That's an apt description of Karen Wister-Kearns, an informant in the traditional sense -- found, not made. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the FBI recruited her to collect information on her neighbor, white supremacist Mark Thomas, an Aryan Nations preacher sporting a Hitler mustache who held white-power rock concerts at his rural Pennsylvania farm as a tool to recruit skinheads and neo-Nazis into the world of organized racism.
"I would receive phone calls. 'Could you drive up to [Thomas's] compound and see if there's a particular vehicle with out-of-state license plates?'" Wister-Kearns recalls. "They would always end it with: 'Don't do anything that puts you in danger.'"
To gain more insight, Wister-Kearns served as an intermediary in a child-custody dispute in which Thomas was embroiled, but her unpaid role was limited to passive collection of information. She informed, but didn't get involved in her target's world. (Thomas was arrested in 1997 and pleaded guilty to using cash from bank robberies to finance white-supremacist causes.)
While most informants do their jobs the same way, some are asked to play a more active role. These operational informants can have a disproportionate impact, taking part in multiple investigations over long time periods and playing a role that much more closely resembles that of an agent than that of a concerned citizen.
One paid informant, who asked not to be named, contacted the FBI in the early 1990s after hearing longtime associates discuss a planned anti-government crime. He was recruited to monitor them over the long term and proved so reliable he received additional assignments involving white supremacists and other extremists.
Although he came to the FBI for all the right reasons, the informant was soon employed full time as a kind of utility player, spending most of his time on his duties and performing tasks that would have been prohibited for an undercover agent.
"The things I could do that they couldn't do was I could go around and make a mess of people's houses," he said in an interview. "I could be nosy to where they couldn't be nosy without a warrant."
The informant was not specifically instructed to break the law, but he never received any coaching on the legal limits of a search. Instead, his handlers made what he characterized as "suggestions" about what they wanted to know. As long as he reported back with answers, no one ever commented on his methods.
Searches by the informant -- and other informants from that period, according to former FBI agents -- were not restricted to the "plain view doctrine," which under the Fourth Amendment allows law enforcement to seize items left out in the open and observed under normal, lawful circumstances.
Instead, informants looked in drawers, closets, sheds, and hiding places. These searches, which multiple sources referred to as "snooping and pooping," could involve scouting the location of weapons or explosives in a suspect's home prior to a raid. But often, they were exercises in intelligence gathering. Anything that might be interesting in a suspect's home was noted and reported.
"Nobody ever told me nothing about the Fourth Amendment or anything else," the informant said. "I could go in and do those things because I wasn't a sworn officer."