The FBI’s use of informants has multiple problems, according to a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general (IG) released on Nov. 19. Some of the issues highlighted by Inspector General Michael Horowitz are delays in properly vetting the informants and a lack of record-keeping when there are problems with them.
“The FBI’s vetting processes for confidential sources, known as validation, did not comply with the attorney general guidelines, particularly with regard to long-term sources,” Horowitz said in a video accompanying the release of the report.
He went on to say that “ineffective management and oversight of confidential sources can result in jeopardizing FBI operations and placing FBI agents, sources, subjects of investigation, and the public in harm’s way.”
The FBI spent an average of $42 million annually on payments to its informants between fiscal 2012 through 2018, the report stated (pdf).
The number of informants, officially called Confidential Human Sources (CHS), is redacted in the report, but from context, it appears the number may at least be in the thousands.
The FBI is required to vet the informants before they’re used, and then annually. The review includes vetting their credibility as well as “assessing the veracity of the information they provide,” the report stated.
Additional “enhanced reviews” are required for “certain special categories” of informants, such as long-term informants (those used continuously for more than five years) as well as those in high-level government positions, those in labor unions, and those in the media.
As the report noted, vetting of the long-term informants has been lacking for years. They’re supposed to receive an “enhanced review” every five years, but half of them were waiting in a backlog for such a review, as of May.
The backlog had already been highlighted in 2015, the report stated, but “has continued to persist.” The backlog matters because it means the FBI may be using problematic informants long after the problems should have been discovered.
The reviews of long-term informants are supposed to be approved by an 11-member committee. But the committee has always been incomplete, and usually just two officials handled the approvals while the rest “did not actively participate,” the report stated.
The approval isn’t just a rubber stamp. Nearly a third of the informants were requested by the committee to be dropped or were approved only with various caveats, questions, or recommendations, between February 2016 and November 2018.
In one instance, the committee requested the bureau to stop using an informant who was a child sex offender, because the committee “did not believe the benefits of using the CHS outweighed the associated risks,” the report stated.
In another instance, the committee approved an informant but added a caveat that the informant’s file should be checked for “unauthorized illegal activity.”
Part of the reason for the backlog is that the FBI doesn’t have enough people at the headquarters to do the reviews. In 2010, it had 213 analysts at the headquarters vetting informants, but it slashed that number to just 29 by March 2019.
The FBI assistant director for the Resource Planning Office told the IG that the bureau slashed the personnel in 2013 anticipating budget sequestration and never put the resources back even though the “sequestration did not come to pass as expected,” the report stated.
Lack of Documentation
“FBI employees were sometimes discouraged from documenting conclusions and recommendations about sources,” Horowitz said.
The IG staffer was told that FBI field offices don’t want any negative information in informants’ files because of concerns that it may undermine their use during trial.
One FBI official said that prosecutors won’t use at trial an informant who has negative information documented.
But the lack of documentation is a problem, another official said, because handlers of the informants change, and the incoming handler won’t know there were issues if those issues weren’t documented.
The IG issued 16 recommendations to address problems discussed in the report. The FBI agreed with all of them.
Update: The article has been edited to remove a characterization of the issues listed in the Inspector General’s report.