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Law enforcementFBI allowed informants to commit more than 5,600 crimes in a single year

Published 12 August 2013

Newly released documents show that the FBI allowed its informants to break the laws on more than 5,600 occasions in a single year. The Justice Department rules sets tight limits on when informants can engage in what the agency termed “otherwise illegal activity.” Under no circumstances can an agent authorize a violent crime, and the most serious crimes must be approved by federal prosecutors.

Newly released documents show that the FBI allowed its informants to break the laws on more than 5,600 occasions in a single year.

USA Today reports that  that more than a decade ago, in the aftermath of the agency admitting they allowed James “Whitey” Bulger to run his crime ring in exchange for informing on the mafia, the U.S. Justice Department ordered the FBI to begin tracking crimes committed by its informants.

Bulger, a notorious Boston crime figure, is currently facing murder and racketeering charges. Federal prosecutors say he used his informant status to drive police away from his own criminal activities. Bulger is not disputing some of the charges, but his lawyers say that he was not an informant.

USA Today, througha Freedom of Information Act request, obtained a report from 2011 which the FBI sent to the Justice Department. The report did not say what types of crimes the agents allowed, or the severity of the crimes.

According to the documents, agents authorized an average of fifteen crimes per day, including buying and selling drugs, bribing government officials, and planning robberies.

“It sounds like a lot, but you have to keep it in context,” Shawn Henry, who previously supervised criminal investigations for the FBI, told USA Today. “This is not done in a vacuum. It’s not done randomly. It’s not taken lightly.”

The Justice Department rules sets tight limits on when informants can engage in what the agency termed “otherwise illegal activity.” Under no circumstances can an agent authorize a violent crime, and the most serious crimes must be approved by federal prosecutors.

A department inspector general concluded, however, that those rules are rarely followed.

The rules require only the FBI, not other government agencies such as the DEA or ATF, to report the number of informants’ crimes that they authorize each year. When USA Today requested crime authorization reports dating back to 2006, FBI officials could only locate one, from 2011, a copy of which was given to the newspaper with nearly all of the details redacted.

“The million-dollar question is: How much crime is the government tolerating from its informants?” Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School Los Angeles who studied such issues, told USA Today. “I’m sure that if we really knew that number, we would all be shocked.”

Denise Ballew, a spokeswoman for the FBI, declined to answer questions on the report, saying only that informants are allowed to break the law on a “situational, tightly controlled” basis and subject to Justice Department policy.