There’s an unfortunate saying on the street: Snitches get stitches.
The report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (IG) found serious deficiencies with the DEA’s confidential-source program, including poor oversight that “exposes the DEA to an unacceptably increased potential for waste, fraud, and abuse,” IG Michael Horowitz said.
Experts who represent people who could be the target of confidential informants question their use even under the best of circumstances.
“The government should not sponsor testimony from paid informants,” said National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers President Barry J. Pollack. “If a defendant paid a fact witness, he would be charged with committing obstruction of justice, a federal felony. The credibility of paid informants is always suspect. If the DEA and other law enforcement agencies insist on relying on such questionable testimony, its use should be rare and the payments well documented and fully disclosed. The IG report demonstrates the routine use of paid informants without these basic safeguards.”
Bill Piper, a senior director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for liberal drug policies, agreed, saying, “Paying informants creates incentives to lie or fabricate evidence.”
Michael J. Stanfill, a DEA deputy chief inspector, defended the use of confidential informants. They “provide invaluable contributions and assistance to DEA investigations,” he told the IG in a response printed in the report. “However, DEA recognizes the inherent risk involved when relying on persons whose motivations can be suspect. Thus, steps have been taken to mitigate identified risks.”
The DEA presumably is better at rousting drug dealers than it is at record-keeping. Its intelligence division was not able to provide the IG’s office an itemized list of total payments to confidential sources. That contributed to the report’s conclusion that the agency’s oversight “is not commensurate with the significant amount of money that it pays to confidential sources.”
Because of the agency’s limited record-keeping on informants, the report said, the DEA “is unable to examine their reliability and whether they frequently or rarely provide useful information, or whether the information DEA agents acted upon resulted in identifying individuals involved in illegal activity or instead caused DEA to regularly approach innocent civilians for questioning.”
The IG’s office said it is “deeply concerned about this inability to assess source reliability, which seriously impairs DEA’s ability to oversee and manage the activity of these sources.”
In January, the IG revealed that the DEA had improperly used Amtrak and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners as informants. That practice continued for months after the revelation. The DEA has since changed its rules on using employees of government or quasi-government agencies.
Thursday’s document says the DEA paid two Amtrak employees thousands of dollars “for information that was available at no cost to the government … thereby wasting substantial government funds.”
One of those two got the bulk of the money, almost $855,000 over 20 years. The DEA paid $1.5 million to at least 33 Amtrak informants from fiscal 2011 through 2015. Eight TSA staffers got $94,000 “for information that the screener was already obligated to provide to law enforcement.”
In another example of poor management, the DEA continued to use and pay informants who had been “deactivated” because they were suspected of committing serious crimes.
“In one case, the DEA reactivated a confidential source who previously provided false testimony in trials and depositions,” according to the report. “During the approximate 5-year period of reactivation, this source was used by 13 DEA field offices and paid $469,158. More than $61,000 of the $469,158 was paid after this source was once again deactivated for making false statements to a prosecutor.”
The DEA accepted all seven of the IG’s recommendations, including “more frequent and rigorous confidential source management and oversight training.”
Barbara L. Carreno, a DEA spokeswoman, said agency officials “welcome the OIG recommendations and we are committed to strengthening the accountability and effectiveness of this mission-critical program.”