From Abscam to the arrest of former Washington Mayor Marion Barry on drug charges, sting operations have brought accusations that the government was entrapping its targets. This perennial complaint has acquired a new sensitivity with charges that the FBI, as part of its anti-terrorism activities, is inducing Muslims to take part in fictitious plots and then arresting them. So far the accusations seem exaggerated, but the FBI needs to be careful that it doesn’t propose violations of the law to individuals who have shown no propensity to commit crimes.
The latest suggestion of entrapment comes from the lawyer for Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old Somali American accused of plotting to explode a bomb at a Christmas tree lighting in Portland, Ore., last month. The lawyer said undercover agents had been “basically grooming” Mohamud for months to commit a terrorist act, and complained that they failed to record their first meeting with Mohamud — the meeting at which evidence of entrapment would be most evident.
The notion that Mohamud was entrapped brought a defiant response from Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. Addressing a group of American Muslims, Holder said he would make no apologies for the FBI’s conduct in the case, which included providing Mohamud with a large and elaborate “explosive.” More generally, Holder said undercover operations “have proven to be an essential law enforcement tool in uncovering and preventing potential terror attacks.”
If the government’s recitation of facts in the Mohamud case is to be believed, Holder is on solid ground. Although the word “entrapment” is often used synonymously with “sting operation,” entrapment in the legal sense occurs when police induce someone to engage in a crime he otherwise would not have committed. According to the FBI, Mohamud indicated his intention to kill Americans, identified the target and refused to change his mind when he was reminded that children would be harmed in an explosion.
It would be appalling, and illegal, for the FBI to try to tempt Muslims who have shown no propensity to violence to engage in terrorist operations. Besides being insensitive to constitutional rights, such a strategy would be a waste of law enforcement resources. Holder insists that the FBI is engaged in something different: pretending to help suspects plot acts of terrorism only after they have indicated their desire to commit a violent crime. So long as the government abides by that distinction, sting operations are a legitimate tool in combating terrorism.