The FBI and other anti-terror agencies often use confidential informants to bankroll terror plots, enabling would-be terrorists to think they're getting closer to their murderous goals than they actually are. Some experts, however, question the process. Chris Glorioso reports.
Since 2001, investigators from New York's Joint Terrorism Task Force have increasingly employed confidential informants in their efforts to catch terror suspects before they become sophisticated enough to do real harm.
The case against Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis is no different.
The 21-year-old student from Bangladesh appears to have no legitimate connections to al-Qaida, although authorities are still searching.
Nafis also had no apparent source of funds from which he could have financed the murderous plot.
According to the criminal complaint against Nafis, it was a confidential informant — working for the government — who offered him the al-Qaida connections and the cash necessary to execute the bomb plot.
"It seems almost like an elaborate piece of theater," said Ramzi Kassem, a CUNY law professor who runs a clinic on counter-terrorism police tactics.
Kassem is a critic of the FBI's reliance on confidential informants. He says the tactic risks presenting an appearance that terror suspects are more of a threat than they really are.
"Would that person have taken that step but for the government informant's involvement?" Kassem asked.
In 2005, the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General issued a report that found FBI agents failed to follow their own guidelines in 87 percent of all investigations involving confidential informants.
Still, law enforcement officials insist the use of confidential informants — even ones who essentially bankroll the terrorist aspirations of their investigation targets — are indispensable tools in the battle to keep Americans safe.
"How can you justify standing back, knowing that someone wants to carry out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil and take no action and just wait?" said Kelly Moore, a former federal prosecutor who now practices white collar criminal defense for the Manhattan law firm Morgan and Lewis.
Moore said federal investigators were right to offer Nafis all the financial resources he needed to carry out the Federal Reserve fake bomb plot.
"In this particular instance, he didn't have the resources to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank, but this is someone who, just as a matter of time, eventually was looking for someone to hook up with those resources and he is obviously a danger. He wants to blow stuff up," Moore said.
An attorney for Nafis has declined to comment.
The case against four Newburgh, N.Y., men who tried to blow up synagogues in the Bronx has drawn similar criticism from those who say confidential informants have too much latitude to coax suspects into acts they might otherwise never imagine.
In that case a confidential informant offered the suspects a set of missiles to launch at the Jewish houses of worship.
After sentencing three of the men to minimum prison terms, Manhattan Federal Court Judge Colleen McMahon blasted the investigators for their tactics.
"Only the government could have made a 'terrorist' out of [the defendant] whose buffoonery is positively Shakesperian in scope," said McMahon.
New York City law enforcement officials stress the use of confidential informants is perfectly legal and no terror defendant has successfully beaten a case by employing an entrapment defense.
Even the critics admit the use of confidential informants does not itself amount to police entrapment. Instead they focus on the extraordinary lengths some informants go to — like suggesting the terrorist targets and the timing of attacks — that becomes questionable.
"What sets these cases apart is the unusual degree to which the government agent is active," said Kassem.