In the weeks since news came to light that former Black Panther Richard Aoki had some involvement with the FBI, many people in the progressive community have been besiged by a single question: why? The truth may never come out, but the complexity of it was perhaps best summed up by Aoki himself in an interview with the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Seth Rosenfeld in 2007: "It is complex. Layer upon layer."

Indeed, that’s always been the case in the long and ongoing story of state surveillance and intervention in political movements, especially those led by people of color. A stalwart Bay Area Asian American activist who was widely regarded for decades, Aoki’s saga shows that cases like these can seldom be boiled down to simple and binary ideas of so-called "dirty snitches" and "loyal comrades." Instead, it forces a closer look at how and why activists have relationships with the FBI, and the dramatic lengths to which the government has (and continues) to go in order to protect itself.

Even the language that’s used to describe such interactions is tricky, according to experts.

"A lot of people think of [informants] as puppets of the FBI, but sometimes they’re more complicated," says Zaheer Ali, a lecturer on Islam in black America who combed through thousands of FBI documents as lead researcher for the late professor Manning Marable’s Malcolm X biography, "A Life of Reinvention." "I think it’s important when we look at these cases to understand the complexity of their specific situation and examine the record of what they did in the organization and what they are alleged to have provided to intelligence services."

To that end, there are a number of different classifications given to people within political movements who provide information to the FBI, ranging from those who offer basic information to others who are paid to provoke strife within certain organizations. "I think in general the people who become informants are those who are in some kind of vulnerable position — whether it’s a criminal charge or a need for resources — and that vulnerability is exploited by the agency in question," says Ali.

"[The FBI] will say ‘we can wipe your record clean,’" says Garrett Felber, senior research advisor to the Malcolm X Project at the Center for Contemporary Black History. "It’s protection from the state — in addition to whatever financial gains."

The politically turbulent last years of Malcolm X’s life provide a good example. In 1963, Malcolm X was "silenced" by the Nation of Islam after he made comments that many took as celebrating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Within months, the move would lead to Malcolm’s permanent split with the NOI. Sensing this turbulence, the FBI — which had already been tracking the former minister for almost a decade — approached him about becoming an informant on the organization for which he had once proselytized. The agency figured that Malcolm, on the verge of being severed from the infrastructure that had helped propel him to international prominence, would speak out of vengence or, perhaps, desperation. The FBI’s plan ultimately failed, but the incident illustrates how the agency works to exploit political fissures and use them to its advantage.

"For a historian looking back on these documents, there’s the whole question of how you read FBI documents to reconstruct the past," says Ali. "There isn’t an established protocol on how to interpret these documents. It’s important to know the distinction between when these documents are recording information and when they’re interpreting information."

Yet the reasons that people become informants are as varied as the people themselves. Some are compelled to go to the police in order to stop plans that they feel will endanger their political work and the community for which that work is being done. Such was the more recent case of Brandon Darby, a former progressive turned conservative activist who infiltrated a group protesting the RNC in 2008. In 2007, Darby began working with the FBI as an informant and became a key witness in a federal trial against two Texas men who were arrested at the RNC on charges of making and possessing Molotov cocktails. In an open letter published in IndyMedia in 2008, Darby defended his actions. "The simple truth is that I have chosen to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation," Darby wrote, adding: " It is very dangerous when a few individuals engage in or act on a belief system in which they feel they know the real truth and that all others are ignorant and therefore have no right to meet and express their political views."

However, the vast majority of FBI informants are part of movements that don’t offer tangible military threats to the United States, according to some experts. For instance, the Nation of Islam became an early target of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), yet Ali, the Malcolm X researcher, says that the group posed a "misguided threat."

"The NOI did not pose historically a civilian or military threat to the United States," Ali says. "It’s never advocated overthrowing the U.S. goverment. It’s a religious organization that used fiery rhetoric but never advocated any sort of insurrection. What the NOI did do historically was pose an ideological challenge to the idea of America."

That ideological challenge has again taken center stage in the years following 9/11. There’s intense pressure on people in the FBI and security and intelligence services to be very vigilant in preventing attacks. Despite efforts to reform the FBI’s surveillance practice dating as far back as 1971, political changes in the aftermath of 9/11 have given agencies wide latitude in the methods they use to get information from people, regardless of whether or not they pose any established threat to the state. In recent years, several cases of come to light of the FBI effectively manufacturing threats: sending someone in to infiltrate a community and propose violent action, and then either surveilling people who appear sympathetic or working to make that person an informant. 

Despite the changes that have emerged in government surveillance over the past several decades, Ali says that two things remain constants: institutional ignorance and arrogance. "there’s a lack of knowledge about the subjects or people being surveilled," he says. " There still is a lot of ignorance in the intelligence community."

* This story has been updated since publication.