April 01, 2014

Air Force academy pressures cadets into snitching

The Colorado Springs Gazette ran this extensive story about "a secretive Air Force program [that] recruits academy students to inform on fellow cadets and disavows them afterward." Story here: Honor and Deception, and also Fox News story here. The program--which pressures cadets, especially those of color, into violating Academy rules under pressure of expulsion--appears to exhibit the classic corrosive costs of informant culture. From the Gazette report:

For one former academy student, becoming a covert government operative meant not only betraying the values he vowed to uphold, it meant being thrown out of the academy as punishment for doing the things the Air Force secretly told him to do....Eric Thomas, 24, was a confidential informant for the Office of Special Investigations, or OSI -- a law enforcement branch of the Air Force. OSI ordered Thomas to infiltrate academy cliques, wearing recorders, setting up drug buys, tailing suspected rapists and feeding information back to OSI. In pursuit of cases, he was regularly directed by agents to break academy rules....Through it all, he thought OSI would have his back. But when an operation went wrong, he said, his handlers cut communication and disavowed knowledge of his actions, and watched as he was kicked out of the academy....The Air Force's top commander and key members of the academy's civilian oversight board claim they have no knowledge of the OSI program. The Gazette confirmed the program, which has not been reported in the media through interviews with multiple informants, phone and text records, former OSI agents, court filings and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The records show OSI uses FBI-style tactics to create informants. Agents interrogate cadets for hours without offering access to a lawyer, threaten them with prosecution, then coerce them into helping OSI in exchange for promises of leniency they don’t always keep. OSI then uses informants to infiltrate insular cadet groups, sometimes encouraging them to break rules to do so. When finished with informants, OSI takes steps to hide their existence, directing cadets to delete emails and messages, misleading Air Force commanders and Congress, and withholding documents they are required to release under the Freedom of Information Act. The program also appears to rely disproportionately on minority cadets like Thomas.

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Secret police bonuses for informants

Prosecutors in Durham, North Carolina, say they were unaware of a ten-year program under which police paid informants extra money to testify in drug cases. Story here: Durham Police bonus payments to informants could violate defendants' rights. Since prosecutors are responsible for providing discovery to defendants, these payments were not disclosed as required.

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October 21, 2011

Congressman Lynch introduces informant legislation

In the wake of new revelations about FBI informant crimes, U.S. Representative Stephen F. Lynch (D-MA) has introduced important new legislation that would require federal investigative agencies to report their informants' serious crimes to Congress. H.R. 3228, The Confidential Informant Accountability Act, would require the FBI, the DEA, Secret Service, ICE and ATF to report every six months to Congress all "serious crimes" committed by their informants, whether or not those crimes were authorized. "Serious crime" is defined as any serious violent felony, any serious drug crime, or any crime of racketeering, bribery, child pornography, obstruction of justice, or perjury. The bill prohibits the disclosure of informant names, control numbers, or any other personal information that might permit them to be identified. Under the U.S. Attorney General's Guidelines, the FBI is already required to disclose its informants' crimes to federal prosecutors.

The bill would also help the families of two men who were killed in connection with FBI informant Whitey Bulger to recover damages from the FBI. For more background, see these stories in the Boston Globe: Bill would aid kin of two slain men, and Pants on Fire. Full disclosure: I provided information to Congressman Lynch's office in support of this bill and I am strongly in favor of the effort.

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October 13, 2011

9th Circuit clarifies DEA disclosure obligations under FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) empowers individual requestors to compel the government to disclose its records. Various exceptions permit the government to withhold certain records regarding informants, but the Ninth Circuit recently explained some limits to those exceptions. In Pickard v. Dep't of Justice, 2011 WL 3134505 (9th Cir., July 27, 2011), William Pickard filed a FOIA request with the DEA to get records regarding Gordon Todd Skinner, a DEA informant. The DEA denied his request by submitting a so-called "Glomar response" in which it neither officially confirmed nor denied the existence of Skinner as an informant. The 9th Circuit held that the DEA in effect had already "officially confirmed" Skinner as a confidential informant by eliciting testimony about and from him in open court at Pickard's trial, and that therefore the DEA could not avoid the FOIA request in that manner. In other words, once the government relies on an informant--either through an agent's testimony at trial regarding that informant or by using the informant as a witness--it cannot subsequently block a FOIA request by refusing to acknowledge the existence of the informant. This does not mean that the DEA necessarily has to produce records regarding its informants; it does mean, however, that it has to acknowledge the existence of such records and identify the specific FOIA exceptions that might permit nondisclosure.

This is an important decision for a number of reasons. As Judge Wallace explains in his concurrence, "the specific circumstances pursuant to which an informant's status is deemed "officially confirmed" is a matter of first impression and great importance." This is because the threshold question of whether a person is an informant at all may be a secret. Moreover, the decision clarifies that once the government decides to use an informant or his information at trial, it relinquishes much of its claim to confidentiality under FOIA. As Judge Wallace put it:

On the one hand, prosecutors frequently must rely on informants, who possess vital information, to prosecute dangerous criminals. On the other hand, the DEA and confidential informants have a different interest in secrecy and privacy than federal prosecutors. Yet, under the majority holding, an Assistant United States Attorney can eliminate that privacy interest by asking a single question--i.e., "Did you serve as a confidential informant"--in open court.

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March 29, 2010


In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the FBI has just released for the first time hundreds of memos regarding its "special file room," in which it has stored for decades information considered too sensitive for its central filing system. As described by the Boston Globe, the special filing system is designed "to restrict access [to information] severely and, in more sinister instances, some experts assert, prevent the Congress and the public from getting their hands on it." The information includes such things as plans to relocate Congress if Washington is attacked, files on high-profile mob figures and their political friends, as well as the FBI's own questionable activities such as spying on domestic political organizations. From the Globe:

Other files on domestic spying that were routed to the special file room involved "black nationalist extremists." There were also files about an "extremely sensitive counterintelligence technique" called snitch-jacketing, which apparently involved the FBI spreading false information that members of a targeted group were government informants in order to sow conflict within their membership.

While "snitch-jacketing" was a new term to me, it's an old concept. An important historical strand of informant use has been the government's creation and deployment of informants to infiltrate and disrupt civilian political activities. I've blogged about this issue here in the context of FBI infiltration of Muslim communities; Gary Marx is the preeminent expert on this subject.

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January 07, 2010

London police resist disclosing snitch payments

The London Daily News reports that Scotland Yard may be facing contempt of court for refusing to reveal how much it spends on snitches. Story here. The paper reports that the city spends approximately $4 million a year to pay informants. While U.S. governments do not reveal such figures either, a study by the National Law Journal concluded that in 1993, federal agencies paid their confidential informants $97 million.

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August 19, 2009

Police Internally Split on Confidentiality Issue

Thanks to Scott Henson from Grits For Breakfast for passing along this important story on a battle raging within the St. Louis police department. Rank-and-file police are refusing to provide information about their snitches to their own police supervisors and city police officials. Here's an excerpt:

Worried about liars in their ranks, city police officials are demanding that up to 20 officers tell bosses details about their confidential informers. But the St. Louis Police Officers Association has won a temporary restraining order to block the inquiry, pending a hearing in court next week. The organization says the probe would jeopardize informers' lives, officers' careers and public safety. At issue is whether officers have attributed fabricated information to confidential informers to obtain search and arrest warrants. Police brass acknowledge in court filings that they believe "one or more" officers "have included false information in affidavits" for warrants, and say the investigation is aimed at stopping "the concerns of police abuse and violation of civil rights."

Ironically, one of the officers' arguments against holding a public hearing is that if informants are called to testify, they will lie. These being the very same informants that police rely on to get the warrants in the first place.

The fact that street cops are at odds with their own police officials on this question reveals some deep dynamics about snitching, including what I call the culture of secrecy surrounding the entire practice. Police and their informants are heavily dependent on one another--police need information while offenders need protection against punishment. Police will often go a long way to protect their sources, famously from defendants and courts, but often from prosecutors and even sometimes from their own police supervisors. This does not mean that police handlers are necessarily corrupt: handling criminal informants inherently means doing unsavory things like ignoring their crimes, bending the rules, sometimes providing addicts with cash for drugs. However, the culture of secrecy makes illegal police conduct that much easier. See this NYT story on Brooklyn police who supplied their informants with drugs. Kudos to the St. Louis police officials who are trying to make the process more accountable and transparent.

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Snitching by Alexandra Natapoff A Barnes & Noble Best Pick of 2009

2010 ABA Silver Gavel Award Honorable Mention for Books
2010 ABA Silver Gavel Award
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