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The FBI is notoriously secretive about the informants it uses to collect information, but occasionally, details slip out. And in 1976, a congressional committee found that the FBI had 1,500 informants. Four years later, the agency told Congress it had 2,800. And today in the post-9/11 world, the FBI has 15,000 informants.

That's according to Trevor Aaronson. He's a fellow at the University of California, Berkeley's investigative reporting program. He spent a year researching the FBI's efforts to recruit informants, and he writes about it in the issue of Mother Jones magazine that hits newsstands tomorrow.

TREVOR AARONSON: People work for the FBI as informants for a variety of reasons. A big reason, especially within the Muslim community and in counterterrorism investigations, is that the FBI is able to use immigration against people. So if you're going to recruit an informant and you realize that he has an immigration violation, oftentimes, the FBI will be able to use that as a form of leverage.

SULLIVAN: You guys listed 500 cases. A lot of them involved informants. What did you find? Was there a problem with that?

AARONSON: In half of the 500 cases, informants were used. In some cases, they were used in ways that you would might expect them to be used, where it was someone tipped off the FBI to someone who potentially was up to something, you know, very destructive or some kind of criminal or terrorist activity.

In other cases, the informants play larger roles where they acted almost as agent provocateurs where they provided not only the opportunity for the person to commit this act of terror, but also the means.

SULLIVAN: So you're saying that they - in some ways, the FBI helped create a scenario where they could commit a crime that they may or may not have committed on their own?

AARONSON: Exactly. You know, one case that's worth noting along this line is a man in Illinois named Derrick Shareef. He was down on his luck. An informant approached him while he worked at a video game store, and Derrick expressed an interest in, you know, committing some sort of violence within the United States, and the informant kind of pushed him along and, in fact, introduced him to an undercover FBI agent who was posing as an arms dealer. And the arms dealer was going to provide Derrick with grenades, but in fact, Derrick Shareef was so broke that he didn't even have $100 to buy the grenades from the FBI agent.

And so as a result, the FBI agent agreed to accept as trade speakers that Derrick had in exchange for the grenades. And ultimately, they were able to prosecute Shareef on that terrorism conspiracy, and he received 35 years in prison.

I think a question that's raised in a case like that is whether someone like Derrick Shareef would've had the opportunity to commit the crime he was convicted for, were it not for the FBI informant and were it not for the undercover agent providing the means and opportunity for him to do so.

SULLIVAN: Critics of the way the FBI uses informants would say that this is entrapment, that the FBI is creating crimes in order for people to commit them.

AARONSON: What the FBI says is that they're preventing these terrorists or these alleged terrorists from committing future acts of terror or potential acts of terror were they given the capability and the means by an actual terrorist.

SULLIVAN: Is there any sign that the FBI is going to scale back its program, or are they just moving full steam ahead?

AARONSON: I think informants are a critical part of the FBI. That's not, you know, exclusive to the Muslim community. It's a part of the FBI's investigation, you know, no matter what it's investigating.

SULLIVAN: That's writer Trevor Aaronson, who joined us from Berkeley, California. Today, we have a link to his story on our website, npr.org. Thanks so much for joining us, Trevor.

AARONSON: Thank you.

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