Defending Sting Operations as Anti-Terror Technique

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The FBI has made several terrorism cases against defendants who conspired with undercover agents — not actual terrorists. The Justice Department recently saw fit to defend the sting-operation strategy in relation to the sentencing of two men the FBI targeted.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Back in Washington, the FBI has come under increased criticism for the alleged mishandling of its surveillance powers. The agency is also defending its use of undercover sting operations to nab suspected terrorists. Last week, two men in Albany were sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiring to help a Pakistani terrorist group, and a Maryland man pleaded guilty to conspiring to help Sri Lankan terrorists.

The FBI caught all of these suspects in undercover stings, and the government has gone out of its way to justify the controversial tactic. NPR's Ari Shapiro has more.

ARI SHAPIRO: Ever since 9/11, top officials at the FBI and the Justice Department have talked about how their approach to terrorism is different from other crimes. Their mission is to catch it before it happens rather than prosecute it after the fact, and sting operations are a good tool for that. Here's FBI Director Robert Mueller in an NPR interview last year defending his decision to bust a group of plotters in Miami who were caught in a sting.

Mr. ROBERT MUELLER (FBI Director): Are you going to walk away from a group who has demonstrated a desire to undertake terrorist attacks and taken steps to put themselves in a place to be able to undertake those terrorist attacks? What would people have us do, walk away from it? Only to find that two months, three months, six months later they become far more efficient and effective in undertaking the attacks that you thought perhaps would not take place.

SHAPIRO: In the Miami case and others, civil rights groups have asked whether a sting operation is preventing a crime or creating it. Human rights attorney Aziz Huq is author of "Unchecked And Unbalanced: Presidential Power in a Time of Terror."

Mr. AZIZ HUQ (Attorney): In many of these counterterrorism sting operations, it's the government informant who's coming in with the radical ideology, with the plans, and with the proposal to take the concrete steps forward. And it's really unclear without that government agent playing a role that the same things would have happened.

SHAPIRO: The government is getting more proactive about defending its use of sting operations. For example, in the Albany case, where two men were just sentenced, the Justice Department released part of the defendant's diary that underscores his violent intent. It says strive to move the war to America and Israel, make the explosions there. The press release announcing the sentence notes that one man's name was found at three different terrorist camps in Iraq.

The U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case said these reasons certainly provided ample justification to initiate a sting operation. When Mary Joe White was the top federal prosecutor in New York, she started the first terrorism unit in the U.S. attorney's office. She says stings are probably the best way to thwart terrorist attacks before they occur. But law enforcement officials have to be careful not to snag people who would not otherwise have committed a crime.

Ms. MARY JOE WHITE (U.S. Attorney): You have a safeguard there, though, because in virtually every sting case you're going to have the judge charging the jury on potential entrapment. I mean was this was an individual who really got lured in by the government operation or is this someone who is bent on, you know, committing a crime and had the right mindset to do that, pose the danger and then responded really to the sting operation?

SHAPIRO: She says entrapment is always on a prosecutor's mind in a sting operation's planning and execution, as a matter of fairness and also to safeguard any criminal prosecution that may grow out of the sting.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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