In 2016, Flaviu Georgescu was found guilty and sentenced of attempting to traffic weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, an insurgent group on the U.S. terror list. But when he was arrested by Drug Enforcement Administration agents, he told the officials he was working for the CIA. This week on Intercepted, Trevor Aaronson, contributing writer with The Intercept, joins host Murtaza Hussain to discuss Georgescu’s case. In the second season of Aaronson’s podcast, “Alphabet Boys,” Aaronson tells the story of the DEA operation against Georgescu and how he was targeted by a paid DEA informant. Georgescu, however, had reported the attempted arms trafficking to the CIA and believed he was collecting intelligence for the agency. Aaronson and Hussain discuss their reporting on the case and how the U.S. government may be manufacturing the very crimes they claim to stop. The second season of “Alphabet Boys” is out now.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Murtaza Hussain: Welcome to Intercepted. I am Murtaza Hussain.
At the height of the war on terror, law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, moved their attention towards targeting possible terrorists in the United States. The Intercept’s Trial and Terror database documented nearly a thousand terrorism cases prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice since the 9/11 attacks. The real story of many of these cases bears little relation to the sensational headlines that often accompanied the arrests and prosecutions of these individuals.
The majority of defendants in post-9/11 terrorist cases had no actual ties to terrorism or to terrorist organizations. Many were caught in FBI stings, where informants posed as terrorists, often crossing the line into encouraging and even facilitating crimes that would otherwise not have occurred.
As the war on terror has waned, the DOJ has shifted its focus, with its agencies – including the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA – now targeting people for similar sting operations on allegations of involvement in so-called “narcoterrorism.”
A few years ago, I worked on a story with my colleague Trevor Aaronson, a contributing writer for The Intercept. We reported on a messy alleged narcoterrorism case involving the CIA, the DEA, and the FBI. Flaviu Georgescu, a dual U.S.-Romanian citizen, was arrested in a DEA sting operation using an undercover informant.
He was accused of attempting to traffic weapons to Colombia for the FARC, a group that was then on the U.S. terrorism list. But the Colombian man Flaviu was communicating with was working for the DEA the entire time. And what makes this story stranger is that Flaviu had contacted the CIA about the supposed arms deal, and believed that he himself was working with the CIA.
A new ten-episode podcast hosted by Trevor explores the entire case. Here’s a clip:
Trevor Aaronson: Flaviu is at the finish line. He’d brokered the whole deal. All he needs now is to close with a signature from one of the Colombians. But the Colombians? They’re stalling. They’ve told Flaviu they represent the FARC, the Colombian paramilitary group that, as this is happening, is a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. That’s a big deal. It’s what makes this an illegal arms deal. Also a big deal: the Romanians were explicitly told that the weapons would be used to shoot down American helicopters.
The lead Colombian is a wide-bellied, brash man with a bellowing voice, and he says he’s not signing. Not yet.
Flaviu Georgescu: No, before he sign it, he said, “I have to talk with my people.”
TA: The Colombian says he needs final approval from his superiors, and he and his two associates step out of the hotel room. Then, agents with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration burst through the door, guns drawn.
FG: “You are under arrest,” and the DEA handcuffs me and I said, “Let me talk with you. Let me use the bathroom.”
TA: And this is where things get interesting. Flaviu, handcuffed, motions with his head to one of the DEA agents. The agent walks with Flaviu into the bathroom. They’re crowded together in the small room. Flaviu looks directly at the agent and motions for him to step closer. In a soft voice, Flaviu tells him: “I work for the CIA.”
FG: And I said, “I collect this intel for CIA. Just call them.”
MH: Trevor joins us now to discuss Flaviu’s story. Trevor, so great to have you back.
Trevor Aaronson: Thanks for having me.
MH: So, let’s begin by talking about “Alphabet Boys.” Can you tell us a bit about the podcast and the type of stories you’ve been covering, including what you reported on during the first season?
TA: So, we envision “Alphabet Boys” as a multi-season investigative narrative podcast. So, the idea being that every season tells the story of one federal investigation over ten episodes. And we’re really analyzing this question in federal sting operations of whether the FBI, or the DEA, or any federal law enforcement agency is essentially creating criminals that they are ostensibly trying to find through sting operations, by providing the means and opportunity for people to get involved in crimes that they might not have otherwise gotten involved in.
And so, our first season, which was subtitled “Trojan Hearse,” was about the summer of 2020, the racial justice protests, and the FBI’s efforts to infiltrate and undermine the demonstrations in Denver that summer. And it had focused on this FBI investigation that employed an undercover informant named Mickey Windecker, who had this long history of crime and violence, and kind of came off as a caricature. He was tattooed, he kept a cigar between his lips, and he drove this silver hearse.
