The truth about confidential informants

Despite criticism, confidential informants are invaluable to investigators fighting both international and domestic terrorism as well as common criminal enterprise


Ever since Southern Democrats left the party to join the Republicans, virtually every aspect of our national public discourse has become increasingly polarized and politicized. Law enforcement has not been immune to the trend.

PoliceOne readers should be especially aware of how this unfortunate phenomenon has crept into law enforcement, where political correctness can trump sound law enforcement tactics, techniques, and procedures.

One area that has captured the attention of law enforcement’s perpetual critics has been the use of confidential informants, especially when used to arrest Islamic terrorists or, more accurately, the irhabiyoun.

Recent Cases
In mid-October the FBI used an informant and eventually arrested Quazi Mohammad Rezwanual Ahsan Nafis for a plot to plant a 1,000-pound bomb outside the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan. The complaint has been that Nafis did not have the wherewithal to hatch the plot without the active assistance of the informant

At almost the same time, another story emerged that criticized the NYPD’s recruitment of a 19-year-old Muslim, Shamier Rahman

Reportedly, the NYPD gave Rahman orders to “create and capture” terrorists by baiting them into talking about, if not acting on, a desire for hirabah, a more accurate term than jihad to describe the violent nature of terrorism. The NYPD has denied giving Rahman any such guidance.

Rahman’s story has only emboldened the critics of law enforcement’s use of informants by supporting what they’ve always suspected: that manipulative police entrap the innocent and encourage them to commit criminal offenses they would not otherwise commit.

The left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has also found the use of informants, especially when directed at Islamic terrorists, to be mildly questionable

Their regurgitated stories from other press accounts cast doubt not only on the NYPD’s competence but the quality of the information from the confidential informants that may have led to the arrests in the first place.

In another example, political activist Justin Elliott has published a scathing critique of the NYPD’s counterterrorism program.

One item that drew Mr. Elliott’s ire was the use of confidential informants in three New York City cases:

• The Newburgh Four (2009/2010), about which PoliceOne Editor in Chief Doug Wyllie wrote here 
• Shahawar Martin Siraj, the foiled Herald Square subway station bomber (2004)
• Russell Defreitas and Abdul Kadir, who allegedly planned to explode fuel tanks at JFK Airport (2007)

For the record, Mr. Elliott’s byline has often appeared in progressive publications, such as Salon, Mother Jones, and Talking Points Memo. In 2008 he was the “Contributor of the Year” for CampusProgress.org, an online publication dedicated to “student activism, advocacy, and journalism.” 

As one online critic has maintained, the use of confidential informants has helped place our “nation in peril.”  

However, in what is apparently a contradictory position, the SPLC was pleased with the indictments of four members of a supposed Georgia militia. The FBI had used an informant to infiltrate the Waffle House meetings of four men, all over the age of 65, who reportedly planned to use chemical or biological weapons to undermine governmental authority

The SPLC agreed with the FBI that the four geriatric suspects were a major domestic terrorist threat.

Several also had the unfortunate luck to find themselves on the SPLC’s domestic terrorism “watch list.” 

For the SPLC, at least, using confidential informants against a particular type of domestic threat in which they have a vested interest in promoting is acceptable if not commendable. They would probably find two other examples worthy of note:

John Matthews reportedly infiltrated more than 20 neo-Nazi extremist groups while working as a confidential informant for the FBI. 
The FBI reportedly used agent Steve Haug and a paid informant to infiltrate the Hutaree militia in Michigan.

A Necessary Law Enforcement Tool
These critics have not been writing truth to power. Instead, they have been creating their own false narrative that both the accused and convicted terrorists, especially if they were hirabah, were hapless dupes of scheming and disreputable informants, whose tainted testimony was encouraged by corrupt or biased police, suborned by prosecutors, overlooked by judges, and believed by juries who must have been hoodwinked in the process.

None of this excuses the inappropriate use of confidential informants, but making blanket judgments about their use and couching it in the language of social justice says more about the politics of the publicity-seeking activist than it does about the alleged police malfeasance.

Confidential informants must remain a necessary law enforcement tool to fight both terrorism and crime. Informants have been one of the most effective ways of getting inside the often long and tortured terrorist decision cycle.

Because terrorists rarely associate with upstanding citizens, many informants will appear little different than suspects and may, in fact, be suspects themselves in other or related cases.

However, as with all good undercover operations, professionals will check and double-check the informant’s information for accuracy, if possible by other, independent sources. The informant’s testimony will be vetted not only by skeptical prosecutors, but by courts and juries as well.

Security professionals know that even the most incompetent terrorist could stumble upon success. In 1984, after the IRA’s botched attempt in Brighton, England, to assassinate then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the terrorists pointed out they only had to be “lucky once,” a concept understood by law enforcement professionals and misunderstood by critics of the practice of informant use.

About the author

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army's Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.

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