Governments like to have as much surveillance as possible of the people because it gives them greater control. It is often argued by them that this information is necessary in order for them to provide better security, and the debate becomes one where the desire for security has to be balanced by the desire of ordinary people to live their lives free from government snooping. The one case where the debate has swung overwhelmingly in favor of the government is when it says it is investigating terrorists. People have become so spooked by the idea of terrorists in their midst that they seem to be willing to grant carte blanche to the government to do whatever it likes to combat any threat. But this license can result in heavy costs to the individuals who happen, for whatever reason, to fall into the government’s crosshairs.
I have written before about how many of the highly publicized press conferences where the intelligence services claim to have identified terror plots and prevented them and arrested the alleged plotters. These people are usually lonely young men with few friends, no jobs, and few prospects. Many of these cases turn out to be where government informants identified people who had somewhat vague intentions and then pretty much led them on to make the plans more elaborate and give them the means to carry them out. By themselves, these people seemed unable to put together anything so elaborate. Why does the government resort to entrapment on such a wide scale?
Trevor Aronson writes about one such case of Harlem Suarez who is now serving a life sentence after being arrested with a fake bomb that had been supplied to him by the FBI
In 2015, seeing reports about the Islamic State on cable news, [Harlem] Suarez became intrigued by the terrorist group, he explained to an FBI informant. He was 23 years old at the time and still living in Key West.
His online activity attracted the FBI’s attention, and an agent in Miami asked a rookie informant named Mohammed Skaik to help determine if Suarez might be a threat.
Following FBI instructions, Skaik sent Suarez a Facebook friend request. “Hey, brother, can you add me, please?” Skaik wrote. “I have something extremely important to communicate to you.”
SKAIK INTRODUCED THE young man to two undercover agents who played the parts of hardened ISIS members. One claimed to be military-trained; the other said he was a professional bomb maker. Suarez, who realized too late that he was playing with fire in exploring his naive curiosity about ISIS, tried to back out in passive ways, the FBI’s evidence showed. He didn’t return calls and was consistently hard to reach. When the FBI agents asked for money to build a bomb, Suarez claimed to be broke, though he would later say he had $4,000 in the bank. Instead of participating in a bomb plot on the Fourth of July holiday, as he’d discussed with undercover agents, Suarez dodged their calls and instead went out drinking in Key West.
While Suarez had some weapons of his own, he was also clueless about terrorist groups in general and did not seem to know how to communicate with them. Aronson described why the FBI then proceeded to entrap him.
Suarez presented a conundrum for the FBI. He said he wanted to join ISIS, even though his understanding of the group and its religion was rudimentary. He was actively looking for likeminded people, even though he admitted he wasn’t finding any. He had body armor vests, even though he didn’t have the armored plates that slip inside. He had weapons, including an assault rifle, even though he admitted he didn’t have much ammunition.
“What would you do in a situation like that?” said Peter Ahearn, a retired FBI special agent who headed the field office in Buffalo, New York. “Would you want to be the agent who let this guy go, and then you find out later that he killed people in some attack?”
And there lies the problem. As the US intelligence services scour the internet for potential threats, they are bound to come across many, many people like Suarez, disgruntled people who have vague ideas of carrying out some kind of dramatic act of violence. What do you do then with this information? You cannot arrest them just for having violent thoughts. Keeping close tabs on all such people over a long time to see if they have the means and intentions to carry out an actual attack and actually set a process in motion would require enormous resources. But to drop the surveillance and not do anything leaves the FBI and other intelligence services vulnerable to criticism if even one of those people later commits a violent crime and it turns out that he had been in their databases at one time as a possible threat.
So the FBI sets about entrapping these people and putting them in jail, since that effectively closes the case. But this also results in people who, without the FBI’s help and support may have never actually advanced their plans beyond fantasies, end up serving long prison sentences on terrorism charges. And what is worse, we know that prisons are breeding grounds for actual violent criminals so in prison, these people may well become embittered and radicalized and more dangerous when they are finally released.