And over time, during that summer, he encouraged the protests to become violent. And so, this was the first documented case we had of the FBI inserting informants into the racial justice movement, and encouraging violence, in a way that you saw informants do that during the sixties in COINTELPRO. And also, similar to COINTELPRO, Mickey would accuse real movement leaders of being informants themselves, and effectively kind of undermine their ability to trust each other, similar to COINTELPRO.
And then, finally, he was trying to knit together this really fantastical plot to assassinate Colorado’s Attorney General, Phil Weiser. He tried to get two young Black activists involved in that plot, but ultimately failed. What was significant about that particular plot was that it showed the FBI’s ambitions to really put together this fantastical plot that would’ve made front page news, were it to have gone forward, or were they able to entrap these two activists into moving forward in that.
And so, in that particular case, we focused very much on Denver, but we raised a question of whether this type of activity was happening elsewhere in the country. And certainly, that summer, there were reports of very suspicious activity by federal law enforcement in places like Portland, Minneapolis, and Chicago.
That was the first season. Then, in each future season – and this is the second one coming out now — we restart, tell a new story, but are really focused on this question of whether these undercover sting operations are creating criminals or catching them.
MH: You’ve written a lot about this in the context of the war on terror, and you had a book about it, in fact: “The Terror Factory.” And you note very correctly that this tactic of using informants and undercover agents as agent provocateurs has a very, very long pedigree, even before 9/11.
Now, we’re in almost like, a post-post-9/11 era. At least, you know, priorities of law enforcement have shifted somewhat, to being deployed again in these new contexts, including activism. And more traditional means when trying to sew social subversion, and so forth.
Tell us a bit about the next season of “Alphabet Boys.” Who’s going to be at the center of it, and what is the case that you’re focusing on, involve?
TA: Just before I get into that, I think it’s important to note that a big interest of mine, as you noted, is the use of this tactic in the context of counter-terrorism. But now that the war on terror has been waning, we’re seeing the importation of that tactic outside of that more narrow spectrum, where we’re seeing it in investigations that don’t involve international terrorism in any way.
And that was certainly the case with the first season, where you saw the same tactics used in the war on terror applied against political activists and racial justice activists. And it’s a similar phenomenon in Season Two, where, in the mid two-thousands, the DEA in the war on terror, the Drug Enforcement Administration was really left out of the funding game. After 9/11, billions and billions of dollars poured into counter terrorism, and that the DEA, which had been a top dog during the drug war, suddenly found itself on the outside, anemic with funding.
And they go to Congress and they say, look, we want to get in on this counter-terrorism game, and we think there’s this problem known as narcoterrorism. This idea that terrorist organizations are selling drugs to fund terrorism and attacks against the U.S. government and its allies. And so, there’s a debate about whether narcoterrorism is really a thing. Certainly, if you look at groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, there isn’t really much evidence that they use the drug trade in any substantial way, [though] there are some questions about the Taliban and poppies.
But the most notable group is, of course, the FARC, the Colombian rebel group that the U.S. government had designated a foreign terrorist organization. Because of their location in the rural parts of Colombia, the drug trade has been something that they have used to fund their activities.
And so, the DEA, getting all of this funding from Congress to go after narcoterrorism, starts using undercover agents and informants, and sending them around the world pretending to be FARC agents interested in finding people who can broker them in deals to buy weapons, either for cash that came from drugs – or ostensibly came from drugs – or through cocaine itself.
There were dozens of cases of defendants who were caught up in these kinds of stings – whether they were capable arms dealers was rarely a question – but the particular case that we’re focused on in Season Two, it involves a man named Flaviu Georgescu, who was a Romanian-American businessman, and is contacted by this man named Juan, who claims to be a Colombian. And Juan goes to Flaviu and says, hey, can you help me broker this arms deal?
And what’s unique about this particular case compared to all the others is that Flaviu does move forward in this arms deal, but the moment after hearing about this arms deal, he ends up calling the Central Intelligence Agency and says: Hey, I’ve been contacted by this guy in Colombia, he wants me to do this arms deal. Do you guys want me to gather information on it and I’ll bring it back to you? And there’s recordings of this call.
What’s interesting is the whole question that underlies the show, which underlies the case itself, is whether Flaviu made this call to the CIA in order to really attempt to help the U.S. government in thwarting what he thought was an illegal effort to arm Colombian rebels, or whether he did it as a kind of cover, that he was planning to make a lot of money, brokering this arms deal. And if he ever got caught, he could say: Hey, I called the CIA.
And that’s really the question that we raise in the show. And I think we try to provide as much evidence as we can to let the listener decide what they think the truth is here.
MH: Trevor, you actually accessed some of the audio of those calls that Flaviu made to the CIA which are the center of this case. Here are a couple clips that you feature in the podcast. The first clip is a portion of a call Flaviu had with one CIA employee.
TA: The CIA agent Flaviu’s talking to, she doesn’t appear to think Flaviu is for real.
