Entries Tagged "police informants"

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Incenting Drug Dealers to Snitch on Each Other

Local police are trying to convince drug dealers to turn each other in by pointing out that it reduces competition.

It’s a comical tactic with serious results: “We offer a free service to help you eliminate your drug competition!” Under a large marijuana leaf, the flier contained a blank form encouraging drug dealers to identify the competition and provide contact information. It also asked respondents to identify the hours the competition was most active.

Posted on August 11, 2015 at 6:41 AMView Comments

Becoming a Police Informant in Exchange for a Lighter Sentence

Fascinating article.

Snitching has become so commonplace that in the past five years at least 48,895 federal convicts — one of every eight — had their prison sentences reduced in exchange for helping government investigators, a USA TODAY examination of hundreds of thousands of court cases found. The deals can chop a decade or more off of their sentences.

How often informants pay to acquire information from brokers such as Watkins is impossible to know, in part because judges routinely seal court records that could identify them. It almost certainly represents an extreme result of a system that puts strong pressure on defendants to cooperate. Still, Watkins’ case is at least the fourth such scheme to be uncovered in Atlanta alone over the past 20 years.

Those schemes are generally illegal because the people who buy information usually lie to federal agents about where they got it. They also show how staggeringly valuable good information has become –­ prices ran into tens of thousands of dollars, or up to $250,000 in one case, court records show.

There are all sorts of complexities and unintended consequences in this system. This is just a small part of it:

The risks are obvious. If the government rewards paid-for information, wealthy defendants could potentially buy early freedom. Because such a system further muddies the question of how informants — already widely viewed as untrustworthy ­– know what they claim to know, “individual cases can be undermined and the system itself is compromised,” U.S. Justice Department lawyers said in a 2010 court filing.

Plea bargaining is illegal in many countries precisely because of the perverse incentives it sets up. I talk about this more in Liars and Outliers.

Posted on December 28, 2012 at 6:37 AMView Comments

The Effects of Social Media on Undercover Policing

Social networking sites make it very difficult, if not impossible, to have undercover police officers:

“The results found that 90 per cent of female officers were using social media compared with 81 per cent of males.”

The most popular site was Facebook, followed by Twitter. Forty seven per cent of those surveyed used social networking sites daily while another 24 per cent used them weekly. All respondents aged 26 years or younger had uploaded photos of themselves onto the internet.

“The thinking we had with this result means that the 16-year-olds of today who might become officers in the future have already been exposed.

“It’s too late [for them to take it down] because once it’s uploaded, it’s there forever.”

There’s another side to this issue as well. Social networking sites can help undercover officers with their backstory, by building a fictional history. Some of this might require help from the company that owns the social networking site, but that seems like a reasonable request by the police.

I am in the middle of reading Diego Gambetta’s book Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. He talks about the lengthy vetting process organized crime uses to vet new members — often relying on people who knew the person since birth, or people who served time with him in jail — to protect against police informants. I agree that social networking sites can make undercover work even harder, but it’s gotten pretty hard even without that.

Posted on August 31, 2011 at 6:21 AMView Comments

25% of U.S. Criminal Hackers are Police Informants

I have no idea if this is true:

In some cases, popular illegal forums used by cyber criminals as marketplaces for stolen identities and credit card numbers have been run by hacker turncoats acting as FBI moles. In others, undercover FBI agents posing as “carders” ­– hackers specialising in ID theft ­– have themselves taken over the management of crime forums, using the intelligence gathered to put dozens of people behind bars.

So ubiquitous has the FBI informant network become that Eric Corley, who publishes the hacker quarterly, 2600, has estimated that 25% of hackers in the US may have been recruited by the federal authorities to be their eyes and ears. “Owing to the harsh penalties involved and the relative inexperience with the law that many hackers have, they are rather susceptible to intimidation,” Corley told the Guardian.

But if I were the FBI, I would want everyone to believe that it’s true.

Posted on June 8, 2011 at 3:46 PMView Comments

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 AMView Comments

Terrorism Entrapment

Back in 2007, I wrote an essay, “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot,” where I said:

The JFK Airport plotters seem to have been egged on by an informant, a twice-convicted drug dealer. An FBI informant almost certainly pushed the Fort Dix plotters to do things they wouldn’t have ordinarily done. The Miami gang’s Sears Tower plot was suggested by an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the group. And in 2003, it took an elaborate sting operation involving three countries to arrest an arms dealer for selling a surface-to-air missile to an ostensible Muslim extremist. Entrapment is a very real possibility in all of these cases.

