Judges fear dangers of online 'rat' database
The Associated Press
By Matt Apuzzo
WASHINGTON- Police and prosecutors are worried that a Web site claiming to identify more than 4,000 informants and undercover agents will cripple investigations and hang targets on witnesses.
The Web site, WhosaRat.com, first caught the attention of authorities after a Massachusetts man put it online and named a few dozen people as turncoats in 2004. Since then, it has grown into a clearinghouse for mug shots, court papers and rumors.
Federal prosecutors say the site was set up to encourage violence, and federal judges around the country were recently warned that witnesses in their courtrooms may be profiled online.
"My concern is making sure cooperators are adequately protected from retaliation," said Chief Judge Thomas Hogan, who alerted other judges in Washington's federal courthouse. He said he learned about the site from a federal judge in Maine.
The Web site is the latest unabashedly public effort to identify witnesses or discourage helping police. "Stop Snitching" T-shirts have been sold in cities around the country and popular hip-hop lyrics disparage or threaten people who help police.
In 2004, NBA star Carmelo Anthony appeared in an underground Baltimore DVD that warned people they could be killed for cooperating with police. Anthony has said he was not aware of the DVD's message.
Such threats hinder criminal investigations, said Ronald Teachman, police chief in New Bedford, Mass., where murder cases have been stymied by witness silence and "Stop Snitching" T-shirts were recently for sale.
"Every shooting we have to treat like homicide. The victim's alive but he's not cooperative," Teachman said. "These kids have the idea that the worst offense they can commit is to cooperate with the police."
Sean Bucci, a former Boston-area disc jockey, set up WhosaRat.com after federal prosecutors charged him with selling marijuana in bulk from his house. Bucci is under house arrest awaiting trial and could not be reached, but a WhosaRat spokesman identifying himself as Anthony Capone said the site is a resource for criminal defendants and does not condone violence.
"If people got hurt or killed, it's kind of on them. They knew the dangers of becoming an informant," Capone said. "We'd feel bad, don't get me wrong, but things happen to people. If they decide to become an informant, with or without the Web site, that's a possibility."
The site offers biographical information about people whom users identify as witnesses or undercover agents. Users can post court documents, comments and pictures.
Some of those listed are well known, such as former Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland, who served 10 months in prison before testifying in a public corruption case. But many never made headlines and were identified as having helped investigators in drug cases.
For two years, anyone with an Internet connection could search the site. On Thursday, a day after it was discussed at a courthouse conference in Washington, the site became a subscription-only service. The site has also disabled the ability to post photos of undercover agents, Capone said, because administrators of the Web site do not want officers to be hurt.
Authorities disagree. In documents filed in Bucci's court case last month, federal prosecutors said they have information that Bucci set up the Web site to help intimidate and harm witnesses.
"Such information not only compromises pending or future government investigations, but places informants and undercover agents in potentially grave danger," Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter K. Levitt wrote.
While prosecutors haven't pointed to a case where a witness or officer was harmed because of the Web site, it has been used to shatter an undercover agent's anonymity. After Hawaiian doctor Kachun Yeung was charged with distributing narcotic painkillers this spring, a surveillance picture of an undercover Drug Enforcement Agent was posted on the site.
Federal prosecutors said they traced the posting to the University of Hawaii newspaper's photo department, where the doctor's son was a photo editor. The posting identified the names of three agents and described one as "a known liar and a dirty agent. He is an absolute disgrace to the American justice system."
Prosecutors in Boston have discussed whether WhosaRat is protected as free speech but have not moved to shut it down. In 2004, an Alabama federal judge ruled that a defendant had the right to run a Web site that included witness information in the form of "wanted" posters.
Earlier this month, federal judges from Minnesota and Utah urged their colleagues to be careful about how much information about witnesses is released in public files, noting that they could end up on WhosaRat.
Steve Bunnell, chief of the criminal division at the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, said the rules of evidence already require authorities to identity witnesses to the people most likely to harm them: the defendants. Most of the documents labeled "top secret" on the site are really public court records or information copied from other Web sites, he said.
His concern is that the site disparages the reputation of people who come forward to help solve crimes.
"We don't make those high-level gang and drug organization cases without somebody on the inside telling us what's going on," Bunnell said.