CIA Official 1: OK. So you do personal security all over the world, you’re connected to all these different people, and you had somebody call you and say, can you get grenades and guns for this guy in Colombia?
Flaviu Georgescu: Not specify grenades. A lot of ammunitions. Ammunitions, AK-47, a lot of stuff.
CIA Official 1: OK. So what I’m telling you, as a U.S. citizen, go to the U.S., the American Embassy, and tell them you need to speak with someone, OK?
FG: Yeah. This is the easy way for you, but you know a lot of…
CIA Official 1: OK. Well, no, it’s not the easy way for me. You’re being very difficult. You run a business, but you don’t have a name for your business. You’re telling me that you’re very, very connected, but people are calling you to get ammunition and AK-47s, so it really doesn’t sound like anything that we can discuss over the phone.
So, I’m telling you for your safety, you need to go to the U.S. Embassy.
FG: No – [crosstalk]
CIA Official 1: OK. Well, we can’t help you. Thank you. Goodbye
MH: Flaviu then spoke with another CIA employee on the second call. Here’s the next clip.
CIA Official 2: OK. Well, as I understand it, I don’t – I don’t think there was anything that the agency could do to assist or facilitate what you’re trying to accomplish.
CIA Official 2: We didn’t have anyone that can meet with you. And, again, I don’t know all the details of the conversation prior to the determination.
TA: This is that second agent.
FG: Yeah, I was just trying to be useful to the U.S. government, because I love that country and, you know, I’m so proud to be a U.S. citizen. That’s all. You know, if it is not anything interesting for you, I don’t care, because I’m not doing any deal. I’m not going to help these people, but I was thinking, if you have any interest in this situation, because it’s easy to follow up with people. You know, which maybe it’s the case for you. Or, you know, you have to know everything which has happened.
MH: So, Trevor, this audio actually gives me some flashbacks, too, because, originally, me and you reported on the early stages of this case together, and I attended Flaviu’s trial where he had some interactions, or attempted to make the case that these calls proved that he was on the government side all along, and trying to report their informant.
Given the context of these calls, just for our listeners, can you tell them what happened with Flaviu, in terms of his relationship with the CIA, ostensibly? Or, at least, the relationship he later claimed to have had, based on these calls and these attempts to report Juan to the CIA itself?
TA: Yeah. So, what happens is that he’s contacted by a friend named Andy Georgescu; no relation to Flaviu, Georgescu is the most common name in Romania. So, it’d be like two Smiths knowing each other in America. But his friend Andy Georgescu contacts him and says, this guy Juan, I know him, he’s a contact, he wants to buy weapons. And that’s when Flaviu makes this call to the CIA.
And what’s remarkable about it is that he pretty much lays out everything. He mentions Andy, he mentions Juan, he mentions the type of weapons that they want. And what’s interesting about the calls as well is that there’s a lot of ambiguity to them, in that the first agent is very skeptical of Flaviu and is almost combative with him, hangs up on him. And then, somehow, that call within the CIA gets escalated to a second agent who then calls Flaviu back, and that’s the second call that you heard. And they go into a lot of detail about what is happening. And that agent then says, this is something that the CIA would be interested in.
Keep in mind, though, that those are the only two calls that Flaviu has with the CIA, ever, and those calls were in 2012. Two years later, the arms deal moves forward, and Flaviu is ultimately arrested in Montenegro for brokering this arms deal for the Colombian FARC rebels. And that’s when he tells the DEA, “I work for the CIA.”
And the question that we raise is whether Flaviu – what Flaviu was doing during that two year period. If you believe Flaviu, what he says is that it took two years to get all of this going, and that’s why he never contacted the CIA. And that’s a strange story to believe, right? This person who’s working says he’s working for the CIA, makes these two calls to the CIA, and then never contacts them again, only to be arrested later.
But I think it’s worth noting a couple of things that are in Flaviu’s favor, some of which didn’t really fully come out in his trial, and which we explore in depth in the show. One is that the recorded calls with the CIA don’t come from Flaviu; they come from the CIA itself.
And so, what happened during Flaviu’s case was that he had gone to federal prosecutors and said: Look, I made these calls to the CIA, go contact them. And what’s fascinating is that the CIA turned over these calls, these recordings. And so, that means that the CIA not only took these calls seriously enough to take them, but then they recorded them and preserved them for several years, and then provided them, which is highly unusual. It’s highly unusual for the CIA to get involved in any sort of criminal prosecution.
And so, you can read into that what you will. To me, it is an interesting fact that the CIA could have said, no, we don’t have, we have no such calls, we’ve never heard of this Flaviu Georgescu guy. But, instead, turned over calls that acknowledged that he had reported this information to the CIA.
