after urging by the agent.

At this time, the arrests proceed, and everybody in the group is charged with conspiracy to commit X. They had a plan to commit X, and somebody performed a tangible action in accordance with the plan, and that's enough to be convicted under a conspiracy charge.

This doesn't require any intention or even willingness to commit an illegal act. It doesn't require there to have been any sort of terrorist cell or group before the FBI agent barged in. It merely requires a sufficiently pushy agent provocateur, and one person to do something harmless to appease such an agent.

In short, it's a way of generating terrorism convictions against harmless people who were merely not firm enough to stand up to a trained FBI agent. The agent and the prosecutor stand to gain much from catching "terrorists", and there's no comparable incentive for anybody else in the system to defend them, and the legal loopholes are being exploited by the prosecution.

I don't have that much sympathy with somebody who'd commit a destructive or harmful act, but a conspiracy conviction doesn't require that.

WAMNovember 3, 2010 3:57 PM

You know what it reminds me of? A 419 scam or wire transfer scam. Perhaps not the specific goal, but the general idea of selecting an ideologically motivated mark (substitute anger for greed), enticing them to proceed with a risky plot, and then getting out of the way before the crime is prosecuted. The difference is that the instigator and the investigator are the same agency, so they have complete control over the scam. Wire transfer scammers make off with the cash, while entrapment scammers get increased powers.

SolsaNovember 3, 2010 4:19 PM

@WAM

...and promotion and increased funding, for having foiled so many "plots". I agree, they stand to gain lots of benefits from this behaviour.

Dr. TNovember 3, 2010 4:39 PM

@Jay Muntz: "... My basic idea is that by periodically manufacturing a terrorist plot situation through basic entrapment, it might cause distrust amongst actual terrorist potters -who will worry that their co-conspirators are actually government agents."

I highly doubt that the FBI is engaged in John LeCarre-style plots and counterplots. Our top FBI administrators are just not that bright.

Richard Steven HackNovember 3, 2010 6:04 PM

People babble about "controlling the risk".

Here's how to reduce the risk to the absolute minimum! Free solution! No extra charge! Such a deal I offer you!

Stop making this country a target.

See how easy that was?

Oh, you want details?

OK, simple. Stop supporting corrupt Middle Eastern monarchies and dictatorships, specifically Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, etc.

Next, stop supporting Israel with weapons and money and UN vetoes over every UN resolution against Israel.

Next, demand Israel disarm its nuclear arsenal. Poof! Problem with Iran solved!

Next, demand Israel negotiate fairly with the Palestinians and pull back to the 1967 borders.

Throw out the 60-75 US Senators who are owned and operated by AIPAC. This guy Rubio who just won his seat YESTERDAY is flying to ISRAEL THIS WEEKEND! Does that tell you anything?

All these policy decisions won't cost the US taxpayer a DIME, they can be made over night, and they will remove the US as a target for Al Qaeda.

Of course, now we still have to deal with revenge bombings for all the civilians we murdered in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. Getting out of those countries before we murder any more civilians might help - it would also cost less.

Richard Steven HackNovember 3, 2010 6:07 PM

By the way, while you're all worried about using these entrapment techniques against Muslims, you might want to find out how often the FBI and local cops have used these methods against the two million so-called "drug dealers" that are in US prisons already for the last, oh, half a century.

Why do you think the DoJ has a 98% conviction rate? Because all these people are "guilty"? Hah!

It's because of the use of entrapment and threatening people with life sentences unless they rat out all their friends and relatives, guilty or not.

JayNovember 3, 2010 6:31 PM

@noway - You're right. I'm overstating the case when I call them "innocent."

But, these people were essentially "harmless" until they met some of our government officials and then got caught up in a terrorist plot.

JoeNovember 3, 2010 10:45 PM

Why doesn't the FBI use these techniques on real criminals, like the investment bankers trading in worthless derivatives or pharmaceutical executives who conceal lethal drug side effects? Should be an interesting sting operation.

abNovember 4, 2010 12:05 AM

And this is not even the only case of an alphabet agency having been involved in a domestic bomb plot.

9-11 is another case, and there are others.

Clive RobinsonNovember 4, 2010 12:26 AM

@ Joe,

"Why doesn't the FBI use these techniques on real criminals"

Your definition of a "real criminal" might not be those of the FBI or their political masters responsable for granting them tax payer dollars.

For instance as there are so many bits of legislation I would guess that 98-100% of the adult US population has commited atleast one "real statute crime" in their lives.

It is this way in most so called "civilised countries" it's a consiquence of not having sunset clauses included in all (and I do mean all) legislation.