Over on Salon, Stephan Salisbury has an essay on FBI entrapment and domestic terrorism plots. It’s well worth reading.

Posted on September 6, 2010 at 7:24 AMView Comments

This Week's Terrorism Arrests

Four points. One: There was little danger of an actual terrorist attack:

Authorities said the four men have long been under investigation and there was little danger they could actually have carried out their plan, NBC News’ Pete Williams reported.

[…]

In their efforts to acquire weapons, the defendants dealt with an informant acting under law enforcement supervision, authorities said. The FBI and other agencies monitored the men and provided an inactive missile and inert C-4 to the informant for the defendants, a federal complaint said.

The investigation had been under way for about a year.

“They never got anywhere close to being able to do anything,” one official told NBC News. “Still, it’s good to have guys like this off the street.”

Of course, politicians are using this incident to peddle more fear:

“This was a very serious threat that could have cost many, many lives if it had gone through,” Representative Peter T. King, Republican from Long Island, said in an interview with WPIX-TV. “It would have been a horrible, damaging tragedy. There’s a real threat from homegrown terrorists and also from jailhouse converts.”

Two, they were caught by traditional investigation and intelligence. Not airport security. Not warrantless eavesdropping. But old fashioned investigation and intelligence. This is what works. This is what keeps us safe. Here’s an essay I wrote in 2004 that says exactly that.

The only effective way to deal with terrorists is through old-fashioned police and intelligence work — discovering plans before they’re implemented and then going after the plotters themselves.

Three, they were idiots:

The ringleader of the four-man homegrown terror cell accused of plotting to blow up synagogues in the Bronx and military planes in Newburgh admitted to a judge today that he had smoked pot before his bust last night.

When U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa M. Smith asked James Cromitie if his judgment was impaired during his appearance in federal court in White Plains, the 55-year-old confessed: “No. I smoke it regularly. I understand everything you are saying.”

Four, an “informant” helped this group a lot:

In April, Mr. Cromitie and the three other men selected the synagogues as their targets, the statement said. The informant soon helped them get the weapons, which were incapable of being fired or detonated, according to the authorities.

The warning the warning I wrote in “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot” is timely again:

Despite the initial press frenzies, the actual details of the cases frequently turn out to be far less damning. Too often it’s unclear whether the defendants are actually guilty, or if the police created a crime where none existed before.

The JFK Airport plotters seem to have been egged on by an informant, a twice-convicted drug dealer. An FBI informant almost certainly pushed the Fort Dix plotters to do things they wouldn’t have ordinarily done. The Miami gang’s Sears Tower plot was suggested by an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the group. And in 2003, it took an elaborate sting operation involving three countries to arrest an arms dealer for selling a surface-to-air missile to an ostensible Muslim extremist. Entrapment is a very real possibility in all of these cases.

Actually, that whole 2007 essay is timely again. Some things never change.

Posted on May 22, 2009 at 6:11 AMView Comments

Creating and Entrapping Terrorists

When I wrote this essay — “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot” — I thought a lot about the government inventing terrorist plotters and entrapping them, to make the world seem scarier. Since then, it’s been on my list of topics to write about someday.

Rolling Stone has this excellent article on the topic, about the Joint Terrorism Task Forces in the U.S.:

But a closer inspection of the cases brought by JTTFs reveals that most of the prosecutions had one thing in common: The defendants posed little if any demonstrable threat to anyone or anything. According to a study by the Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law, only ten percent of the 619 “terrorist” cases brought by the federal government have resulted in convictions on “terrorism-related” charges — a category so broad as to be meaningless. In the past year, none of the convictions involved jihadist terror plots targeting America. “The government releases selective figures,” says Karen Greenberg, director of the center. “They have never even defined ‘terrorism.’ They keep us in the dark over statistics.”

Indeed, Shareef is only one of many cases where the JTTFs have employed dubious means to reach even more dubious ends. In Buffalo, the FBI spent eighteen months tracking the “Lackawanna Six” — a half-dozen men from the city’s large Muslim population who had been recruited by an Al Qaeda operative in early 2001 to undergo training in Afghanistan. Only two lasted the six-week course; the rest pretended to be hurt or left early. Despite extensive surveillance, the FBI found no evidence that the men ever discussed, let alone planned, an attack — but that didn’t stop federal agents from arresting the suspects with great fanfare and accusing them of operating an “Al Qaeda-trained terrorist cell on American soil.” Fearing they would be designated as “enemy combatants” and disappeared into the legal void created by the Patriot Act, all six pleaded guilty to aiding Al Qaeda and were sentenced to at least seven years in prison.

