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How the FBI recruits its 15,000 informants

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NORMAN, Okla. --The curious case of Jerry Varnell, the 23-year old paranoid schizophrenic who was lured into a domestic terrorism plot by an undercover FBI informant, shares many of the hallmarks of other domestic terrorism cases that have been instigated, and then foiled, by the FBI.

Varnell himself, according to the statement released by his family shortly after his arrest, shares many of personality- and lifestyle-traits of other Americans who have found themselves the target of an FBI sting operation: paranoia, gullibility, naivete, joblessness and a generally nihilistic worldview.

But who was the person that planted the idea of a violent attack in his mind? Who was this person who goaded him into agreeing to participate in what could’ve been a devastating terrorist attack? The initial reports refer to an “informant”, and Varnell’s family refers to a “drug-dealing criminal” in their statement, someone they believe to be on the FBI’s payroll, someone who might have even had their criminal record wiped clean in exchange for cooperation in dragging the gullible Varnell into carrying out a violent attack.

In the Varnell family’s statement, they made clear that they told the informant that he was not allowed on their property any longer, but continued sneaking onto their property anyway. This means that the informant was either instructed or allowed to break the law to remain in contact with Jerry Varnell, a not insignificant fact for the case, but something that the FBI instructs informants to do on a regular basis.

A recent Gizmodo article detailed how often the FBI instructed informants to engage in criminal conduct, from misdemeanors all the way to acts of violence. Called “otherwise illegal activity”, or OIA, the FBI authorized its informants to engage in criminal activity 5,261 times in 2015 alone.

One crime that the FBI informant is ostensibly forbidden from engaging in is entrapment. But was Varnell entrapped when he was coaxed into the bomb plot? Informants are also forbidden from “initiating or instigating” a plan to commit a crime.

The FBI’s use of informants as expanded dramatically over the years. Currently, the FBI employs 15,000 informants throughout the US and worldwide. The agency’s role transformed after 9/11, beginning to more closely resemble the CIA and NSA as they moved into terrorism surveillance.

Thanks to The Intercept’s informative series of articles, “The FBI’s Secret Rules,” we have some idea of how the FBI has ramped up its efforts to spy on Americans and recruit informants.

It’s not a pretty, and sounds like a process the Gestapo or East German Stasi would engage in rather than a modern American agency.

Before the agency employs an informant, they first build a dossier on the target, identifying political affiliations, relationships, interests, employment and criminal history, psychological state, along with weaknesses, including derogatory information that would probably be useful in coercing cooperation from someone with a recalcitrant attitude.

If this isn’t enough of an inducement to inform, the FBI can also pay up to six figures for a valuable informant’s services.

They can also recruit minors without their parents’ consent.

The Intercept also ran a piece this October that details a story of Jabar Ali Refaie, a man who was harassed and stalked by the FBI for two years in their attempt to recruit him as an informant.

He refused, but he also recorded his interactions with the agents, something that hadn’t been done before. He began finding GPS tracking devices on his vehicles, and listening devices inside his house. He had his girlfriend film his removing each of these, and took them to the local sheriff.

His home was later raided by DHS and FBI agents in melodramatic fashion, with an agent even crashing his car into Refaie’s as he attempted to arrive to be with his pregnant girlfriend. The subsequent harassment of Refaie was intense. He was eventually brought up on charges of filing a false tax return in 2010. It’s worth reading the entire story to get a glimpse of how terrifying the process can be for someone the FBI is intent on employing as an informant.

There is a disturbing realization that anyone could be an informant, anywhere. Some down-and- outer that showing up at local political rallies, criminals eager to rid themselves of rap sheets, or just someone with a few skeletons in the closet, all these are ripe to become snitches for the surveillance state.

The Intercept’s series on the FBI’s recruitment efforts is worth reading in its entirety, and feels a little more real knowing that that world reached as far into fly-over country as Sayre, Oklahoma to target a mentally-challenged young man that appeared to not initially want to harm anyone at all. Could the valuable resources not be put to better use elsewhere?

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Shane Smith

Shane Smith is an accountant and freelance writer with a bachelor's degree in economics from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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