Journalism School fellow investigates FBI use of informants in Muslim communities post 9/11

August 20, 2011
By: Graduate School of Journalism

Mother Jones has published story by Investigative Reporting Fellow Trevor Aaronson that discloses how the FBI built a network of informants in Muslim communities.

Aaronson’s story, “The Informants," reveals how the FBI's program was designed to find would-be terrorists before they strike, resulting in dozens of sting operations since 9/11 in which targets were led into action by informants.

This multimedia investigation includes an 8,000-word cover story and the first and only publicly searchable, online, interactive database of more than 500 federal terrorism prosecutions since 9/11.

Among the investigation’s key findings:

• The FBI has 15,000 registered informants, many of them keeping watch on Muslim communities. Today, the FBI has nearly three times as many informants as it had 25 years ago.

• Of more than 500 federal terrorism prosecutions since 9/11, nearly half involved the use of an informant—many of them motivated by money or the need to work off criminal or immigration violations.

• Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants. Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an “agent provocateur”—an aggressive FBI operative who provoked the targets into committing their alleged terrorist acts.

• The FBI often uses the threat of deportation, as well as other forms of leverage, to win cooperation from informants.

Aaronson wrote his story as a post-graduate Fellow at IRP, which is run by Professor Lowell Bergman. This is the fifth year of the fellowship program, which is unlike any other offered by an academic institution in the country. IRP Fellows spend a year with salary, expenses and editorial support pursuing stories in-depth and on multiple platforms.

“It’s been an honor to work with Lowell Bergman and his colleagues at IRP,” Aaronson said. “They’ve created an environment that gives journalists the rare opportunity to plum the depths of a complicated story.”

Aaronson is an Investigative Reporting Fellow at the University of California-Berkeley, and the Associate Director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. Previously, Aaronson was an investigative reporter and projects editor for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee, where his stories ranged from investigations of local government to reporting in Asia, Africa, and South America. The Florida native has won more than two-dozen national and regional awards for his work, including from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists. Aaronson was a finalist for the 2005 Livingston Awards for Young Journalists for a series about corruption at the Hollywood (Fla.) Police Department that led to federal indictments and the conviction of four high-ranking officers. Aaronson was formerly a staff writer for Village Voice Media’s newspapers in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

The Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, established permanently in 2006, builds on work begun in 1992 in the seminars taught by Lowell Bergman, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter and documentarian.

Funded almost entirely by private grants and gifts, including a chair endowed by the Reva and David Logan Foundation of Chicago, the IRP functions both as a specialized graduate-level training program and as a non-profit newsgathering operation, generating stories for major broadcast, print and online outlets.

For more details, contact:

Investigative Reporting Program