boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Questions raised about FBI's informants

Agency contends they're needed to battle terrorism

WASHINGTON -- Even as the FBI hails as a major success story its breakup of an alleged plot by "radical Islamists" to kill soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J., federal authorities acknowledge that the case has underscored a troubling vulnerability in the domestic war on terror.

They say the FBI, despite an unprecedented expansion over the past 5 1/2 years, cannot possibly counter the growing threat posed by homegrown extremists without the help of two often unreliable allies. One is an American public that they lament is prone to averting its attention from suspicious behavior and often reluctant to get involved. The other is a small but growing army of informants, some of whom might be in it for the wrong reasons -- such as money, political ax grinding, or their own legal problems.

Such dependence on amateurs is "not something that we would like. It's something that we absolutely need," said special agent J.P. Weis , who heads the FBI's Philadelphia field office and the Southern New Jersey Joint Terrorism Task Force, which conducted the Fort Dix investigation.

Weis and other FBI and Justice Department officials acknowledged they probably never would have known about the six men and their alleged plans had it not been for a Circuit City employee who reported a suspicious video to police. And, they said, an FBI informant was instrumental in gathering the evidence needed to file criminal charges against the men by infiltrating their circle for 16 months as they allegedly bought and trained with automatic weapons, made reconnaissance runs, and discussed their plans.

Militants who associated with known Al Qaeda figures, or who spent time in training camps, have for the most part been identified and either arrested, deported, or placed under constant surveillance, senior FBI and Justice Department officials said.

The primary threat now comes from an unknown number of individuals with no criminal backgrounds and few if any ties to militants overseas. Operating locally without the need to travel or send communications overseas, these groups and individuals can evade security nets such as international wiretaps and travel surveillance.

Weis -- like other federal law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence officials -- described them as "lone wolves, cells that stay below the radar screen."

"Nobody really knows about them, they're not affiliated with any major group, but held together by a common ideology," Weis said. "So to try and infiltrate them, some of the traditional means may not be effective."

In recent years, authorities have arrested about 60 individuals from the much larger pool of angry and disaffected people, charging them with terrorism, according to the FBI official and others. Dozens of other suspects have been deported or are being kept under surveillance.

Many of these suspects do not fit any easily identifiable profile, which was also true of some of the men arrested last week in and around Cherry Hill, N.J.

Federal authorities have disrupted other alleged "homegrown terrorist" plots in recent years, in Northern Virginia, San Diego, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Toledo, Miami, and New Jersey. And few if any of the arrests made in those cases were the result of a member of the public reporting suspicious activity, according to interviews with authorities and court records of their prosecutions.

Bureau officials conceded that they are disappointed that more people don't come forward with tips, despite their pleas for assistance. "In some ways, it's human nature. A lot of times people think that someone else will report it," Weis said. "But now, with the changing times, you can't take that chance."

The bureau also has spent millions of dollars cultivating a range of paid informants, particularly in Muslim communities.

On many occasions, as was the case last week, the FBI has benefited from evidence allegedly collected by those informants. But in some cases, the bureau has been accused of not vetting its sources or of allowing them to pressure suspects into committing illegal acts or entrapping them.

In one case, the FBI paid an informant $230,000 to infiltrate a suspected terror cell in Lodi, Calif., only to see many of his claims about the Pakistani immigrants go unfounded after they were arrested and prosecuted.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES