BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
“If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all,” the late great blues man Albert King sang in “Born Under A Bad Sign.” As Trevor Aaronson tells it in his new book, “The Terror Factory: Inside The FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism” (ig Publishing, 2013), that lyric is apropos to a large percentage of the so-called terrorists -- more aptly dubbed “sad sacks” -- nabbed by the FBI since 9/11.
Take the case of Michael Curtis Reynolds. In 2005, Reynolds, an unemployed “drifter with a bad employment history and a worse credit report,” was living at his mother’s house in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, when he unveiled a grandiose idea that would make him an object of interest for the FBI.
Apparently “outraged by the war in Iraq,” and who knows how many other, more personal beefs, Reynolds “logged in to a Yahoo forum called OBLCREW—OBL for Osama bin Laden — and shared his dream of bombing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.” When no one responded to his post, he tried again, writing, “Still awaiting someone serious about contact. Would be a pity to lose this idea.”
Within the next twenty-four hours, Reynolds received a response; an offer of $40,000 “to fund the attack, which evolved into a plan to fill trucks withy explosives and bomb oil refineries in New Jersey and Wyoming, as well as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.”
When Reynolds arrived at a rest stop on Interstate 15 in Idaho, instead of meeting like-minded comrades, he was “greeted by FBI agents.” Aaronson points out that Reynolds was eventually “tried and convicted of providing material support to Al Qaeda and received thirty years in prison.”
And the FBI was credited with having thwarted another terrorist plot.
Was Reynolds just another hapless boob, or was he a clear and present danger to the nation? Aaronson concluded that while Reynolds was most certainly a “sad sack” who has many of the characteristics of an “all-American loser,” he was not “a dangerous terrorist.”
The Reynolds case got Aaronson, an experienced investigative reporter, interested in discovering how many other Reynolds-like terrorists had been rounded up by the FBI since 9/11. Aaronson found that FBI informants and undercover agents were at the center of many of the cases touted by the FBI as successes in thwarting terrorist plots. In fact, were it not for the FBI, most of those plots would likely have fallen apart under the weight of their own senselessness and ineptitude.
Aaronson began “pulling court records” of cases that “involved defendants who, like Reynolds, had no actual contacts with terrorist organizations and were lured into their plots by FBI informants.”
Trying to answer the question “How many so-called terrorists prosecuted in U.S. courts since 9/11 were real terrorists?” Aaronson began a “systematic analysis of all terrorism cases” and quickly discovered that “While the U.S. Department of Justice tracked terrorism prosecutions internally, this data was not made public.”
Ironically, Aaronson’s breakthrough came when Attorney General Eric Holder, appearing before Congress in March 2010 “to assure the public that the Justice Department was not only capable of providing a secure and fair setting for the trial [of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Kuwaiti-born mastermind of 9/11], but also was well accomplished in prosecuting terrorists.” To convince Congress, Holder “provided a document containing nearly nine years’ worth of … data … -- a list of about 400 people whom the Justice Department has prosecuted in the United States since 9/11 and considered terrorists.”
The Holder testimony provided the foundation for a wide-ranging investigation that involved securing some financial support, poring over thousands of pages of court records and documents, building and analyzing a database, and meeting “with current and former FBI officials to help [him] understand what the data meant.”
Along with research assistant, Lauren Ellis, Aaronson examined “court records from every case on the Justice Department’s list as well as every subsequent case that fit the government’s criteria for terrorism.”
Aaronson and Ellis were trying to sort out:
“How many of the defendants posed actual threats, based on the evidence?”
“How many of the prosecutions involved FBI sting operations using informants?”
“How many of those informants played such an active role in the investigation that they reasonably could be described as agent provocateurs?”
By the end of the summer of 2011, Aaronson and Ellis had compiled a “database of 508 defendants whom the U.S. government considered terrorists. …. Of the 508 … 243 had been targeted through an FBI informant, 158 had been caught in an FBI terrorism sting, and 49 had encountered an agent provocateur.”
Aaronson realized “he could count on one hand the number of actual terrorists, such as failed New York City subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, who posed a direct and immediate threat to the United States.”
After his extensive and exhausting investigation, Aaronson found that “the FBI has built the largest network of spies ever to exist in the United States – with ten times as many informants on the streets today [as] … during the infamous Cointelpro operations under FBI director J. Edgar Hoover – with the majority of these spies focused on ferreting out terrorism in Muslim communities.”
As Aaronson reports, the case of Michael Curtis Reynolds was only one of many in which “an informant came up with the idea and provided the necessary means and opportunity for the terrorist plot.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of the FBI is how well the agency has been able to toot its own horn, and create its own myths over the years. The more criminals and “terrorists” it snags and helps prosecute, the more funding it receives – approximately $3 billion per year to fight terrorism according to Aaronson.
Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI became a self-perpetuating myth-making machine carved out of Hoover’s battle against communism, organized crime, and his war on civil rights and anti-war activists (Cointelpro). Now, in the post-Hoover, post-9/11 period, the war on terrorism allows the myth making to continue.