from the I-just-love-America(n-dollars)! dept
The Intercept has obtained another secret document -- this one pertaining to the FBI's confidential informant program. The sprawling web of so-called Confidential Human Sources (CHS) is examined in multiple posts at the site. (The document, unfortunately, consists of multiple photos of the source pages, so it won't be embedded below.)
In addition to things already known about the FBI's aggressive pursuit of informants -- including using the CBP to push incoming foreigners to act as informants by threatening to withhold travel privileges or approval of visa applications -- there's much, much more contained in the FBI's guidelines.
One of the interesting aspects is the government's payment of informants. Considering the FBI has more than 15,000 informants in its network, there's always the possibility evidence produced by CHSs could be challenged if it appears the FBI is using private individuals to bypass warrant requirements (with "private" searches) or otherwise routing around legal restrictions pertaining to its investigations.
From the information obtained, it appears the FBI's inelegant workaround is to obscure the money flow in order to head off questions of propriety.
The picture that emerges is of an approach that borrows some of the sophistication of modern banking. The bureau has devised a variety of ways to pay informants, including directly, before or after trial; via reimbursements; and through a cut of asset forfeitures. The guide provides some options that are clearly preferable when trying to sway a jury at trial, even as it explicitly disclaims selecting them for such reasons.
That doesn't stop informants from making big money. There are some additional levels of approval needed when hitting $100k/$500k per year in payments, but for the most part, money flowing to informants isn't watched that closely by the agency.
As is stated above, the FBI apparently uses bogus expense reimbursements to pay informants, giving it the outward appearance of someone working for the agency out of the goodness of their heart, rather than for the thousands of dollars they eventually receive.
Putting money on the table -- even implicitly -- tends to skew priorities. Additional income is hard to give up, even when there's not much criminal activity to report. As we've seen in other law enforcement agencies heavily-reliant on confidential informants, promise of continuing payments results in bogus reports that exaggerate the amount of criminal activity witnessed and portray non-suspicious activities as worthy of deeper investigation.
Possibly the most perverse incentive is the FBI's asset forfeiture program. The ability to directly profit from seized property gives the agency all the nudge that's needed to worry about seizures first and convictions later, if at all. The documents show the FBI cuts informants in on this government-ordained scam, giving even more people -- none of them trained law enforcement agents -- reason to seek cash, cars, and property, rather than the criminals they're supposed to keeping any eye on.
In addition to compensation, an informant may be eligible for 25 percent of the net value of any property forfeited as a result of the investigation, up to $500,000 per asset, according to the guide. This can be a particularly lucrative benefit for drug informants, whose cases sometimes result in the forfeiture of planes, boats, cars, and real estate.
While the guidelines specifically state the FBI is not allowed to structure its payments to hide their true nature from judges, juries, and criminal defendants, the agency apparently treats this as nothing more than empty words written in service of maintaining plausible deniability.
Craig Monteilh, a bodybuilder who worked undercover as an informant for the FBI by spying on mosques in Southern California, said he received $177,000 from the FBI over a one-year period. Monteilh said that his compensation was disguised as expense reimbursements. He said he provided receipts for everything — rent, car payments, gasoline, medical bills, food, even for the steroids he was taking — to justify an $8,200 monthly expense bill.
“Most informants are criminals. So the FBI gets that,” Monteilh said. “They know that I’m going to get the bill for lunch, even if someone else pays for it, and I’m going to say I paid for it. That includes the movies, the theater, going to an Angels game — everything. I’m paying for everything, even though I’m really not.”
That's only a small part of how the informant game is played by the FBI. Informants are cited as reasons for engaging in dubious investigations and as escape valves for unconstitutional searches. Considering the multiple benefits informants provide -- especially when the true nature of the relationship is obscured and obfuscated -- it's no wonder the FBI wants as many agencies as possible engaged in the business of turning our nation's foreign visitors into junior G-men.