Using Confidential Informants Gets Bad Rap – OpEd


In 1995, President Bill Clinton composed and signed an executive order prohibiting CIA officers from utilizing “unsavory characters” as informants? In other words, while gathering information or undergoing covert operations, intelligence officers overseas could not develop “assets” who were themselves terrorists, gunrunners, drug traffickers, organized crime gang leaders and members, or other denizens of the international underworld.

Besides Clinton, who was behind such obvious lunacy? It was then-Congressman Bob Torricelli (D-NJ), who prior to capturing a seat in the U.S. Senate attempted to pass a bill limiting CIA operations in 1995. It couldn’t pass because of the Gingrich-led GOP victory in both houses of congress, so President Clinton issued an executive order.

Thanks to Clinton and Democrat lawmakers the CIA was prohibited from recruiting unsavory characters to penetrate terrorist cells. Under Clinton, the CIA was told to stop focusing on spying and start focusing on politically-correct goals such as climate change.

The CIA staff morphed from an intelligence gathering and analysis bureaucracy into a de facto liberal-left think tank similar to the Council on Foreign Affairs and other Beltway pockets of academia. While the Bush Administration attempted to correct Clinton’s ill-conceived policy, after witnessing the most horrible terrorist attack in U.S. history on September 11, 2001, President Barack Obama’s so-called national security team — many of whom worked for Clinton during his eight years in the White House — appear intent on returning to the Clinton policy regarding the use of informants.

One of the most important elements of any criminal investigation or intelligence gathering operation is the confidential informant.

Whether an investigator works as a detective or street cop for a public police agency or as a private investigator for a security department or firm, sooner or later information will be needed that can only be obtained from a paid or unpaid informant.

Confidential informants or, to use the vernacular of the streets, snitches come from all walks of life: from the homeless heroin addict to the Wall Street investment banker, informants may provide the vital key that opens the door to a successful criminal investigation. To be a proficient investigator, an officer must possess and develop a variety of sources of information. Failure to employ all possible sources may easily result in wasted time on the part of the investigator, and perhaps an unsuccessful conclusion to the case at hand.

Many investigators are reluctant to use informants due to the public attitude which seems to imply that their use is somehow unfair and unreliable. This antagonism toward informants reinforces the fact that many of us look for neat categories into which the people we interact with can be placed.

Moreover, the detective who employs an informant to solve a heinous crime or destroy a narcotics ring doesn’t appear to fit the popular image of a hardworking, scientifically equipped master sleuth intuitively fitting together the seemingly unconnected pieces of a puzzle. The point of an investigation to successfully solve or clear a criminal case, not to charm the American public with dramatic crime stories.

Sometimes the informant is considered a secret police agent — a person who will infringe upon the liberties of citizens. Also, there is at times a feeling of apprehension on the part of the informant that the act of communicating information about the criminal acts of others is somehow immoral, if not personally dangerous. In spite of the attitudes people have about informants — attitudes that include scorn — their use is a basic investigative technique in law enforcement, and a valuable information gathering technique for intelligence agencies,

Man seeks social contact with others. He is curious about those around him and notes conditions unfamiliar to him. Your own feelings of suspicion are based on such observation. Many criminals have been apprehended because something just did not seem right to an officer or civilian. Man also seeks recognition for his deeds and is prone to pass on rumors about the deeds of others. These traits make complete secrecy difficult. This also creates the situation in which, if cultivated properly, criminal exploits can be brought to light.

All people can be sources of information and, in the broad sense of the term, can be referred to as informants. Investigators often exchange information with colleagues, close friends, relatives and even acquaintances usually without soliciting it.

Most officers and investigators have established rapport with a number of reputable citizens who may be helpful sources of information. A brief list of these would include automobile dealers, newspaper boys, mail carriers, storekeepers, doormen, etc. These are law-abiding citizens, to be sure. There are other law-abiding citizens who generally cooperate, but because of the nature of their work you may find them closer to criminals than the average person. This group includes bartenders, pool hall operators, pawn shop owners, night club managers, and some newsstand vendors. Taxi cab drivers in some areas can be included in this group.

But the most valuable source of information is likely to be a person who is now or has been a part of a criminal group. This person is in a good position to reveal the details of a crime or about crimes being planned, partly because he’s a criminal himself. He may provide significant bits of information that can help to develop an accurate picture of a criminal act.

Investigators have sometimes erroneously developed the tendency to overlook the criminal deeds of a productive informant. It is unethical — even illegal — for any officer or agency to establish a protective allegiance with those who have complicity in a criminal act. Distorted perspectives and faulty judgment may lead some detectives and street officers to seek compromise with criminals. This will only encourage the petty informant of today to become enmeshed in serious criminal acts tomorrow. An informant’s status should never be viewed as a license for present or future misconduct, especially in jurisdictions such as New York where confidential informants must be formally registered as such.

Jim Kouri

Jim Kouri, CPP, formerly Fifth Vice-President, is currently a Board Member of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, an editor for, and he's a columnist for In addition, he's a blogger for the Cheyenne, Wyoming Fox News Radio affiliate KGAB ( Kouri also serves as political advisor for Emmy and Golden Globe winning actor Michael Moriarty.

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