Because undercover work can be dangerous for everyone involved, the government has set some ground rules for working with informants. But when we checked on major law enforcement agencies, we found that several agencies weren’t always following the rules.
Rulebook ‘em, Danno
In cases that could involve federal prosecutions, the Attorney General’s Guidelines set rules for federal agencies’ use of informants. The rules we reviewed fall into two categories:
- Vetting. We’ve all watched the shows—if you’re going to rely on an informant, you have to make sure they’re reliable. To that end, federal agents check an informant’s background, determine his or her motivations for informing, and comb through any criminal histories, among other things.
- Oversight. The informant may have to engage in otherwise illegal activity—like buying illegal drugs from the target of a drug-trafficking investigation. To keep things above board, the agency must document the reasons—and risks—for the informant engaging in these kinds of activities. But cooperating with agencies doesn’t give informants a get-out-of-jail-free card. Agencies must formally authorize the specifics of such activities before they happen. In return, the informant must acknowledge in writing the agency’s instructions about risks, rules, and responsibilities.
If an agency didn’t vet an informant or the informant conducted illegal activities beyond what’s authorized, that could call into question the case against the target of the investigation.
Exposing undercover oversight
When it came to vetting their informants, all 8 agencies we reviewed followed most of the Guidelines—the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Coast Guard; Customs and Border Protection; Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); FBI; Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); Marshals Service; and Secret Service.
However, several agencies’ policies fell short of following the Guidelines. For example, the Marshals Service, Coast Guard, and Secret Service didn’t require prior authorization for otherwise illegal activity, instructions in writing, and time limits on illegal activities.
Along with the agencies above, DEA and ICE also didn’t require that their informants be notified if the agency suspends their authorization, a requirement spelled out in the Guidelines. Moreover, if the suspension was the result of the informant’s misconduct, these agencies didn’t require that the informant acknowledge the suspension in writing.
Ripped from our headlines
We made several recommendations to help the agencies get in sync with the Attorney General’s Guidelines. The agencies have agreed to take action, which should better protect agencies and informants and help put away criminals.