The FBI is Great at Disrupting (Its Own) “Terror Plots”

On January 14 the US Department of Justice announced that the Joint Terrorism Task Force had disrupted the latest “domestic terrorism plot” — this time by “a Cincinnati-area man … to attack the U.S. Capital and kill government officials.” House Speaker  John Boehner immediately cited the disrupted plot as evidence that Congress should think carefully before refusing to renew the NSA’s bulk data collection powers. Only it turns out the feds had at least as much to do with hatching the plot as did the alleged plotter, Christopher Cornell.

The FBI investigator became aware of Cornell’s pro-ISIS comments on Twitter thanks to a tip-off from an unnamed informant who “began cooperating with the FBI in order to obtain favorable treatment with respect to his criminal exposure on an unrelated case.” The informant, on FBI orders, arranged two meetings with Cornell where they discussed attacks on the capital, after which the FBI arrested him to “prevent” the attacks. In other words, it identified Cornell as a suspect entirely on the basis of his expression of radical political opinions, with the help of a jailhouse snitch who rolled over in response to prosecutorial blackmail. And the actual “plot” was worked out only in subsequently arranged meetings in which one party — working for the FBI — may well have been leading Cornell. It wasn’t for nothing that ecological activist Judi Bari said “the first person to mention bringing dynamite is probably a fed.”

In this the Cornell case has a lot in common with a great many other so-called “domestic terrorism plots” federal law enforcement has “disrupted,” going back to the Lackawanna Six. A good example is the so-called “plot” of the Newburgh Four, who supposedly plotted to blow up synagogues and attack a military base. The judge commented that the government “came up with the crime, provided the means, and removed all relevant obstacles,” in the process making a terrorist out of a man “whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope” (“US: Terrorism Prosecutions Often An Illusion,” Human Rights Watch, July 21, 2014).

This reminds me of a story I read — from Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, I think — about a software company that offered programmers a bonus for every bug they detected in code. Predictably, creating bugs to “detect” became a major source of revenue for employees. H.L. Mencken once remarked on government’s tendency “to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

We see this in the dismaying, Starship Troopers-like media narrative involving any and all armed government personnel in uniform. Last weekend’s highest U.S. box office receipts came not from Selma (the story of oppressed people organizing to fight for their freedom) but from American Sniper. The latter movie glorifies a vile wretch who gloated over all the “savages” (his word for any male age 16 to 60) he murdered in Iraq, on the grounds that he was saving American troops from being shot at. Never mind that the people in Iraq were shooting back at an invading army in their own country. Domestically, we see the same phenomenon with shows like COPS, and local news coverage of police in paramilitary gear (breathlessly referred to as “the authorities” by nitwit reporters) storming alleged “meth labs.”

And remember, the very concept of a “sting operation” (also known as “entrapment”) invokes the principle that some human beings are superior to the law. The first professional police forces were justified on the grounds that they were simply being paid to exercise the same posse comitatus powers of “citizen’s arrest” possessed by any other member of society. By that standard, if it’s illegal for an ordinary citizen to solicit or instigate illegal activity, it should be illegal for anyone — including uniformed state officials.

But most importantly, this is an example of how the state mostly “solves” problems of its own making — and has an incentive to keep creating more problems to justify giving it the power and resources to “solve” them.

Translations of this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory