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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rossetti case proves Congress should oversee FBI informants


THE VIOLENT and symbiotic relationship between confidential informants and the FBI in Massachusetts is not just fodder for a few good movies. The Whitey Bulger saga may be decades old, but now the Senate Judiciary Committee is asking questions about the bureau’s handling of New England mobster Mark Rossetti, the confidential informant and Mafia “acting consigliore’’ who worked for the FBI up until last year. While the inquiry into the Rossetti case is welcome, the problem appears to be systemic. The FBI’s confidential informant system is broken and needs to be seriously reformed.
The Justice Department seems unable to prevent FBI investigators from developing relationships with unsavory characters and then standing by while their informants commit serious crimes; in some cases, the informants turn out to be every bit as dangerous as the targets they’re informing on. Rossetti is a convicted armed robber and a suspect in at least six homicides. Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston filed a bill to give Congress a more active role in setting informant policy. If the Justice Department is unable to make effective changes, then Congress would be more than justified in stepping in.
The history of the rules regarding the use of confidential informants began in 1976, when Attorney General Edward Levi issued the first set of criteria to govern both who could become FBI informants and how the FBI would handle them. Then, in the 1990s, after the revelation of the FBI’s involvement in Bulger’s crimes, Attorney General Janet Reno set strict standards for disclosure to the Justice Department should an informant engage in illegal activity, especially violence. The government’s aim, maintained throughout subsequent changes to the guidelines, was to stop FBI agents from declaring themselves to be both judge and jury over their own investigatory techniques.
But the Justice Department discovered as early as 2005 in a report by its inspector general that the changes weren’t enough to prevent abuses. The guidelines themselves provided a careful balance between the competing needs of utilizing unsavory informants and ensuring that law enforcement doesn’t get sullied in the process. But in nearly 9 out of every 10 cases reviewed, the guidelines were violated. In many of these cases, FBI agents essentially ignored approval processes and supervisory controls, allowing informants to engage in criminal activities without any restrictions.
The use of confidential informants is a risky business. Sometimes, informants in drug and gang cases should be authorized to commit crimes to further an investigation into the entire criminal network; but the decision shouldn’t be made by an agent alone. If the FBI were better at following the guidelines, it might have protected its own reputation and effectiveness. Having failed that, Congress is entirely justified in probing the Rossetti case, and Lynch is right to call for congressional oversight over federal law enforcement’s use of informants. It might just be the necessary next step to control the FBI, since it can’t seem to control itself.

http://bostonglobe.com/opinion/editorials/2011/11/02/rossetti-case-proves-congress-should-oversee-fbi-informants/N0u1MJRiXdIx6whq2p4u2I/story.html


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