Counterterrorism Policy Guide
Disruptions: How the FBI Handles People Without Bringing Them To Court
Jan. 31 2017

When the FBI puts a halt to criminal or terrorist activity without bringing anyone to court, it claims to have achieved a “disruption.”

The guide defines a disruption as an action that neutralizes a threat by impeding the activities of an individual or group of suspects. Some of the tactics the FBI uses to this end are familiar: interviewing the subject, for instance, or seizing financial assets. Others were not previously known: deportation, media campaigns, and feeding suspects disinformation.

Since 9/11, the FBI has taken on the disruption not only of crimes but of acts of terrorism. Techniques familiar from drug and mob cases — sting operations, for example, and the attempt to recruit informants by arresting suspects on lesser charges — have become counterterrorism staples.

The FBI maintains that disruptions are a means to stop dangerous people before they act, rather than a work-around for cases likely to fail in court, say, due to the absence of sufficient evidence.


1 The FBI can use a “media campaign” in a disruption

The notion that the FBI reserves the right to use a “media campaign” to publicize a suspect’s activities, even when there is no legal action pending against the suspect, sounds chilling. An FBI spokesman explained that this guideline is meant for situations when a subject is at large and presents a public safety threat — for example, if a terrorist whom the FBI hasn’t been able to apprehend is believed to be on the verge of carrying out an attack.

“If we know he represents a real problem, stopping him is the most important thing,” the spokesperson said. “There are situations where we are out of time and we’ve got to use the media to alert the public.”

- Jan. 31 2017
2 Ways to disrupt a suspect

Disruption tactics take place outside the bounds of legal scrutiny and can have profound effects on a person’s life, particularly when they affect immigration decisions. Attorneys interviewed by The Intercept said they had seen cases in which the FBI had investigated a person for a long time without bringing any charges; but the person would nonetheless face adverse immigration action that he or she had little ability to challenge.

An FBI spokesperson told The Intercept that “the option to disrupt a terror suspect by deporting them or revoking their visa still has to go through normal proceedings, which are led by the Department of Homeland Security or Department of State.”


- Jan. 31 2017
3 The disruption stats game

The FBI uses disruption statistics to help justify spending $5.3 billion — more than half its budget — on counterterrorism. The guide offers a window into how the stats game is played: While “only one field office may claim the disruption of a given subject as a statistical accomplishment,” other offices that made a “significant contribution to the disruption (e.g., serves a warrant or conducts interviews) may claim a disruption assistance as a statistical accomplishment.”

In its budget request for the 2015 financial year, the FBI included the somewhat perplexing statistic that it had achieved 440 “terrorism disruptions,” compared to about 60 terrorism-related charges publicly reported in 2015. (The number of disruptions was also three times the bureau’s “target” of 125 for the year.)

The budget gave only a vague indication of exactly what qualified as an accomplishment, saying only that the FBI achieved them by “leveraging its workforce and ensuring the use of the latest technology to thwart emerging trends.” As this document shows, the FBI likely counted a range of actions toward that total.

- Jan. 31 2017