Feature Articles

October 2011
Confidential Informants

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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     "I'm totally at peace with my decision to defect. The mob was and still is a force that's built on deceit, venom, greed, and destruction. As for loyalty and respect, I never seen it. I could recall hundreds of discussions in which guys would sit around a table� bad-mouthing each other. I'm so glad that's behind me. It was an unhealthy relationship." (Frank Fiordilino's rational for ratting out his co-conspirators.)

     "Everything about a CI is extremely private, anonymous, and top secret, above all identity. There are many secrets to informant development. You target a guy�do your homework. You say you know he knows a lot about how things work. You emulate his dress style. It may take months�like dating, courting, marriage. Don't patronize him. There is money in it for him. All you want is historical stuff, background, and an education." (Lin DeVecchio, former FBT CI handler)

     "An informant doesn't turn, he dances, he plays both sides. Like a man with two girl friends, he kisses one and screws the other; then, after a while he reverses them. When he feels secure in the bosom of his criminal organization, he clams up. When he needs a favor from law enforcement, such as keeping alive, he spills his guts. Mostly, he does some of both-singing enough to establish his worth, holding back the good stuff for when he really needs a place to hide. In certain instances informants are of less value for what they actually say than for what their willingness to talk reveals of simmering discord�.They seem to sense the coming of an earthquake long before the so-called experts, for all their elegant machinery, have an indication that an upheaval is on the way." (Joseph F. O'Brien, Boss of Bosses, 1991)

     The informant system is an essential tool in successful criminal investigations. It provides timely information otherwise not available from other techniques. Maintaining a purely professional relationship with a CI in the long run is challenging and such formality can be a deterrent to establishing CI-handler rapport, which is crucial to continuing CI cooperation. As good as CI information might appear at first sight, it must be corroborated utilizing other sources. Weaving the data streams into a solid criminal case is time-consuming and a true challenge.

     Why do CIs agree to cooperate with the authorities? What are the benefits? Given that the risk of detection by the mob invites severe reprisal, what would motivate an individual to take such a calculated risk? Monetary awards appear a primary motivating factor. Informing can be simply another way to develop a money stream; it's another scam among many. If the CI is well reimbursed for his continuing cooperation, it is believed, he will generally make an honest effort to search out timely information. CIs who have been handled successfully over a period of years have earned handsome amounts of cash as well as bonuses for critical data that become the basis for mob-busting cases. "If you don't have CIs, you might just as well close shop." That quote from one FBI handler expresses well the sentiment. (The whole package of investigative tools would include cooperating witnesses, RICO, the Witness Protection Program, and Title III surveillance.) Out of the total weight of intelligence, some redundant, some garbage, there are the few valuable insights and actionable leads.

     "Mickey Flowers was pure whore. With every other informant, I found myself developing a personal relationship. Not with Mickey Flowers. He would sell anything and anybody for money, including associates in crime. He wanted cash on the barrelhead for any information, even a little background on a guy we might be interested in at the moment�.Jackie Gucci wanted a new car, a Chevy. I would give him the monthly payments from Bureau funds. I told him, 'You don't have to be a stoolie. All I want is the kind of background stuff we talked about at your place. I'll just ask the questions and you answer whatever you feel comfortable with.'�Jackie constantly fretted over the possibility that his role as informant might be discovered�.I have heard of several instances where agents pocketed the informant's money, in part or whole, and gave the office a phony receipt." (FBI agent Anthony Villano, in his book, Brick Agent, 1977.)

     Other than cash benefits, there are other considerations that can affect the complicated relationship btween informant and handler. The status of the CI in the mob is an important influencing factor as to how the CI is handled. The CI can benefit from an FBI contact in many ways. Some want to buy their way out of prison terms; some are informing for revenge; others feel important from the attention. CIs can engage in their own sleuthing by determining from topics discussed what the authorities are doing with the intelligence, what might be coming down, how it might influence their own situations, and ways in which to manipulate the handler. A malefactor, by definition, is cynical and devious. Basically, becoming an informant is a survival tactic. And he probably suspects, at some point, that the handler needs him (for his own career) as much as he needs his handler, which can and does open the door to a corrupting relationship.

     Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover created the informant program to expose the inner workings of organized crime. Informants have been found to be an essential tool that can break the omerta` silence. The downside, as Hoover was well aware, is that agents, even with the best of intentions, by the very nature of befriending a mobster, would have to bend or break the law, to get good intelligence. The bureaucratic pressure to produce always exists; and production brings promotion.

     There have been many documented instances where the CI has manipulated the handler to the point where the latter begins to identify with the informant and his world, engaging in forms of reciprocation-gifts, favors, revealing official intelligence, protecting the informant from prosecution-in effect, going rogue, affecting criminality. One such case was the mishandling of two "Top Echelon" informants, James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, in Boston, by FBI agent John Connolly and Supervisor John Morris, which proved to be one of the most embarrassing and darkest chapters in the history of United States law enforcement.

     A quote from the classical philosopher Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900) is appropriate: "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby becomes a monster."

     It's a quandary: the handler has many hurdles to negotiate, and does not always hold the best hand. Keeping a social distance is counterproductive, yet allowing a formal relationship to lapse into a buddy-like affair, which is usually essential to gaining good information, is professionally unacceptable and renders the fruits of such a relationship problematical.

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