And the second part that didn’t really get the coverage at the trial – or the kind of attention at his trial that I think it deserved, in large part because the FBI would not cooperate – is that Flaviu had been a longtime FBI informant prior to making that call to the CIA. You know, going back to the 2000s, he had helped two agents – Mark Pinto and Robert Clymer, both of whom we interview – prosecute this Romanian organized crime group in Las Vegas that was running this national credit card fraud scheme, where affiliates around the country would get credit card numbers, send them to the group in Las Vegas, and then they would duplicate credit cards and cash them at casinos, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And so, this was a case that Flaviu was instrumental in and, in fact, the leader of that Eastern European gang in Las Vegas ended up putting out a hit on Flaviu, causing him to go back to Europe. And in those years – around 2009, 2010, according to FBI files we were able to get – Flaviu was continuing to provide information to the FBI, including about cybercrimes that were originating in Romania.
And so, when he calls the CIA in 2012, it’s not just that he’s some random guy picking up the phone saying, I’ve got this information. He’s someone who’s been a credible source for the U.S. government for years, and I think that lends some credibility to this idea that maybe he was thinking he was helping the U.S. government when he called the CIA, and that this wasn’t, as federal prosecutors would later allege, some elaborate cover for brokering an arms deal.
MH: And, in the end, who was Juan, the DEA informant who was talking to Flaviu all this time? His real name, it came out later, was Alex Diaz. But do we know anything about his past, or the frequency in which he engaged in undercover operations like this for the U.S. government?
TA: Yeah. So, Juan is a highly prolific informant. What we know about him primarily comes from his testimony in Flaviu’s case, and that was that, in the 1990s, he was working as an employee of Sky Chef, which is the company that provides catering for American Airlines.
American Airlines has an enormous hub in Miami that is a gateway to Latin America, and Juan was responsible for helping to bring into the country thousands of pounds of cocaine and marijuana through Sky Chef. And, ultimately, was busted. And he was able to get out of prison – he got a 12-year sentence, I believe – served only 18 months, and then got out of prison because he became a cooperator for the DEA, and his first couple of cases were turning on his former colleagues at the Miami airport.
There was an operation that the DEA ran called Operation Ramp Rat. Ramp rats are kind of a slang term for the guys slinging luggage on the carousels and into the airplanes. And he was able to help bust dozens of people at Miami airport who were helping to bring in drugs through American Airlines. And that launched Juan’s career as an informant.
And we know that he worked for the DEA for more than 15 years, has made millions of dollars, has traveled all around the world. And starting with the mid-2000s, he kind of perfected the cover of being a FARC agent, or some sort of broker for the FARC. And he fit the part perfectly, because he was born in Colombia, he had dealt in drugs before, was intimately familiar with the FARC. And so, he becomes, for the DEA, a front man in these types of sting operations.
And so, in the case of Flaviu, Juan ended up bringing together two other informants who were posing as FARC members from Colombia, who kind of gave him the appearance that he was representing this group of Colombian rebels that were interested in brokering firearms. But Juan, like you see with a lot of career informants, is someone who’s learned that you can make a lot of money working for the DEA. And, you know, has kind of perfected the ability to entrap people like Flaviu in the interests of making money but, also, as the Justice Department would see it, in the interest of building these cases.
MH: Yeah. Juan is very distinct from many, many other informants we’ve seen in terrorism cases and so forth, because he’s very, very professional. He wasn’t somebody who was necessarily doing it just to get out of a drug charge of his own, or because he was indigent or something like that, he needed the money just to get by.
Clearly, he had done this many times. He’s good at testifying, he was good at his job, which was effectively catching people, and, some would say, entrapping them in these cases. And he was instrumental in ultimately convicting Flaviu in this case.
You know, one thing, Trevor, that’s kind of at the crux of it, and it was certainly part of Flaviu’s defense when he went to trial on these accusations of being involved and providing arms to FARC, is that, in the end, he only contacted the CIA on that one occasion when he called twice. And the prosecution made the case that, well, that wasn’t really a genuine attempt to report the CIA in this case. Because if you really cared about protecting the U.S. government or protecting the United States, he would’ve called a couple of times, or he would’ve kept trying to follow up as he continued interacting with these ostensible FARC agents. And that, ultimately, that question, the unsolved question, was what led to his conviction at trial.
What is your own thought about that? You know, if he was an experienced FBI undercover or informant, he should have known, maybe, how to interact with the CIA to develop a relationship before going on with this ostensible plot to entrap the FARC themselves, and protect these DEA agents.
Do you think that Flaviu knew what was going on? Or do you think that he sort of proceeded in a way – which was less professional – to avoid getting in trouble himself?
TA: Yeah, it’s a great question, and it’s one I really wrestle with to this day.
