There's an American trope we all know and love -- the loose-cannon cop who doesn't play by the rules. Whether it's Dirty Harry, Raylan Givens, or Jack Bauer, the story is as reassuring as it is trite. There's someone out there who can get the job done and doesn't worry about coloring inside the lines.
In counterterrorism circles, that figure is known as the professional informant. And the truth is far more complicated and troubling than the comforting fiction. Professional informants are paid by law enforcement to infiltrate criminal or extremist circles, sometimes on a full-time basis. Yet they're not considered employees of the government and are not subject to the same rules. From warrantless searches to sex with targets to constructing terrorist plots out of thin air, the informant problem is not new, but this powerful investigative tool is under pressure like never before after being exposed to the harsh light of day in a series of recent terrorism trials. Growing media scrutiny and a pending civil lawsuit in California are aggressively challenging whether the benefits of aggressive informant tactics outweigh the risk to civil liberties and are raising troubling questions about the legitimacy of terrorism investigations.
The risks to recruiting informants from within criminal organizations have been amply documented over the years -- but usually with mobsters, not terrorists. Law enforcement can get too cozy with informants inside criminal organizations, leading to corruption and other complications, as in the cases of Whitey Bulger and Gregory Scarpa.
Other challenges are less obvious. Consider the professional informant, who is not primarily employed by a criminal enterprise but by a law enforcement agency. In a number of cases, these informants are chosen because they fit a profile -- such as "wealthy Muslim" or "pretty girl" -- and not because they have any prior connection to the targets of the investigation.
Because they are not insiders but infiltrators, these informants exist in a netherworld somewhere between snitch and cop. But while agents are rigorously trained about what's legal, ethical, and fair, informants are often just given a stipend and sent to work. In an ideal world, that work is supposed to be limited in scope.
"Usually what the informant provides is an opportunity to introduce an undercover operative," says Mike German, a former FBI undercover agent who now works for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "And then you push the informant out of the case because you want the FBI agent there. He understands the law. He or she would be much more sensitive to any kind of privilege issues or sensitive techniques."
In a significant number of cases, however, the informant simply becomes the undercover operative, sometimes for months or years at a stretch. The practice has endured for decades, though details have only become available to the public in recent years.
In one of the earliest known examples, an FBI informant covering the Black Panthers helped arm the group prior to its violent conflicts with Oakland, California, police in the 1960s, according to a new book and accompanying story by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The informant, Richard Masato Aoki, was recruited by the FBI when he graduated from high school. Although he had brushes with the law as a troubled youth, he did not become involved in left-wing politics until an FBI agent recruited him to penetrate California communist circles. Aoki did that and more, rising to become a legendary radical activist even as he regularly met with FBI handlers. When the Black Panthers formed, Aoki was there, providing both guns and training on how to use them.
Aoki was not the only member of an extremist group to become prominent under the FBI's tutelage. During the 1990s, an FBI informant named Vince Reed rose to a top leadership position in the white-supremacist Aryan Nations organization. Reed had always dreamed of being a law enforcement officer, but an injury disqualified him from working on the street, according to his former FBI handlers. Instead, Reed became a professional informant, monitoring the Hells Angels for the FBI after being recruited into the gang in prison.
When that assignment ended, he infiltrated the Aryan Nations, a group with which he had no prior affiliation (a swastika tattoo left over from his biker days helped). The FBI invested considerable resources, including multiple undercover operations, in support of his efforts, and Reed served for years before testifying against some of the group's members in 1996.
Such cases are not representative of the vast majority of informants, a label that can be applied to almost anyone who provides information on an investigation. The overwhelming majority of informants fall into noncontroversial categories. Some are paid for information; others receive leniency regarding their own criminal behavior. Many informants are simply good people who happen to live next door to bad people.
"They're the prototypical good citizen who's going to take some personal risk in order to make sure their community is safe," says German.