Many FBI agents have ignored Justice Department rules for handling confidential informants that were established in the wake of several high-profile scandals, according to a study released yesterday.
In an analysis of 120 informant files from around the country, the Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, found that FBI agents violated procedures in 87 percent of the cases, including some in which informants allegedly engaged in illegal activity without proper oversight or permission.
"We found significant problems with the FBI's compliance with the attorney general's guidelines on confidential informants," Fine said in a statement. "We are concerned that the FBI has not taken the necessary steps to ensure that FBI agents and their supervisors adhere to these important requirements."
The report, parts of which are redacted because they involve classified material, also faults FBI agents for in some cases failing to notify officials in Washington about the initiation of criminal intelligence probes and for consistently failing to obtain advance approval to listen in on informants' conversations.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told Fine's investigators that many agents found it difficult to comply with complicated paperwork requirements for confidential informants. The FBI said in a statement yesterday that many of Fine's recommendations for reform have been implemented and that the FBI is reworking procedures to make it easier for agents to comply with the rules.
"Confidential informants and other confidential human sources are critical to the FBI's ability to carry out our counterterrorism, national security and criminal law enforcement missions," the FBI statement said. "A source can have a singular piece of information we could not otherwise obtain, enabling us to prevent a terrorist act or crime, or apprehend a fugitive."
Among the violations Fine highlighted were a handful of cases involving "otherwise illegal activity," referring to cases in which the FBI permits informants to commit an act -- such as engaging in conversations about a conspiracy or handling money as part of a controlled drug purchase -- that would otherwise be a crime.
Fine's report listed two cases in which agents allegedly failed to properly inform prosecutors when an informant was allowed to engage in illegal activity and five others in which agents failed to tell prosecutors that an informant had committed a crime not authorized by his FBI handlers. FBI field agents also often failed to properly review an informant's performance or notify senior officials when an informant had been "deactivated," according to the report.
Fine's report comes more than four years after the FBI revised its rules in the wake of several incidents involving informants. Perhaps the most infamous involved former FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr., who allowed Boston mobster and FBI informant James J. "Whitey" Bulger to flee by tipping him off to an imminent federal racketeering indictment.
Kevin R. Brock, assistant director of the FBI's Office of Intelligence, said in an interview that many of the cases cited by Fine involved administrative violations or honest disagreements about legal definitions. Some acts involving minor crimes, for example, can be authorized internally without involving a U.S. attorney's office.
"Most of these are administrative failures and we are working to address those," Brock said. "It's not like we had sources running around, willy-nilly breaking the law."