One of the things that the FBI agent who was Flaviu’s handler in Las Vegas told me — Mark Pinto — he believes that Flaviu legitimately thought he was working for the CIA. But, at the same time, what Mark says is that Flaviu should have known better. Flaviu should not have been as fast and loose with his relationship with the CIA. He should have gotten cover, should have gotten documents proving that this is what he was doing.
At the same time, I do think, just from an average point of skepticism, that someone who calls up the CIA two years before a crime happens and then never contacts them again as they move forward in that crime, that certainly raises suspicion, right? I mean, I think most people would argue that, at some point, Flaviu makes those two calls, then he gets involved, and then he should have called the CIA again at least, and said, hey, I have a meeting with these Colombians, I just want to make sure you want me to move forward with this.
What Flaviu’s FBI agent handlers describe is that, you know, this may be – if you are to believe Flaviu’s story, then you have to kind of assume that there may be been some kind of cultural misunderstanding at play. And in Flaviu’s view, Flaviu came from Romania under Ceausescu, and had grown up under this surveillance state. You know, I think Ceausescu’s Securitate had more informants than any other security service in the world, and this was a country that was largely run under surveillance.
And so, Flaviu wants to be patriotic, became an American citizen, but is very loath to consider himself an informant. He even has his FBI agent handlers refer to him as a friend of the FBI, and would get angry at me when I would refer to him as an informant, because Flaviu really didn’t see himself that way.
And when Flaviu worked for the FBI, he was also very good at knitting together his own informant network of Romanians who would be at risk if they were associated with the FBI investigation. And what Flaviu would do is kind of act as a spymaster for the FBI, provide the FBI information that he was receiving from his sources, but not revealing those sources to the FBI in order to protect them.
And what Mark Pinto, the FBI agent, thinks may have happened here is that Flaviu thought he was doing something similar with the CIA. That he was contacting them, and that he was informing them that he was going to find more information about this, and then come back to them once he had that information. I think that’s the area where I think there is a lot of skepticism about Flaviu’s story. And, ultimately, the jury that convicted him was quite skeptical of that.
But I also think that, in looking at Flaviu’s story, and I think what people will get after listening to the show, is that the only possible way that this is true is that it involves someone like Flaviu. Flaviu is this person who was quite unique, and I think had these cultural differences that added up to this very unfortunate circumstance, where Flaviu really thought he was helping the U.S. government, only to be targeted by the U.S. government.
Whether that is absolutely true, I think, we ultimately want to leave up to the listener to decide, but I think this is the story that’s very unique, in the sense that Flaviu is very unique. And it’s only through Flaviu’s story that we go into, that you can kind of see that it’s possible that maybe Flaviu really thought he was doing good, but then, ultimately, was prosecuted by the U.S. government.
[Intercepted mid-show theme music.]
MH: Can you tell us a bit about the broader trend and context of the use of informants in DEA and narcoterrorism cases? Who do these investigations usually target, and how are the investigations handled, in terms of potentially targeting people who may not have been involved in criminality beforehand?
TA: When you look at DEA narcoterrorism stings, the two cases that the DEA likes to trumpet – and they did one on 60 Minutes, and they trumpeted another on a National Geographic documentary – one is Viktor Bout, the Russian Arms dealer, who got into the headlines about a year ago, as a result of the prisoner swap with Britney Griner, the WNBA player. And then the second is a man named Monzer al-Kassar, who’s known as “The Prince of Marbella,” for this mansion he owned in southern Spain.
Both Viktor Bout and Monzer al-Kassar, by all accounts, are real arms dealers. Viktor Bout, at various times, had traded arms in the U.S. interests, in proxy wars and conflicts around the world, and so, this wasn’t necessarily someone who was always an enemy of the U.S. government. But these were real arms dealers, and they were taken down in these DEA stings led by informants.
But, aside from those two, the others – and there have been about two dozen other defendants who’ve been caught up in narcoterrorism stings – the others, there’s real questions, as in Flaviu’s case, about whether they are really capable arms dealers, or [if] they were offered an opportunity to get involved in a crime that they might not otherwise have done.
And, you know, what’s interesting is that, for the most part, these operations take place in Eastern Europe. In large part because, in the post-Soviet Union era, Eastern Europe was the supermarket for black market arms. I mean, some of that has tightened as a result of the war in Ukraine, that a lot of the arms that – you’re no longer seeing the free flow of arms.
But, prior to the invasion of Crimea – and even in the couple of years after then, when Flaviu’s case happens – you know, this is still an area of the world where people can purchase guns illegally, often through the trappings of a real transaction. There’s a document that’s needed to ship weapons around the world, called an “end-user certificate,” which is meant to guarantee that weapons going to countries aren’t being shipped to areas of the world that are prohibited under international regulations. And there’s a large trade in the forging of these documents, and getting fake documents, and getting countries to issue them, knowing that they’re not going to the those specific countries.
