Components within the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) are not fully addressing procedures outlined in the attorney general’s guidelines of established procedures regarding the appropriate use of informants, and lack “adequate oversight” of their use of undercover informants, according to a public version of a sensitive Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit report with redacted details Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deemed law enforcement sensitive.
The DOJ and DHS agencies in question – which used more than 16,000 confidential informants in Fiscal Year 2013 as part of criminal investigations — are failing “to help ensure that components exercise their authorities” with regard to the use of informants, GAO stated.
Informants can be critical to an investigation, but, “without appropriate oversight, problems can occur that undermine the credibility of the informant’s role in an investigation,” GAO said, noting that, “The attorney general’s guidelines sets forth procedures on the management of informants, including vetting potential informants and overseeing informants’ illegal activities that components authorize to support an investigation.”
Eight components within DOJ and DHS — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); the FBI; the US Marshals Service (USMS); Customs and Border Protection; ICE; US Coast Guard (USCG); and US Secret Service (USSS) – “have policies in place that generally address the procedures outlined in the guidelines for vetting a confidential informant,” GAO said, “However, five of the eight components’ policies are not fully consistent with the guidelines’ provisions for overseeing informants’ illegal activities.”
“For example,” GAO auditors found, “the guidelines require agencies to document certain informationwhen authorizing an informant to participate in an activity that would otherwise be considered illegal (e.g., purchasing illegal drugs from someone who is the target of a drug-trafficking investigation). DEA, USMS, ICE, USCG and USSS do not fully address the requirements to provide the informant with written instructions about the authorized activity and require signed acknowledgment from the informant.”
And, “Without such documentation,” GAO reported, “if an informant engages in an activity that exceeds the scope of the authorization, the agency may not be able to demonstrate that the informant’s actions were not authorized, thereby limiting the agency’s ability to prosecute the informant for the unauthorized illegal activity.”
While the DOJ and DHS components that oversaw the most informants in fiscal year 2013 — the FBI, DEA, ICE and USSS – have monitoring processes in place to help ensure agents are complying with their respective components’ policies, “some components’ policies do not fully address the procedures in the guidelines, and, as a result, the components’ monitoring processes likewise do not assess compliance with those procedures in the guidelines,” GAO found.
“Consequently, agencies may not have reasonable assurance that they are complying with procedures established in the guidelines to address the risks associated with using informants,” GAO disclosed.
Component monitoring activities include supervisory reviews and headquarters inspections and self-inspections within the individual components’ field offices. GAO said “agencies also use administrative tools, such as standardized forms, that cover the requirements in their policies and help ensure that agents capture necessary information.”
GAO recommended DOJ and DHS and their components take actions to update components’ policies and monitoring processes to improve handling and oversight of confidential informants.
DOJ and DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendations.