Informants: Getting People to Speak

    Jeremy Young produced the documentary Informants for Al Jazeera's Investigative Unit. It will be shown during the CIJ Investigative Film Festival on 22 March, and it gives us a rare glimpse into the world of covert US operations among people they deem ‘risky’. Not an easy topic to investigate, let alone film, as all sides are understandably tight lipped about it. 
     
    And yet, Young and his team get the informants, the communities they target and the former FBI agents to talk on camera. 
     
    With the French authorities asking questions as to how the recent shootings in Paris could have been prevented, the issue of informants becomes even more relevant. 
     
    Could this undercover work prevent future atrocities or is it just another way in which the state infiltrates people’s private lives? We ask Jeremy Young about working on the investigation. 
     
     
    How did you come with an idea for ‘Informants’?
     
    My reporting colleague, Trevor Aaronson, had done previous work looking at how the US government uses informants for counter-terrorism sting operations. In fact he was really the first journalist to raise significant questions about the technique. Our goal was to see how we could further his reporting and develop it for a long-form film. As we progressed, it became clear we could differentiate our film by shining the spotlight on the informants themselves.  They are at the heart of the story yet you almost never hear from them - especially on-camera.
     
    Security agencies are a pretty tough area to investigate. How did you find your 'leads'?
     
    We started by isolating cases that had been prosecuted already where we could identify the informant that was involved. In many instances the identity of the informant is never revealed.  Once we had the informants on the record we were able to take a closer look at how the government built its case. Department of Justice officials were very wary about speaking with us. We did manage to get several former FBI agents to do interviews on-camera. They had experience working directly with informants so their perspective was invaluable.
     
    Were people willing to help? What do you think motivated them?
     
    It was hard to get people to talk on all sides of the story.  Informants are a tricky breed.  Often they are professional con-artists so it can be challenging dealing with them as a journalist.  In several instances we played to their ego in order to get them to speak with us and then asked them the harder questions once the cameras were rolling. Many people that we approached in the communities that were targeted by informants were also hesitant to allow us in to film.  They felt it put them at risk of further scrutiny by the government. I was impressed that the young man that found a tracking device on his car agreed to go on-camera and tell his story.  Obviously the government was suspicious of him and had been tracking his whereabouts. It showed some guts for him to speak publicly about his decision to not become an informant.
     
    Tell us about the filming process itself. Did you employ any unique tactics?
     
    Our camera man Snorre Wik established a few principles at the outset of the project. First we were going to use a uniform interview style set against a black backdrop and we were going to film the entire thing at night. The idea was to play off of the dark, shadowy world in which informants operate. I think it worked, you’ll notice the last chapter where we unmask a current informant is shot during the day for contrast. Pretty much everything else takes place at night.  We also had to use hidden cameras a bit and do some surveillance as well. In the end it all worked out but it wasn’t easy to do.
     
    Has there been any fallout from the film?
     
    There has only been one incident - the informant that we unmasked at the end of the film had his business raided by the IRS. It’s unclear whether or not it has anything to do with our identification of him as an FBI informant. I called him to ask him about it and he hung up on me.
     
    What reaction have you received from people that have seen it?
     
    Most people are curious as to how we got the informants to speak with us. I like to say that some of them wanted to get their story out there, others are just megalomaniacs.
     
    Have the recent killings in Paris had any effect on the issues you raise in your documentary?
     
    Not really, I think the attacks on Charlie Hebdo as well as the Boston Marathon bombings present a different set of national security challenges for the West. These were fairly sophisticated attacks that included overseas training with extremist groups. These were men that the US and European intelligence services were unable to detect. In the Paris case one of the men had been incarcerated and they were both on the no-fly list. The authorities knew who these people were. Informant-led stings are used to target young men before they get to that stage. But the targets tend to be more aspirational and less operational.
     
    Well informants would argue that they are getting to people before they become a threat? Isn’t that a good thing?
     
    I think that’s the question that is really at the core of the issue. Is it possible to stop
    an attack from taking place before it even begins? It’s like the Philip Dick story that was later made into a movie-- Minority Report. Just because someone would be willing to carry out an attack under certain circumstances doesn’t mean those circumstances will ever materialise.  On one hand it’s an existential question but our film shows that the consequences are very real.
     
    Jeremy Young’s Informants for Al Jazeera Investigative Unit will be shown during the CIJ London Investigative Film Festival on Sun 22 March at 2:30pm at University of Westminster, 4-12 Little Titchfield Street, London W1W 7BY. 
     
    Jeremy Young has been with Al Jazeera since 2006, working in both news and long-form programming. He produced several dozen documentaries around the world before joining Al Jazeera's Investigative Unit in 2013. He explains:
     
    “For me it was an opportunity to develop more investigative contacts and learn new reporting techniques.  
     
    But also I wanted to try new approaches to film-making which I was able to do with this investigation”
     
    With an emphasis placed on reporting overlooked social justice issues, Al Jazeera has been a great home for Young. He’s produced several different projects in jails and prisons in the United States dealing with mass incarceration.