September 13, 2005
F.B.I. Found to Violate Its Informant Rules
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
WASHINGTON, Sept. 12 - The Federal Bureau of Investigation has often violated internal guidelines in its handling of confidential informants, the Justice Department's inspector general concluded Monday.
In nearly 9 of every 10 cases reviewed by the inspector general, guidelines on the handling of confidential informants were violated in ways that risked compromising investigations, according to a 301-page report by the office of Glenn A. Fine, the inspector general at the Justice Department.
The guidelines sometimes permit informants like drug dealers or gang members to commit crimes to further an investigation. But F.B.I. agents sometimes allowed criminal informants to engage in criminal activities without getting needed approval from supervisors or lawyers for such operations, failed to report unauthorized illegal activity, or approved such illegal activity only retroactively, the review found.
Bureau supervisors were often unfamiliar with the rules that applied to the handling of confidential informants - a reflection, the inspector general's report said, of "inadequate training at every level." And when violations were found, bureau agents and supervisors were often not held accountable for missteps, the review found.
The F.B.I. considers the use of confidential informants, who often have criminal ties, to be critical to its ability to penetrate drug trafficking organizations, gangs, gambling operations and terrorist circles.
In 2001, Janet Reno, then the attorney general, imposed toughened requirements on the F.B.I.'s use of informants in the wake of several embarrassing episodes - most notably, its handling of the Boston gangster James Bulger, who fled in 1995 after a bureau agent tipped him off to a pending indictment against him.
In May 2002, John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, amended the informant rules as part of a broader restructuring of F.B.I. policies aimed at allowing agents to respond more quickly and flexibly to leads in terrorism and criminal investigations.
The F.B.I. said Monday in response to the inspector general's report that it was working to improve compliance with guidelines for the handling of confidential informants and had already moved to make some internal changes recommended by Mr. Fine's office. Part of the problem, F.B.I. officials acknowledged, was the bureau's continued difficulty in building a modern computer system to help oversee the informant program and ensure better compliance.
"Even before the inspector general's review, we realized that we had to do some re-engineering of our whole human source program," Kevin R. Brock, an assistant F.B.I. director who oversees the program, said in an interview. "We were handling more and more sources, we had more and more regulations that we added on over the years, and we weren't doing the follow-up quality control on our own."
The constant flux "just created a situation where it was tough for the working agent to keep track of all this stuff," Mr. Brock said.
"Agents are failing to do certain things not because of mal-intent but just the press of administrative requirements, and overlooking them," he said.
Beyond the problems in managing confidential informants, the inspector general's review looked at the effect of a number of changes ordered by Mr. Ashcroft in his 2002 revamping of the bureau's investigative guidelines. Among other changes, the new guidelines allowed F.B.I. agents to visit public sites and events, attend mosques and other religious institutions, or peruse the Internet in search of leads in terrorism cases.
The changes relaxed restrictions put in place in the 1970's as a result of F.B.I. abuses in the monitoring of political dissidents, and they have drawn criticism from civil rights advocates and Muslim leaders who say they open the door to investigative abuses.
Critics charged last year that the F.B.I. had abused its expanded powers by monitoring, interviewing and sometimes subpoenaing antiwar protesters and political protesters in advance of the political conventions last summer. The inspector general's office disclosed in its report Monday that it was conducting a separate investigation to determine whether the F.B.I. interrogations of protesters were in fact improper.
The inspector general's review found that there was "widespread recognition" among F.B.I. agents and officials of the constitutional and privacy implications of expanding the bureau's ability to monitor public sites. But the review found that there were "gaps" in how the new policy had been put into effect, raising management concerns.
For instance, agents are "encouraged, but not required" to get the approval of a supervisor before attending a public event or site. And it was not always clear what information the F.B.I. could retain if it did not relate to an investigation.
As a result, "an absence of routine documentation" made it difficult if not impossible to assess how agents were using their new powers and whether those powers were being abused, the report said.
Robert S. Mueller III, director of the F.B.I., told the inspector general's office that because agents were not required to get supervisors' approval before visiting public sites, it was "difficult to determine to what extent these authorities have been used," the inspector general's office said. It called on the F.B.I. to consider requiring approval from supervisors and more documentation of public visits to guard against possible abuses.