On Monday, Human Rights Watch released an extensive and blistering report on investigative and prosecutorial abuses in American terrorism investigations. Especially concerning was the extensively documented use of informants by the FBI to target Muslim centers and mosques without specific evidence of wrongdoing and also extensive informant involvement in recruitment, planning and execution of terrorist actions that borders on entrapment.
Human Rights Watch found in its investigation that half of the 500 counterterrorism convictions since 9/11 used informants, with 30 percent of those being sting operations where informants played an active role.
Such tactics are nothing new to law enforcement, but some details are disturbing: Informants targeted those with certain political and religious beliefs without suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, targeted people with clear mental and intellectual disabilities, and would rebuff suspects’ initial reluctance and spend years in recruiting or offer vast sums of money to persuade them.
Often, these were not criminal masterminds. As a judge described one of the convicted, “Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.” The trials themselves were often complicated by reliance on classified evidence, which is difficult to challenge and, even worse, was expanded to include interrogations of suspects by foreign governments that likely involved torture.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, law enforcement has naturally shifted its attention to ferreting out terrorist plots both abroad and on the home front. But this understandable turn toward counterterrorism should not come at the expense of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties.