Ronald Reagan & Craig Monteilh: Informants

Two informants should have been all over the news this week. Neither of them are named Richard Aoki.

One was a left-leaning actor who, after FBI agents paid a visit to pass along unkind words a fellow actor had said about him, developed into “one of the best FBI contacts ever.” The second was paid big money by the FBI to goad Muslims into talking about jihad.

The first, Ronald Reagan, became the 40th President of the United States. The second, Craig Monteilh, has now switched sides and is helping the ACLU sue his former paymasters for illegally spying on members of Southern California’s Muslim community.

Ronald Reagan: Informant.

Seth Rosenfeld’s book Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power came out this week.  But a book that chronicles malfeasance by J. Edgar Hoover in 734 pages of “workmanlike prose” is not a good bet for the best-seller list. Rosenfeld’s book needed a booster shot.

On Sunday, August 19, Salon.com ran a piece by Rosenfeld, Ronald Reagan: Informant. The response was tepid.

On Monday, August 20, Rosenfeld tried a different pitch in the San Francisco Chronicle: Activist Richard Aoki Named as Informant. That got the joint a-jumping.

The allegation that Aoki was an informant for the FBI was irresistible.  There was chatter galore among the left about the only Asian member of the Black Panther Party, and the one who had given Bobby Seale his first guns. Bob Wing told  Colorlines.com that he has “no idea whether Richard was an informer. I think it’s a matter for the movement to internalize that this comes with the territory.” Aoki’s biographer Diane Fujino asked Where’s the Evidence? and found it lacking.  Mike Cheng and Ben Wang, directors of the film Aoki, concluded the same.  Democracy Now! booked Rosenfeld and spent the bulk of the time talking about Aoki.  

So Rosenfeld’s bid for buzz worked.

But what about the actual subject of his book, Ronald Reagan?  Wading through 30,000 pages of FBI documents, Rosenfeld discovered that Reagan “names more people than we’ve previously known.”   As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan turned over to the FBI the files of 54 fellow actors suspected of being communist sympathizers.  Rosenfeld’s book chronicles how the FBI rewarded Reagan’s snitchiness with personal and political favors.

The ho-hum response suggests people are not surprised to discover that the 40th President had spent most of his Hollywood years working as a tool for the FBI.

Craig Monteilh: Informant

As for Craig Monteilh, this 6’2”, 260 pound white man whom acquaintances describe as “a snake, a chameleon, a thug scam artist, and a piece of shit” started working for the FBI as a confidential informant after a chance meeting with two police officers in 2004.

A week before Rosenfeld made his allegations about Aoki, This American Life ran an outstanding piece about Monteilh’s work as an FBI informant.  Ira Glass introduced The Convert with a caveat that “this story is not about how things typically go; this is an outlier …” Further in the story, though, the former FBI agents interviewed for the story confirm that the FBI’s use of Monteilh to indiscriminately gather information on, and then try to entrap Muslims in Orange County is, in fact, run of the mill. The only thing that makes this case an outlier was Monteilh’s going rogue on his FBI handlers and spilling the beans.

When Monteilh was assigned to the Orange County Joint Terrorism Task Force, they told him to “lure Muslim males into the gym, using my physique.”   The effort became known as Operation Flex.

From July 2006 until September 2007, Montheilh pretended to be a new convert and carried out instructions from his FBI handlers to indiscriminately “gather information on Muslims,” on the theory that “everybody knows somebody” who may be connected to the Taliban, Hezbollah, or Hamas.  The FBI gave Monteilh a keychain tricked out with an audio recorder, allowing them to plant bugs without a warrant.  When people invited him into their homes, he collected toothpaste tubes and cigarette butts for their DNA.  He was instructed to get security codes at as many mosques in the area as possible and gather membership lists, record lectures, and film attendees.  His handlers told him to “elicit reactions from people by talking provocatively about U.S. foreign policy.”

Last February, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), alleging that the FBI’s tactics carried out by Monteilh and an unknown number of other informants, were unconstitutional.  Monteilh turned coat and became the ACLU’s star witness.

Last week, though, on August 15, a federal judge tossed the case out of court.  The judge used the state secrets doctrine to dismiss the case, deferring to the government’s claim that further revelations about Operation Flex could cause “significant harm to national security.”