And so, what’s interesting in Flaviu’s case in particular, is that you can see that these DEA narcoterrorism stings have become so prevalent that, as Flaviu is knitting together this – the government called it conspiracy – to sell weapons to the FARC, he’s needing to find someone with connections to an arms factory that can sell these weapons. And he finds this Russian man who has connections to a Ukrainian factory, and he puts that man in touch with Juan to try to broker this deal.
As that is happening, the DEA arrests a man from Africa in the Czech Republic who was trying to do exactly that. It was a narcoterrorism sting that targeted this man who had no history of arms dealing. And the Russian, who has connections in the Ukrainian factory hears about this, and is smart enough to realize that this Juan guy he’s talking to is likely the same informant that busted this African guy in the Czech Republic. And he backs away, and is like, “I don’t want to have anything to do with these people.”
And so, what was interesting about that was it just showed that the DEA had become so persistent in these cases and, in some ways, so over-the-top in its tactics, that real arms traffickers were finding out about this tactic through news reports about these cases. And that’s what happened in Flaviu’s case, that this particular Russian guy backed away and didn’t get involved.
And I think in all of these cases – except for maybe Viktor Bout and Monzer al-Kassar – there is a real question of whether any of the people involved could have brokered or gotten involved in significant arms deals that then otherwise would have.
And, as one last example: there was a case involving three young men in Mali who got involved in a supposed plot to bring weapons to Al Qaeda through funding from the FARC; a kind of ridiculous coalition, if you will. And then, they were ultimately arrested, and the ambassador to the United States from Mali basically said: Hey, we are a very poor country. If you’re going to come to our country offering thousands and thousands of dollars for people to commit crime, you’re going to find a lot of criminals.
And that kind of gets to the heart in many of these cases; that they are kind of enticing people to commit these crimes that they might not otherwise have been able to, because the DEA is dangling, in some cases, millions of dollars, because these international weapons deals have quite a hefty price tag.
MH: Do you remember how much Juan was paid as an informant in this case, or has been paid as a career informant?
TA: Yeah, as a career informant, he testified that he’s been paid more than $4 million, which is a staggering amount. I think you and I both have done a lot of work on informants, and I think that’s the largest amount that I’ve ever seen testified to, as far as career earnings as an informant.
MH: Oh, yeah. And these war on terrorism cases, often people were getting paid a very pitiful amount to be informants. But they were so put upon, or they were so poor themselves in many cases, they needed it. But quite a stark difference.
Trevor, you mentioned earlier, too, a bit about the changes institutionally in the DEA and other organizations as a result of the war on terror, and the backstream of the war on terror. Can you tell us a bit more about that? How has the U.S. drug war changed as a result of development of tactics adapted from the war on terrorism? As well as personnel, equipment, funding. I get the impression that there’s been a very broad institutional change throughout the U.S. government and law enforcement because of that era, and I wanted to get your perspective as well, too.
How may the DEA be different in the future than the DEA you may remember before 2001, before all the experiences that they gained over the past 20 years?
TA: For sure, yes. So, we are seeing the DEA import a lot of the tactics that came from the war on terrorism. I mean, it’s important to point out, for example, that sting operations date back to the 1980s, and even before, that this is something that the DEA and the FBI have long done, but they’ve perfected them, and kind of expanded them in various ways.
And so, one of those ways, obviously, is the narcoterrorism cases that we talk about in this show. But we’re also seeing the DEA use a lot of the powers that were really developed to stop terrorism, now being used against drug dealers, drug traffickers. An example of this is the bulk surveillance program that Edward Snowden revealed.
The DEA set up this new division called the Special Operations Division, sometimes called the SOD. And this is a special unit within the DEA that interacts with the National Security Agency about information coming through bulk surveillance. And so, one of the things that we are seeing cases documented on is that, obviously, there are limitations – or there are supposed to be limitations – on the U.S. government’s ability to bulk surveil or monitor within the United States. But, outside the United States, there are a different set of rules, and some of those cases that we’ve seen documented are the NSA, through bulk surveillance, being able to identify cars or trucks coming across the U.S.-Mexico border that they suspect are involved in drug trafficking.
And so, this is information that the DEA views as credible, but it’s not information that they could use to prosecute someone or start an investigation. And so, what they do is this process known as “parallel construction.” So, they take this information from the NSA, but they don’t want to disclose to the courts or to the public that they know this particular car crossing the border is carrying drugs, because of information through surveillance.
And so, what they’ll do is, they’ll let that car cross. And then, when it gets into the United States, they’ll say: Well, your taillight’s out. And they’ll pull that car over, the drug dogs come over, and then sniff around and find drugs in the car, and arrest the person. And, as far as the public and the courts are able to view that case, that is a case simply of a broken taillight, standard traffic stop, suspicious cop brings the drug dog, arrest made. When, in reality, the DEA knew and the local cops knew, that that car was carrying drugs as a result of bulk surveillance.
