Thursday, February 09, 2006

From Hearne to Ruby Ridge to international spying, snitches too often accuse innocents

Those interested in the subject of confidential informants or "snitches" will want to read Charley Reese's column entitled "Government Informants," published February 4 on I've written a lot about problems with snitches in everyday criminal law enforcement, particularly in drug cases like the Hearne debacle in Texas, but Reese makes the point that the same problems that show up there plague informant use by intelligence agencies. A taste:
One point many people often don't understand is that CIA officers are not spies. They are "case officers." Their job is to recruit spies (informants) and funnel the information back to the analysts.

Naturally, every country tries to depict its spies as noble people opposed to tyranny rather than people trapped and blackmailed, soreheads and neurotics or simply greedy opportunists. Often, informants working for money in domestic criminal cases will actually entrap some innocent person. That's how the sorry episode of Randy Weaver began, which ended with the deaths of his wife, his son and a deputy U.S. marshal in 1992.

A paid informant badgered Weaver, who was hard up for money to feed his family, into illegally sawing off a shotgun, something any 8-year-old with a hacksaw and a vice can do. The idea was to arrest him, threaten him with a long prison sentence and then coerce him into becoming a federal informant. It was a federal cluster you-know-what from start to finish.

This is a short preface to the current problem of domestic spying. The Bush administration says it only intercepts calls from terrorists. OK, how does the Bush administration know that somebody in Europe or the Middle East is a terrorist? Terrorists don't walk around the street with little name tags identifying them and their organization. They don't call people and say: "Hi, al-Qaida calling. Can I interest you in a bomb-making kit?"

The answer is an informant or some other country's intelligence agency. The first thing you know is that this person is a terrorist suspect. If anyone had proof that he was a real terrorist, he would be arrested. You can get some idea of how unreliable these suspect lists are by the instances of pop stars, U.S. senators, babies and other innocent people winding up on the U.S. terrorist watch list because of bureaucratic goof-ups.
See the rest here. Most people trust law enforcement, just like most people trust our national security apparatus. But do we trust all their snitches? Hardly. Reese's point - that trusting agents and their snitches becomes synonymous, in practice - rarely surfaces in the public debate at the local or international level. It explains a lot of the worst abuses, though, from petty drug cases to Randy Weaver on up.


Anonymous said...


That's a good old term, Grits. I havn't heard that expression in years. It was a favorite of my late grandfather's.

Anonymous said...

Along with "Goosehead", "Gawkhead", and "Rubber neck".

He had a colorful vocabulary. :0)

Anonymous said...

I hate to put a smiley on a thread that mentions Ruby Ridge and snitches, though.

Ruby Ridge will live forever in infamy.

Anonymous said...

If you want to tell a well rounded blog...You might say that not all SNITCHES are lying....They often tell the truth. The information is cooberated and should be used to bring criminals of all types to justice..Look at society, there is good and bad in everything, including snitches..Oh yea Grits, I am sorta interested in your loose terms of "snitches too often accuse innocents" please explain..1 in 10 or 1 in 100,000.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Not all snitches are lying, certainly, though to my knowledge Texas is the only state that requires their testimony to be corroborated, and then only in drug cases. It's also worth mentioning that snitches have widely varying motives (I'm not talking about walk ins but those coerced with potential criminal charges or paid $$$ to snitch.) Snitches might tell the truth, but not the part of the truth that implicates their friends or associates, or themselves. Drug dealers frequently snitch on their competition while continuing to deal themselves. Often the big fish are turned into snitches while the little fish go to prison because they don't have anyone significant to turn in. So the truth comes in many forms with snitches, not all of which benefit public safety or reduce criminality in the big picture.

As to how many are liars, when Texas' corroboration law passed in 2002, hundreds of cases were thrown out for lack of corroboration including the 86 cases in Dallas they discovered were made with fake drugs planted by lying CIs. I wish we had better data (there is none, basically) on how many CIs there are overall. Without that and a lot of other data that's also not readily available, it's impossible to estimate the number of liars among snitches, but since they're almost all criminals (again, not walk ins, but those who're 'flipped') I don't think it'd be wise to presume truthfulness across the board. Best,

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response to my question...I still keep checking your blog ...even though we are miles apart in how we view the WORLD.....

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If your worldview is so very different, what in my comments do you disagree with, I wonder, and what percentage of snitches do you think tell lies to their handlers?

Oh, and I misspoke - the corroboration law in Texas passed in 2001. The idea that corroboration still isn't required in non-drug cases, though, makes me wonder if there are enough checks and balances on snitches' veracity. Best,

David Neiwert said...

FWIW, the reality of Randy Weaver's relationship with the informant was quite different from Reese's description. Weaver was broke and hard up for money, and the informant was posing as a black-market weapons dealer. Tape recordings made by the informant make painfully clear that Weaver was constantly badgering him to buy some sawed-off guns so that Weaver could make some money from it.

For more on this, check out Every Knee Shall Bow, which is probably the definitive work on the Ruby Ridge matter.

However, generally speaking, the point about the very real problems associated with using informants is well-founded.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, David, I'll look for the book. Do you think it's accurate that the government's goal was to turn Weaver into a snitch himself, not just to prosecute the gun violation?

Thanks for stopping by.