How do you handle an FBI informant?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 13 2005 6:18 PM

How Do You Handle an FBI Informant?

If you pay him, get a receipt.

In the last few years, the FBI has repeatedly violated its own rules about informants, according to a report released by the Justice Department on Monday. The report found that agents broke the rules in almost 90 percent of the cases it reviewed. How are you supposed to handle an FBI informant?

With lots of paperwork. Any confidential source of information for the FBI, DEA, INS, or U.S. Marshals must be properly documented and registered throughout his government career. Before you can put a snitch to work, you first have to file a report on his qualifications and liabilities and then get written approval from a supervisor. Once your informant is on the government payroll, he faces annual reviews of his suitability and more extensive tests every six years.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

To get started, you have to provide your informant with certain instructions. You can't lie to him, and he has to understand that his assistance is strictly voluntary. You'll try (without guarantees) to protect his identity, but you can't offer him immunity from prosecution without special permission from federal prosecutors.

Once he gets approved—and his photograph, true identity, criminal history, and other background material are filed away—you can start to pay your informant for evidence. Each time you hand over some money—whether it's a one-time payment or part of an annual salary—you need to get a signed, dated receipt. (He can sign with an agreed-upon pseudonym, if necessary.) You're also required to let him know that, in general, his payment is taxable income.

You'll need prior written approval if your informant is going to commit a crime, either to keep his cover or to get you more information. A law-enforcement agency can only authorize a crime—called an "Otherwise Illegal Activity" if it's approved—for a limited period of time, and if it's essential for the investigation. Under no circumstances can the informant engage in an act of violence or an obstruction of justice; the approval of more serious ("Tier 1") crimes requires a consultation with a prosecutor.

You can't spend too much time socializing with your informant, and you're not permitted to give him or receive from him "any thing of more than nominal value." If you have to "deactivate" an informant for cause, you can never talk to him again. Any deactivation must be documented in writing. You also have to tell the informant that he's been fired, though you can keep him in the dark for a little while if that's important for your investigation.

Bonus Explainer: How have the rules for treating informants changed over the years? Until the 1970s, the FBI followed its own internal rules. "Potential" informants were paid for information before they'd been approved by agency headquarters, and the only criteria for controlling their behavior were designed "to obtain maximum results and prevent any possible embarrassment to the Bureau." Attorney General Edward Levi * created the first official guidelines in 1976; Benjamin Civiletti updated them in 1980. Civiletti's rules gave the bureau formal permission to approve certain crimes, if necessary. A high-profile informant scandal in the late 1990s led to a major update in 2001, under Janet Reno. The 2001 rules limited fraternization among agents and informants and instituted a Confidential Informant Review Committee that included federal prosecutors.

Correction, Sept. 13, 2005: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly spelled the name of former Attorney General Edward Levi. (Return to corrected sentence.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.