And so, we’re seeing, obviously, this is the type of intrusive surveillance that was meant to alert U.S. authorities to someone carrying a bomb across the border, or someone carrying out an attack. And we’re now seeing those types of very intrusive powers being used against simple drug traffickers.
And so, in that way, we’ve seen the escalation of the DEA into an agency still investigating drugs, but using powers that were really intended and designed to stop terrorism.
MH: Yeah. And Trevor, you wrote a very good book – a landmark book, even – about the use of informants in war and terrorism cases alluded to earlier, called “The Terror Factory.” Can you tell us, very briefly, how did U.S. law enforcement and security agencies use informants and undercovers, typically in terrorism cases, like those that you covered in that book?
And then, secondly: you’re describing all this use of undercover agents to get people to do crimes, or to encourage them to commit crimes, or facilitate their use of committing crimes. How does this not all rise to the level of what people call legal entrapments? Entrapment should be a defense to get out of these cases when the government tries to – is basically responsible for the crime they’re accusing you of. Why does that defense typically not work at trial in these cases?
TA: Yeah. So, traditionally what we saw in the post-9/11 era, which is what I wrote about in my book, is the use of informants to find what the FBI viewed as people who were right on that line, from crossing from sympathizer to operator for a terrorist organization.
And so, the FBI would use informants, and have them pose as affiliates of a terrorist organization like Al Qaeda or ISIS. And they would identify someone who was espousing views that might be sympathetic to those organizations, or even an attack, and they would encourage that person to get involved in the attack. To say, hey, I can get you a bomb, I can get you weapons. And then they would provide weapons to that person and move them forward and attack.
In other cases, the tactics were even more egregious. Some of the targets of investigations were very financially desperate, and then the FBI, through the informant, would dangle the opportunity to make money, or have money involved if they move forward. And they would get involved, not so much out of ideological purpose, but out of, you know, the hope of cashing in on some change-your-life money.
And so, in those cases, the vast majority of people have no connections to real terrorist groups, they have no access to weapons and, in many cases, they have very little money to buy weapons, even if they wanted them. And the FBI provides everything. Not just a weapon, but a bomb, grenades, automatic rifles; you know, guns that would be very difficult to obtain, even by sophisticated criminals. And then, when the defendant goes about to use the weapon, they’re arrested, and they’re charged, and announced to the public as a terrorist who was about to get involved in this very deadly plot were it not foiled by the FBI.
And Margot Williams and I at The Intercept document these cases through Trial and Terror. You know, we’ve seen hundreds of these cases involving sting operations since 9/11. And what this has done, I think, in the post-9/11 era, was really exaggerate the threat of terrorism from within Muslim communities in the United States, by having so many of these cases paraded out to the public. And, on the news, it really made the public think that the threat of terrorism within the United States from these communities was much, much greater than it really was.
And then the second part of your question about entrapment: One of the things to keep in mind is that anytime you’re charged federally, you’re largely screwed, right? Like, the, the government has unlimited resources to prosecute you. So, even if you are putting up the defense, you are either dealing with an overworked public defender, or you are basically leveraging every asset that you have in order to pay for a defense to go up against the U.S. government.
And in these particular cases, the government is very good about including weapons that qualify for draconian mandatory minimum sentences. So, there’s a reason, for example, that the government would give someone a bomb as opposed to a machete, because that bomb would then, upon conviction, qualify that defendant for a much, much stiffer sentence.
And so, in many cases, defendants who are charged in these cases are facing 30 years, if not life, in prison. And the government will go to them and say, hey, if you take a plea deal, you’ll serve eight to 12. And, in the majority of cases, the defendants do take that plea deal. But we’ve had about a dozen cases where defendants have gone forward and argued entrapment at trial.
And entrapment, it’s important to recognize that what you, and I, and most people, non-lawyers, would think of as entrapment is often very different from the legal definition of entrapment. So, in these cases, you can look at them on the surface and say, kind of, in a colloquial sense, “That guy was entrapped.” But, from a legal sense, it’s more difficult.
From a legal sense, the defense has to prove that the defendant was not predisposed to commit this crime, did not have any intention or thoughts prior to the crime to get involved, and that the informant, through the sting operation, was able to overwhelm the will of that person, basically forcing them into committing this crime. And I think a number of cases do, or should, meet that threshold. But, in the post-9/11 era, in an era of rising Islamophobia, what we saw in many of these cases was that the government would put on the stand so-called experts who would testify that defendants had watched a jihadi video or an ISIS propaganda video, and that had predisposed them to commit an act of terrorism.
On its face, I would argue that that’s ridiculous. I’ve watched these videos, you’ve watched these videos, many people have watched these videos, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to become a terrorist because you watched them. But in trials in the post-9/11 era, there has been this kind of abracadabra sense that, hey, he watched this video, he must be predisposed to commit this crime.