I know as a UK resident I commit various ancient crimes (like eating mincepies at the winter festival, not practicing with my longbow on Sundays etc etc). Then there are the more modern crimes that many vehicle driver / owners commit on an almost daily basis and most at some point.

So your definition,

"like the investment bankers trading in worthless derivatives or pharmaceutical executives who conceal lethal drug side effects?"

Might actually not be commiting "real statute crimes" because they pay lobyists to stop their activities being legislated against (you only have to look at the money being thrown around by the banking sector at the moment to see this in action).

Or for some political reason by way of funding their crimes are being ignored. One such is big bussiness it is mainly run by those with ethics and morals that most people not being sociopaths would find significantly objectionable. However to the politico's that control the funding of Law Enforcment Agencies Big Bussiness is "growing the economy"...

Either way you need to examine the political system and address that to remove the "real criminals".

RonKNovember 4, 2010 4:23 AM

@ no way, no how : If I'm at the local anti-government rally, and some chap comes up to me and asks if I want to "do something", will I join him, or will I run the other way?

And if he is carrying a bag which he knows I'll identify (improperly) as containing marijuana (which he knows I use and like, so that the "something" would be misinterpreted as referring to an ubiquitous crime) but after I say "yes" he says "so you wanted to help me spread the anthrax powder in this bag, eh?" and arrests me? Even better if he has made several of our mutual smoking places be next to government buildings --- then he can ask first "so, shall we hit the X building, or go to Y instead" and I might say, "let's do the X building" (before he pulls the "switch" to anthrax, of course).

Clive is correct --- as long as there's no downside for the TLA's to continue to do this, the practice will only get worse and worse. Personally, I'm hoping the decline will be slow enough that other more pressing problems will distract humanity in general.

RonKNovember 4, 2010 4:38 AM

@ Richard Steven Hack

People babble about "controlling the risk". .... Here's how to reduce the risk to the absolute minimum! Free solution! No extra charge! Such a deal I offer you! .... Stop making this country a target. .... See how easy that was? .... Oh, you want details? ....

OK, simple. Stop worrying about European politics. What do we care if Hitler conquers everything over there? If we appease/ignore him, we have nothing to worry about! We could even save a lot of money and forget about that hair-brained bomb idea that Einstein is bugging us about all the time.

***Yeah, really. That one worked well, eh?***

N.B. This doesn't mean I believe the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a good idea. It's pretty obvious that they weren't.

AliNovember 4, 2010 5:35 AM

Personally I think this is very effective. The FBI is finding people who would, if not found, perhaps have been found by real al-Queda and been involved in a terrorist plot - but more important is the fact that now that individuals know that FBI is involved in planting fake bombs, if they are approached by someone saying "Hey I'm from al-queda, lets bomb" they will think "hmm, maybe not maybe you are FBI. I don't want to be the poor sod you trapped."
As long as the target has no way of differentiating between real al-quedqa and the FBI, security is enhanced. Isn't it?

HistorianNovember 4, 2010 7:31 AM

@Robert Steven Hack
"Stop making this country a target."

You mean that if we change all our foreign policy to match what the terrorist organizations want, make their enemies our enemies, and their friends our friends, they'll stop terrorizing us?

And if we take Israel's nuclear deterrent away, Iran will suddenly be sweetness and light, and stop their nuclear program?

My, why didn't we think of that before? What a great idea. Too bad appeasing tyrants hasn't always worked out so well in real life.

HahNovember 4, 2010 8:19 AM

Historian:
Bullshit. There IS something between appeasement and throwing your weight around.

HistorianNovember 4, 2010 8:31 AM

@Hah

I agree, but rational policy and the middle ground where not what Hack was advocating.

BB33November 4, 2010 8:51 AM

Wait, I thought encouraging people to become terrorists got one on BO's drone list. Guess that Ow Lacky fellow should have just got a job with the fibbies before he turned on his sermon loudspeakers, eh? But wait, none of his followers' fiendish plans actually worked either. Hmmmm...

@Robert Steven Hack, RinK, Hysteria:
I think what RSH is saying is that "our friends" in the Middle East are the ones more likely to be seen sporting the jackboots nowadays...

mooNovember 4, 2010 9:27 AM

@Robert Steven Hack:

"Stop making this country a target."

Sorry, its about 50 years too late for that. Appeasement is not a very good real-world solution anyway.

BF SkinnerNovember 4, 2010 10:41 AM

@Robert Steven Hack
"Stop making this country a target."

You mean Germany made itself a target for Greek Anarchist letter bombers?

@Historian "And if we take Israel's nuclear deterrent away, Iran will suddenly be sweetness and light, and stop their nuclear program?"

