Informants working for the FBI committed more than 9,600 crimes under the bureau’s supervision during President Trump’s first two years in office, according to unclassified government reports.
The so-called “Otherwise Illegal Activity” reports, obtained first by Gizmodo, detail the number of crimes committed by what the bureau calls “confidential human sources.” The name of the report alludes to activities that would have been “illegal” had they not “otherwise” been committed with the bureau’s full knowledge and in furtherance of a federal investigation.
The most recent reports indicate that in 2017, the FBI authorized informants to commit at least 4,734 crimes, while in 2018 that number rose to 4,922. This represents a negligible decrease from recent, previous years.
It’s worth noting that any single authorized criminal activity may have otherwise resulted in multiple criminal charges, constituting multiple crimes.
The FBI relies heavily on the systematic recruitment and operation of human sources in nearly every facet of its wide-ranging investigatory purview, including counterintelligence activities conducted jointly with the Central Intelligence Agency and military intelligence. The identities of informants, many of whom have criminal histories or face criminal charges, are tightly held secrets. Thus, negotiations around their cooperation, and any benefits they may receive—which can include financial compensation—take place largely off the record.
The FBI is required to report totals for each field office involved in otherwise criminal activity to the Justice Department annually. When rendered publicly, however—to a reporter citing the Freedom of Information Act, for example—certain details are always omitted.
Redacted information always includes the number of times the FBI authorized informants to engage in serious criminal acts, known as “Tier I” activities. Tier I crimes include those that result in violence, significant financial loss, or corrupt acts by high-ranking public officials. The manufacture, possession, or international trade of narcotics in excessive quantities are also Tier I crimes.
The FBI is able to hide the number of Tier I crimes committed by its informants by redacting from public documents all numbers except those that combine both lesser (“Tier II”) and serious criminal offenses (“Tier I”).
FBI informant crimes by year:
To wit, it is unclear how many of the 4,922 crimes committed by FBI informants in 2018 were considered Tier I. (Tier II crimes, while lesser, may also include felonies, up to and including the trafficking of anything less than 450 kilos of cocaine or 90 kilos of heroin.)
This is not to say there’s no indication of how often the FBI allows informants to commit major crimes.
In 2017, Gizmodo discovered an FBI reporting error that resulted in only a single tier of crime being reported. Despite anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 annual crimes being routinely reported, in 2016 the FBI reported only 381 such activities. The FBI acknowledged the mistake in a statement to Gizmodo, saying “one tier of data accidentally was not submitted” to the Justice Department.
It is likely, though not confirmed, that it was the lesser Tier II crimes that went unreported that year. This would mean that in 2016, the FBI authorized informants on at least 381 occasions to commit major offenses that resulted in possible violence, acts of public corruption, or trade involving enormous quantities of illicit drugs.