And, as a result, what we’ve seen in many terrorism cases, all terrorism cases, is that the entrapment defense hasn’t worked. I would argue because of, not only the difficulty of arguing entrapment in general, but the kind of post-9/11 hysteria and Islamophobia that existed.
One thing worth noting is, we’ve seen these tactics since then used against non-so-called international terrorists. One that people talk about the most is the case in Michigan involving a group of men who were led in an FBI plot to supposedly kidnap the governor, Gretchen Whitmer. And, in that trial, a couple of them got off, arguing entrapment, effectively. And I think what’s interesting about that is, this is a group of white defendants, compared to the largely Black and brown defendants in international terrorism cases. And if you want to kind of look at whether there might be some baked-in prejudice within the legal system, I think that’s a good case to look at, compared to what we’ve seen in some of these international terrorism cases.
MH: Yeah. The courtroom is really one place where you see the manifestation of these biases and so forth, in very, very stark relief.
Trevor, right now, many different law enforcement agencies have informants and undercover agents operating across the United States and, really, across the world, that we see in this case.
Is there anything that people should take away from looking at these investigations, in terms of concerns or skepticism? Because oftentimes we see these very flashy headlines, of someone being busted for armed dealing or terrorist financing somewhere around the world but, really, the truth of it when we drill down is far, far different, and far murkier or concerning than what we were initially told.
What should people think when they first hear about these informant- or undercover-driven cases, and how should they approach them, in terms of scrutinizing them to see if they’re really real or not?
TA: So, my formula for looking at these cases anytime they’re announced is to immediately look to see if there was an informant or an undercover agent involved, and to what degree that informant or undercover agent was involved. In most cases, what you’ll find is that that person was intimately involved in the plot, was an integral part of the conspiracy, if not the leader of the conspiracy altogether. And I think that’s where you should raise a healthy dose of skepticism in looking at these cases.
One of the things that is able to help the government is the fact that, generally speaking, when these cases are announced, the government has that first- or second-day primacy over the story, that most of the information coming out is coming from the government. And so, when you read these stories, you’re kind of getting the government side, which is biased toward making it seem like these cases were much more substantial and realer than they were. And it’s only later when the stories come out that you begin to realize that this isn’t all that the government made it out to be.
So, I think when you’re initially reading these stories about any sort of fantastical plot — a plot to bomb a building, an international arms deal — I think readers should be skeptical of that, particularly if there’s any reference to informants or undercover agents. That isn’t to suggest that informants or undercover agents don’t bust real plots and do real law enforcement work. They do. This isn’t to suggest that all cases involving informants or undercover agents are necessarily entrapment-related, or somehow exaggerated by the government. There are of course, real cases, but many of the cases that the government parades out are in fact these, that are either exaggerated or involve entrapment to some degree.
And I think a cynical way to look at it, but the truthful way to look at it, is to realize that government agents are just like any business, right? They get funding and they have to show results. They have to provide a product, and the product of any of these government agencies are cases, arrests. And so, when the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, all of these agencies, they get billions of dollars from Congress every year, and they go before Congress to talk about what they did with this money. And it is absolutely against any government agency’s interest to say, “Hey, you gave us all this money, but I don’t think we really needed this money, the problem is on the decline. You know, you can fund us less next year.” No government agency does that.
And so, these cases involving informants and undercover operatives allow the agencies to go before Congress and say, “Look at all these bad guys that we busted, and you should continue to fund us in the very substantial ways that you are.”
The truth is that it’s really, really hard to catch real terrorists, right? It’s really, really hard to catch the Tamerlan Tsarnaevs of the world before they commit their bombings. And it’s really, really hard to catch arms dealers, but it’s less hard to use undercover agents and informants to find the people that you can kind of set up in these stings.
And so, many of the cases we’re seeing are those. And, in a very cynical way, these government agencies are using these cases to justify their funding today as well as their funding tomorrow. Whether that has to do with counterterrorism in the FBI sense, narcoterrorism in the DEA sense, or gun trafficking in the ATF sense; all of these agencies have a very direct incentive to build these cases that they can then present to Congress and the public as wins in their particular areas of expertise.
MH: Yeah. I think I have observed in the past — and others have, too, cynically — is that there seems a supply and demand problem. The demand for criminals and terrorists is a lot higher from law enforcement than the supply is, so they have to make their own supply sometimes to meet the demand. And then, that’s how you get cases like these, which are very murky, or in some cases totally, we would say, bogus.
Trevor, thanks so much for joining us today. We really appreciate having you on once again on Intercepted.
TA: Of course, yeah. Thanks so much for having me.
MH: That was Trevor Aaronson, a contributing writer for The Intercept, and the reporter and host of “Alphabet Boys.” The second season, titled Up In Arms, is out now.
And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Intercepted is a production of The Intercept.
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