What significant harm? Outrage, perhaps.  Monteilh’s declaration paints an ugly picture of the FBI and the scale of their spying: “Agent Armstrong told me that the FBI had every mosque — the ones I went to and the ones I didn’t go to — under surveillance… My handlers told me at various times that the Muslim community was ‘saturated’ or ‘infested’ with informants, and said it was like the societies of cold war East Germany and Cuba, where everyone was informing on one another.”

Or maybe ridicule. Monteilh admitted that he called people up at random and whispered into the phone, “Jihad…jihad…jihad…”  His reasoning was that “if someone heard me say that, and didn’t quickly report me, then they’re a suspect.”   In the same school of absurdist theater, Monteilh lured his new Muslim friends into the gym and, as they did bicep curls, asked, “So what do you think about Osama bin Laden?”

Eight months into Operation Flex, with no one biting at his weird bits of bait, Monteilh’s FBI handlers told him to start suggesting a plot.  At 32:55 on The Convert, Monteilh describes how he “…became very aggressive, insisting, We should carry out a terrorist attack in this country, because I’m tired of standing around doing nothing…we should bomb something.”  Two men reported Monteilh to the FBI.

FBI agents responded by scheduling interviews, but after a few cursory questions about Monteilh, the agents used the interviews to dig in and ask about their friends and their own beliefs. Then the FBI started zeroing in on Afghan immigrant Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, one of the men who had reported Monteilh.

Why Niaz? After sifting through thousands of hours of recordings and the other accumulated product of their massive spying operation, the FBI’s counterterrorism operation had discovered a sliver to hang a case on: one of Nizai’s sisters is married to someone who had once served on Osama bin Laden’s security detail.  They also found in one of the emails Niaz had send to Monteilh a link to a video that included an imam giving a speech that included the rhetorical flourish, “…then every Muslim should be a terrorist.”

FBI agents met with Niazi and gave him an option: work as an informant, or they would make his life “a living hell.”   When he refused, they raided Niazi’s home, arrested him, and charged him with immigration fraud, for failing to reveal his sister’s husband’s name.

Joe Blow: Informant.

The Church Committee, a special Congressional committee charged with examining FBI and CIA abuses after Watergate and COINTELPRO, found in 1975 that the FBI had 1,500 informants on hand.  The war on drugs drove the number of FBI informants upwards to 6,000 in 1986.  By 2011, the war on terror now has the FBI with a roster of 15,000 spies.  In addition to these official spies, according to investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson, “for every informant officially listed in the bureau’s records, there are as many as three unofficial ones…known in bureau parlance as ‘hip pockets.’”

This post 9/11 surge in the number of informants is a direct result of the FBI’s reorientation “to identify risks to our Nation’s security at the earliest stage possible and to respond with forward-leaning – preventative – prosecutions.”  Despite all the advances in technology and data-mining, preventative prosecution still relies primarily on informants willing to spy on targeted communities.

But creating informants is not easy, given that most people, like Niazi, have a natural revulsion to becoming an informant for the FBI.  Aaronson describes the interplay of criminal justice, immigration enforcement, and national security in making informants out of the unwilling:

People cooperate with law enforcement for fairly simple reasons: ego, patriotism, money, or coercion. The FBI’s recruitment has relied heavily on the latter. One tried-and-true method is to flip someone facing criminal charges. But since 9/11 the FBI has also relied heavily on Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with which it has worked closely as part of increased interagency coordination. A typical scenario will play out like this: An FBI agent trying to get someone to cooperate will look for evidence that the person has immigration troubles. If they do, he can ask ICE to begin or expedite deportation proceedings. If the immigrant then chooses to cooperate, the FBI will tell the court that he is a valuable asset, averting deportation.”

If we’re going to talk about Richard Aoki and FBI informants, we should keep on talking, and ask whether the current day “forward-leaning prosecution” that drenches a community with informants is effective, constitutional, or desirable. The last ten years suggest it is none of the above.

Further reading:

  • More on the FBI’s operations within the Muslim community in Orange County and how “It is all about entrapment” ran in a Guardian story on March 20, 2012.
  • Harper’s magazine’s To Catch a Terrorist, on the manufactured crimes of Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain (for which they are serving 15 years each), and informants’ role in creating terrorist plots.
  • Thomas Cincotta, From Movements to Mosques, Informants Endanger Democracy, The Public Eye (Summer 2009).
  • EvanRatliff asks, What happens when informants go too far? in the New Yorker’s The Mark (May 2, 2011).
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