Years ago, while I worked as a prosecutor, I received a visit from a detective in the local police department. A confidential human source (CHS) had approached him to ask for help with a felony case I recently filed. I knew who he was asking about because she so frequently appeared as a player in multiple felony cases. She had never cooperated as a potential witness in any case. The detective asked me to ease off on the prosecution.
“Why would I do that, Brad?” I asked (not his real name). Detective Brad explained that she provided valuable intel in an important case he was working. I knew better. In my position, I had oversight over prosecution of all non-victim crimes in the jurisdiction. This included all narcotics and property crimes.
“Detective, I’ve never listed you as a witness in one felony prosecution in the last year. You say you have all these CHSs, but where are the cases?” I asked. I knew some of his CHSs from cases made by other officers. They were all attractive females, including the one he was asking about. I had no idea what he was getting out of the relationships with these CHSs. But I did know he wasn’t making cases.
When law enforcement runs a confidential informant, it dances with the devil. The CHSs are typically recruited from the ranks of existing criminals. The relationship with law enforcement allows them to continue to commit crimes, in theory to maintain credibility with even more important criminal targets.
While several valuable cases rely upon such sources, the temptation for corruption can be devastating to the overall law enforcement enterprise. Cops get too close to their CHSs. Sometimes they accept gifts, drugs, even sex. The relationship can quickly deteriorate from a legitimate law enforcement exercise into a joint criminal enterprise in which the cop begins protecting and helping the criminal.
So it is no small thing that the FBI has failed to maintain controls over its confidential informant program. Indeed, the recent inspector general report, available here, shows that the program has run amuck. The FBI maintains an undisclosed number of CHSs, many of whom it has maintained a relationship with for more than five years. It pays $42 million a year to these CHSs.
How does law enforcement guard against CHSs seducing their handlers into becoming unwitting partners in crime? It’s a problem serious enough that the FBI invested heavily in creating guidelines for making sure the CHSs actually produce law enforcement information that justifies continued partnership with practicing criminals. So it is no small matter that the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General issued a 56-page report finding a total breakdown in oversight over the program.
The OIG found that the FBI has allowed oversight of these relationships to virtually disintegrate. It found that, since 2010, there has been 86 percent decline in personnel dedicated to overseeing and validating the CHSs. The few reviews that do continue to take place reveal significant problems.
Approximately a third of all reviews reveal problems that require supervisory intervention between the handler/CHS relationship or outright closure of the relationship. In one case, a CHS was discovered to be a child sex offender considered too repugnant to permit the relationship to continue. In others, the handling agent was found to have not properly reviewed the illegal activity of the CHS.
The OIG questioned whether the number of invalid, even corrupted, relationships with CHSs might be much higher, noting that handlers prepare reports of their CHS that “lack any significant risk factors” and that “field offices may avoid validation review of the most risky CHSs, to ensure that they can continue using them.”
As noted by the report, “As of May 2019, nearly 20 percent of the FBI’s [confidential human source program] met its definition of a long-term CHS.” A “long term” relationship with a CHS (more than five years) begs the question as to why the FBI is spying on something that isn’t producing a case. These “long term” relationships have the greatest potential for corruption and inversion the way infamous Boston mob kingpin Whitey Bulger turned his own FBI handlers into unwitting business partners.
The scale of the FBI program to pay CHSes is troubling and jaw-dropping. $42 million a year likely represents tens of thousands of criminals being paid to act as sources for the FBI. The rules exist to prevent the CHS from using the FBI to pursue his enemies. And that’s exactly what appears to have happened in the case of Christopher Steele, the CHS at the center of the Russia collusion hoax.
As I note here, Steele hated Donald Trump and used his existing relationship with the FBI to help launch the investigation against Trump, all while taking money from the Democratic National Committee. Effectively, the DNC paid Steele to use his relationship with the FBI to attack Hillary Clinton’s political opponent.
The number of rotten CHS/FBI relationships like Bulger or Steele impossible to know for sure. The OIG wrote, “We found that the FBI failed to comply with [Attorney General] Guidelines’ validation requirements and its own validation policies and procedures, and maintained a significant backlog of long-term CHSs awaiting validation…We believe these issues increased the likelihood that some of the risks associated with long-term CHSs were likely not mitigated.”
Risks likely not mitigated? What that means in non-OIG-speak is that there are countless rotten relationships within the FBI that enable criminals to proceed under the protection of the FBI without verifying the FBI is getting help to solve even bigger crimes. It’s a dangerous and widespread problem that must be aggressively and promptly addressed to restore public confidence in the FBI.