@Hack made a specious argument. These are independent variables. Iran is not building nukes to defend itself from Israel. Iran has a boner for Israel the predates their detternt. If Israel had no nukes Iran would still think about developing them. It prevents others from 'interfering' in Iran's actions.
Iran wants to be an Empire. They've co-opted Syria, they are almost done bringing Lebenon to heel and we're are giving them Iraq on a silver platter.

JimFiveNovember 4, 2010 3:14 PM

@Ali: RE: Personally I think this is very effective. The FBI is finding people who would, if not found, perhaps have been found by real al-Queda and been involved in a terrorist plot

Except that there just aren't that many "real al-Qaida" operatives around to find these people. Every one of the US plots that we have heard about were instigated by the FBI. There have been none that were instigated by "real al-Qaida".
--
JimFive

Davi OttenheimerNovember 4, 2010 3:45 PM

Well, that was certainly the first thing that came to my mind when I read this story.

I confess I have been influenced by the results of the Canadian version of this issue, however.

Every time I discuss the 2006 Toronto terrorism plot with a Canadian they stand firm on the point that some dumb, bumbling, impressionable kids were lured into a plot by law enforcement and then stung.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

Davi OttenheimerNovember 4, 2010 3:49 PM

@Ali

"Personally I think this is very effective. The FBI is finding people who would, if not found, perhaps have been found by real al-Queda and been involved in a terrorist plot"

JimFive makes a good point. Just wanted to also add that even terrorists have standards.

Someone easily fooled or influenced might be fodder for terrorists, but at the same time they also might present too high a risk to be recruited as they might turn/break or just be sloppy and give everything away.

JoeVNovember 4, 2010 6:57 PM

@ RS Hack said: "Next, demand Israel disarm its nuclear arsenal. Poof! Problem with Iran solved!"

Would it be fair for the US to first unilaterally disarm, as a show of "good faith?" After all, we have many more thermonuclear warheads than does Israel.

And do you really think that the "problem" with Iran would be "solved" by Israel giving away their nuclear option?

Me thinks that the "solution" desired by Iran has more in common with the "final solution" pursued by a certain reactionary European government in the 1930's-40's. Just read or listen to Iran's diatribe on the subject. And the destruction of the Jewish state has more in common with militant Islam worldwide than just Iran.

Clive RobinsonNovember 5, 2010 7:22 AM

@ Davi Ottenheimer,

"Add that even terrorists have standards Someone easily fooled or influenced might be fodder for terrorists, but at the same time they also might present too high a risk to be recruited as they might turn/break or just be sloppy and give everything away."

Maybe not, consider the case of Corporal Hotfoot and Captain Underpants.

Both are more of a danger to themselves than anything else. And thus would not be the sort of person you would stand anywhere but a long way behind in a battle.

However they are also the sort that act as "lightning rods" not just for disaster but the attention of the authorities (if they where awake).

So you know darn well as a recruiter for the cause they are going to be a real problem whatever you do with them. You would hope they are just going to go away but you know they are not and the longer they hang around the more of a danger they are going to be to your organisation.

The simple solution is to get them out of the way fast. There are several ways you can do this but bodies turning up on rubbish heaps or street corners is not one that you would want to consider in the west. Likewise they are likley to have relatives that would become worried if they just disappeared.

A potential solution is to feed their fantasy and take them into a faux organisation outside of a western country and prep them for a "showboat" operation.

But why "showboat" and not do something for real?

Firstly since 9/11 and three thousand deaths it is going to be difficult to produce more spectacular results.

Secondly 9/11 had the desired effect of getting the "great satan" onto their home turff where they have a chance of inflicting not just further damage on Western Countries but also have the trrops of the same countries committing various crimes and atrocities thus improve recruiting for the likes of insurgants.

However wars cost a lot of money thus those who contribute resources other than their brains or bodies need to be "Kept on Message".

The easiest way to do this is to get the west to harm it's self via the paranoia the press and politicians raise and exploit.

However the fastest way to lose the financial and other resources is to kill women and children needlessly.

The likes of attacks like Mumbi attack are actually counter productive for the declared aims of Osama bin laden.

So what you need is a couple of attacks that are effectivly going to fail which get high news value but zero casualties which is what a "showboat" or "fundraiser" attack is all about.

The problem is you need a fall guy who you can reasonably expect is going to eventually reveal everything they know.

Solution take the problematic "walter mitty" type feed their fantasies in a harmless environment where they actually learn nothing of import about the organisation and send them off on an attack that has so little chance of working it can only be for "fundraising" and reminding the West they are still there.

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