• SNITCHING: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice
  • U.S. Attorney General's Guidelines on the FBI's Use of Confidential Human Sources
  • Sarah Stillman, The Throwaways, The New Yorker (2012) (article on the use of juvenile informants)

Recent Blog Posts

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The debate over domestic terrorism informants

For the debate over the FBI's practice of sending paid informants into Muslim communities to ferret out domestic terrorists, compare these two pieces in the wake of the conviction of four men in Newburgh, NY:
From Slate: The Pathetic Newburgh Four: Should the FBI really be baiting sad-sack homegrown terrorists?
"Why does the government's anti-terror net catch such unconvincing villains: black men near mosques who, in exchange for promises of money, sign on to knuckleheaded schemes that would never exist if it weren't for the informants being handsomely paid to incite them? [One of the] supposed plotter[s], a Haitian, was a paranoid schizophrenic (according to his imam), which was the reason his deportation had been deferred (according to The Nation's, and who kept bottles of urine in his squalid apartment (according to the New York Times). The last two, both surnamed Williams, have histories of drug busts and minimum-wage jobs in Newburgh. At trial the government asserted that the plot was driven by anti-American hatred. But in papers filed in court by defense lawyers before the trial began, Cromitie is quoted in government transcripts explaining to Hussain that the men "will do it for the money. ... They're not even thinking about the cause."
From Business Week: NY Bomb Plot Convictions Vindicate Use of Informant
"The convictions of four men for conspiring to bomb New York synagogues vindicated the post-9/11 strategy of using an informant to identify individuals deemed likely to engage in terrorism and encourage them up to the point of arrest, legal experts said. After being approached by one defendant who said he wanted "to do something to America," the informant testified, he sought to gain their trust, urging them forward with gifts, scouting targets with them and eventually supplying them with dud bombs. Undercover informants played similar roles in three other recent terrorism cases, helping develop, then foil alleged plots to detonate a bomb near Chicago's Wrigley Field, attack a federal courthouse in Illinois and blow up a Dallas skyscraper."

FOX on the informant market

Here's a general story that ran yesterday on FOX in Memphis, Tennessee-- Informants Cashing in on Snitching. The piece focuses on informants, particularly drug informants, who earn money as well as leniency for their own offenses, and it highlights the informality and lack of rules that characterize the world of paid criminal snitching. From the story:
"Most of the informants we develop, are involved in criminal activity. You get your best information from people who have knowledge of the crimes or are being involved in committing the crimes," said [Sgt. Clay] Aitken [of the Shelby County Sheriff's Office.] Records on the number of informants and what they're paid is not made public by the sheriff's office. Aitken says informants are paid with seized drug money, not taxpayers' dollars. "I've seen informants get paid anywhere from $50 to thousands of dollars. But there's no set rate or set fee," said Aitken.
One of [the reporter's] law enforcement sources who has worked directly with informants, says he's personally seen a Mid-South informant get handed $50,000 cash for one tip that led to a huge drug bust but that's nothing compared to what the Feds can offer and he says informants have been known to shop their information around selling it to the highest bidder.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

David Headley: another drug/terrorism informant works both sides

According to the New York Times, David Headley, drug-dealer-turned-informant-turned-terrorist, was working for the DEA while collaborating with Pakistani terrorists who eventually attacked Mumbai, India in 2008. Headley has pleaded guilty to his role in that attack, and is currently cooperating with the government in an effort to avoid the death penalty. Story here: DEA Deployed Mumbai Plotter Despite Warning. Part of India's anger over the incident stems from the fact that the DEA had been warned repeatedly by several people who knew Headley that he sympathized with terrorist groups, but, ignoring the warnings, the DEA nevertheless persuaded a court to take Headley off probation and sent him to Pakistan in 2001. From the Times:
In recent weeks, United States government officials have begun to acknowledge that Mr. Headley's path from American informant to transnational terrorist illustrates the breakdowns and miscommunications that have bedeviled them since the Sept. 11 attacks. Warnings about his radicalism were apparently not shared with the drug agency that made use of his ties in Pakistan.
The director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., began an investigation into Mr. Headley's government connections after reports last month that two of the former drug dealer's ex-wives had gone to American authorities between 2005 and 2008, before the Mumbai attacks, to say they feared he was plotting with terrorists. Combined with the earlier warning from the former girlfriend, three of the women in Mr. Headley's life reported his ties to terrorists, only to have those warnings dismissed.
An examination of Mr. Headley's story shows that his government ties ran far deeper and longer than previously known. One senior American official knowledgeable about the case said he believed that Mr. Headley was a D.E.A. informant until at least 2003, meaning that he was talking to American agencies even as he was learning to deal with explosives and small arms in terrorist training camps.
An NPR story this morning explains the breakdown in official communication by noting that the DEA would have been protective of its informant and unlikely to share his identity with other agencies, Warnings Overlooked in Case of American Tied to Mumbai Attacks. But this is only part of the story. As the Times points out, the DEA ignored the warnings precisely because Headley was a long time and valuable informant. This is the same blindspot that earlier this year led CIA officials to bring a prized informant to a base in Afghanistan, only to see him turn suicide bomber -- see Afghan suicide bomber was informant-double-agent.
This debacle illustrates the significant costs of the criminal informant compromise. First, informants avoid punishment for their own crimes--Headley served less than two years in prison although he could have faced up to nine years for distributing 15 kilograms of heroin. Second, as the government grows increasingly reliant on its criminal sources, officials come to tolerate informant crime, double-dealing and inaccuracy as a routine part of the compromise. Because the dominant culture of informant management is one of secrecy, even as between government agencies, this further weakens the process of intelligence-gathering, information-sharing, and law enforcement. Since the government maintains that it cannot conduct the war on terror without informants, it is time to rethink the rules of this risky public policy.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thanks to Eric Miller

Many thanks to Eric for all his work and insights.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Farewell Post

This is my last post as a guest blogger. I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to think deeply about the problems of snitching and policing. Today I want to thing about the dangers inherent in becoming an informant.

The stop snitching movement normally focuses on the cost of snitching to the community. However, two recent cases suggest that the cost of informing can be high because the police insufficiently protect their informants. In the most recent case, from Missoula, Montana, police officers reportedly pressured Colton Peterson, a mentally ill marijuana grower to "work as a 'cooperative defendant,' gathering string on potentially more serious drug dealers in the area, and in exchange police would tell prosecutors he had cooperated with the investigation." Peterson committed suicide, in part, his family claim, because of the pressure to snitch. In another case, police in Tallahassee, Florida, arrested Rachel Hoffman, a college student, "for drug possession and … g[a]ve[ her] the opportunity to avoid multiple felony charges by acting as a confidential informant for the police." She was told to purchase drugs, including cocaine, from local drug dealers, but was killed during the undercover operation.

In each case, the police appeared to be more concerned to turn non-violent marijuana users into snitches than ensure their safety. In each case, vulnerable young individuals were preyed upon by police not simply to turn states evidence, but to go back into the field as undercover informants, in Hoffman's case to buy harder drugs than she used, as well as to purchase a handgun. In each instance, the police were criticized for their lack of training in using informants.

Thanks again to Alexandra Natapoff for the opportunity to contribute to this blog.