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The Weakest Link: The Dire Consequences of a Weak Link in the Informant Handling and Covert Operations Chain-of-Command

As Originally published by Law Enforcement Executive Forum, 2009.

By: Michael Levine
Tel: 845-687-9642
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Law enforcement agencies call them CIs (Cooperating Individuals, Confidential Informants, and/or Criminal Informants). Cops who use them call them stoolpigeons, stools, rats, chotas, etc. Intelligence agencies (Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], Defense Intelligence Agency [DIA], etc.) call them "assets" or the more confusing "agents." Whatever they are called, 99.9999% of them have one thing in common: they are traitorous information whores who betray friendships, relatives, business and/or criminal associates, nations, and even terrorist organizations. They are criminals and conmen who use their insider positions of trust to steal and barter information that can and often does destroy those who most trust them.

A good police instructor with real first-hand experience will always tell you "Never trust an informant." A prosecutor who wants to win his case at all costs will always tell a jury "Trust this informant." If you're assigned to a narcotics and/or an anti-terror unit, both of which overlap mightily these days, and you believe the prosecutor, do yourself a favor and grab a transfer to the Traffic Division. You're a danger to yourself and to your community.

I'm not going to talk about the alleged 1% of informants who risk their lives in this very dirty and dangerous game and who training manuals refer to as "good citizens" or people motivated to inform on other people as a result of "ideological motivation" mainly because in my now 44 years of training and experience encompassing the close association with more than 10,000 CIs,2 I've yet to meet one I would trust enough to give my home phone, except when I was stationed overseas and had no choice.

Yet, every one of the thousands of covert operations in which I have been directly or indirectly involved during my long career has depended upon the manipulation and use of CIs. Thus, as a police instructor and/or Department of Justice supervisory reviewer-as opposed to most, if not all, training that I am aware of- it made no sense to me to separate the use and/or misuse of a CI from the training of law enforcement personnel in undercover tactics. It was for this reason that, when I was asked to devise a course for the New York State Department of Justice Services, the course was entitled Undercover Operations and Informant Handling.

Failure Analysis

In this paper, I will present real and documented cases of tragic operational failures that resulted entirely from the use and/or failed use of Criminal Informants in covert operations. All the cases presented, with the exception of the first and second attacks on the World Trade Center, the CIA's little known "Thousand Informant Disaster," and the informant child rapist case, come from my own personal involvement as either case agent, supervisory officer, reviewing official, or trial consultant and expert witness. What follows, in essence, will be a failure analysis of each case-as viewed through the lens of my training and experience particularly as an Office of Professional Conduct (OPR) operational inspector-in affixing management responsibility for these operational disasters. I will then summarize this paper with what I believe can be done to best improve our defenses in these areas.

Donald Carlson v. Agents and Officers of the DEA, U.S. Customs, and the San Diego Police Department

Donald Carlson was butt-dragging weary. His job as a top executive with Anacomp, a Fortune 500 company, had kept him working late, and after a very late dinner, he just wanted to get home and get to bed. As he drove through his quiet, upscale neighborhood in Poway, California, he couldn't possibly have noticed the dozen or so cars and vans, strange to this neighborhood, parked on the dark streets approaching his home, most with their engines running.

Not in Donald Carlson's wildest of two-martini dreams could he have imagined that at the very moment he was using his remote to open one of the doors to his three-car garage, nervous voices were barking radio commands calling him "subject" and, "target" and that he was one of several targets of a three-month state, federal, and international narcotics trafficking investigation.

Not even if he were stoned on LSD would Donald Carlson have believed that at the very moment he was making a beeline toward his bedroom, a dozen heavily armed men, a newly formed SWAT team of San Diego police and federal agents, were racing across his meticulously manicured front lawn in combat crouch positions, cradling submachine guns and shotguns, expecting to be met by four Colombian hit men who had sworn never to be taken alive, guarding 500 kilos of cocaine.

Unfortunately for Mr. Carlson, he had a pistol license. So when he heard his door being battered down followed by what he thought was a grenade exploding in his living room, he grabbed his pistol and moved to the hallway, shouting for the intruders to identify themselves. Talk about bringing a knife to a gunfight. Donald Carlson might just as well have been armed with a Swiss Army knife for what was about to happen.

When the raiders clad from head to foot in black combat suits and flak vests with black balaclavas concealing their faces charged through the door, Carlson, his hand trembling a nine on the Richter Scale, fired two times, missing everything moving. A Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent, just back from what is basically a jungle combat tour in South America, then executed a Ramboesque, diving, combat roll firing a dozen shots from an H&K submachine gun, turning the living room into sawdust, but missing Mr. Carlson.

The wily albeit hysterical corporate executive then retreated to his bedroom, threw the gun away, and dialed 911. He was still holding the phone when he was hit twice by gunfire, handcuffed, arrested, and transported to the hospital where he lay close to death in the intensive care unit, handcuffed to his bed. His most vivid memory of the hospital is some officer's voice telling the doctors and nurses attending him that he was a "drug dealer."

Of course, the raiders found no Colombians, no drugs, not even an unlicensed dog to shoot. The Fortune 500 executive, they were about to learn, was a Dudley Do-Right who wouldn't know cocaine from garden mulch.

The Customs supervisory officer commanding the troops, himself undaunted by not finding drugs or Colombians, still had two more search warrants to serve, all of which were based almost entirely on the semiliterate words of a CI who couldn't even speak Spanish. The next house they hit they found vacant, nothing to shoot, not even a stick of furniture to seize.

In the third house, they found a San Diego City Marshal and her husband fast asleep. The Marshal luckily didn't go for her gun. Once again, contrary to what Ron Edmonds-the man the Customs supervisor had described as a "reliable informant" in court papers-had said, the raiders found not an iota of drugs, not even a package of Bambu rolling papers.

Mr. Carlson, who miraculously survived his wounds, sued the government as well as each officer as individuals, and that's where I came in.

Analyzing a Disaster

. . .Continue to read rest of article (PDF).

Michael Levine is one of the most decorated supervisory agents in the history of the Drug Enforcement Administration. A US Law Enforcement Procedure Expert, Mr. Levine has over 45 years of courtroom experience (civil & criminal) as a Trial consultant and Expert Witness, including 25 years of service with DEA, Customs, BATF, and the IRS Criminal Investigations Division.

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