In other cases, the use of informants has led the government to flirt with outright entrapment. In Brooklyn, a Guyanese immigrant and former cargo handler named Russell Defreitas was arrested last spring for plotting to blow up fuel tanks at JFK International Airport. In fact, before he encountered the might of the JTTF, Defreitas was a vagrant who sold incense on the streets of Queens and spent his spare time checking pay phones for quarters. He had no hope of instigating a terrorist plot of the magnitude of the alleged attack on JFK — until he received the help of a federal informant known only as “Source,” a convicted drug dealer who was cooperating with federal agents to get his sentence reduced. Backed by the JTTF, Defreitas suddenly obtained the means to travel to the Caribbean, conduct Google Earth searches of JFK’s grounds and build a complex, multifaceted, international terror conspiracy — albeit one that was impossible to actually pull off. After Defreitas was arrested, U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf called it “one of the most chilling plots imaginable.”

Using informants to gin up terrorist conspiracies is a radical departure from the way the FBI has traditionally used cooperating sources against organized crime or drug dealers, where a pattern of crime is well established before the investigation begins. Now, in new-age terror cases, the JTTFs simply want to establish that suspects are predisposed to be terrorists — even if they are completely unable or ill-equipped to act on that predisposition. High-tech video and audio evidence, coupled with anti-terror hysteria, has made it effectively impossible for suspects to use the legal defense of entrapment. The result in many cases has been guilty pleas — and no scrutiny of government conduct.

In most cases, because no trial is ever held, few details emerge beyond the spare and slanted descriptions in the indictments. When facts do come to light during a trial, they cast doubt on the seriousness of the underlying case. The “Albany Pizza” case provides a stark example. Known as a “sting case,” the investigation began in June 2003 when U.S. soldiers raided an “enemy camp” in Iraq and seized a notebook containing the name of an imam in Albany — one Yassin Aref. To snare Aref, the JTTF dispatched a Pakistani immigrant named Shahed “Malik” Hussain, who was facing years in prison for a driver’s-license scam. Instead of approaching Aref directly, federal agents sent Malik to befriend Mohammed Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant who went to the same mosque as Aref. Hossain, an American citizen who ran a place called Little Italy Pizzeria in Albany, had no connections whatsoever to terrorism or any form of radical Islam. After the attacks on 9/11, he had been quoted in the local paper saying, “I am proud to be an American.” But enticed by Malik, Hossain soon found himself caught up in a government-concocted terror plot. Posing as an arms dealer, Malik told Hossain that a surface-to-air missile was needed for an attack on a Pakistani diplomat in New York. He offered Hossain $5,000 in cash to help him launder $50,000 — a deal Hossain claims he never properly grasped. According to Muslim tradition, a witness is needed for significant financial transactions. Thus, the JTTF reached out for Hossain’s imam and the true target of the sting — Aref.

Posted on March 5, 2008 at 6:25 AMView Comments

Paid Informants in Muslim Communities

This is a good article about the use of paid informants in Muslim communities, and how they are both creating potential terrorists where none existed before and sowing mistrust among people.

Defense lawyers in a number of other terrorism suspect cases accused informants of solely seeking financial boon by creating so-called terrorists that did not exist.

According to court records, Eldawoody was paid $100,000 over a period of 3 years.

Since Siraj’s conviction, Eldawoody has his rent covered and receives a monthly stipend of $3,200.

According to The Washington Post, a police spokesman indicated the direct payments to Eldawoody would likely continue “indefinitely.”

With such incentives, critics argue, informants are likely to be created out of thin air to join the “inform-and-cash” industry.

Meanwhile, the Muslim community across the country is feeling the heat of being closely watched.

“This is creating mistrust between our community and law enforcement officials,” Ayloush said.

In light of their extensive criminal records, Ayloush added, these individuals would neither qualify as police officers nor as FBI agents, yet they are on the payroll of law enforcement agencies and are allowed to do law enforcement work.

“We all respect hardworking law enforcement agents,” Ayloush said. “But mercenary informants? Hardly.”

Posted on August 13, 2007 at 12:50 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.