Confidential Human Source Policy Guide
How the FBI Recruits and Handles Its Army of Informants
Jan. 31 2017

In 1975, the FBI ran 1,500 “confidential human sources,” or informants, tasked with infiltrating or disrupting criminal activities. Today that number has soared to 15,000. Many of the FBI’s “confidential human sources” are immigrants, and the bureau has been accused of leveraging immigration status to bend the will of reluctant recruits.

Informants assist the FBI in investigating criminal activity and pre-empting terror attacks. They can be tasked with carrying out “otherwise illegal activity” in the course of an operation, or with communicating with people of interest online. The bureau even runs informants overseas.

This guide details the FBI’s internal rules for identifying, recruiting, managing, and paying its confidential sources.

1 The FBI collects information on potential informants

The source identification package may include information that could be used to pressure otherwise unwilling informants to cooperate with federal law enforcement.

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2 FBI agents can recruit informants undercover

In a nonaffiliated approach, the FBI agent does not volunteer that he or she is with the FBI but the agent is not permitted to use a disguise or cover identity.

In a covert approach, the FBI agent takes on a false identity for the purpose of recruiting someone to be an informant. Covert informant recruitment is not subject to the five-meetings limitation that governs most FBI undercover activity.

When registering on websites, FBI employees using a covert approach may use an alias and a throwaway email account, but are permitted to provide only a minimum amount of information. The limitations, for example, would hinder the FBI’s ability to set up covert social media profiles, as FBI employees are not permitted to provide such data as photographs or interests.

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3 The FBI can recruit clergy, prison guards, even minors

The range of potential recruits is surprisingly vast. In serious cases, the FBI may use privileged information from sensitive sources, including lawyers, physicians, clergy, and journalists. Assuming proper authorization, FBI agents may recruit prison guards and other prison officials as informants. The FBI can even recruit minors. If a minor has been emancipated, he or she is eligible to receive service payments for work as an informant. If the minor is not emancipated, his or her parents are to receive the service payments.

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4 The end of the line

The document for the first time makes clear that the FBI is required to assist immigration authorities in locating an informant once he or she is no longer of value to the bureau, blurring the lines of the FBI’s jurisdiction into immigration enforcement.

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5 Significant Public Benefit Parole

FBI agents may use this program to keep an “inadmissible or deportable” informant in the country if he or she can assist investigations or provide national security information.

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6 Deferred Action

FBI agents may use this program to establish legal re-entry into the United States for an immigrant source who lacks legal status.

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7 Payments disguised as reimbursements

The FBI implicitly acknowledges the temptation to disguise service payments to sources as expense reimbursements, instructing agents not to consider the effects at trial when paying informants.

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8 Informants can make a lot of money

A special agent-in-charge has the authority to pay each of his office’s informants up to $100,000 per fiscal year. However, informants may earn substantially more as long as each additional $100,000 is approved by successively higher levels within the bureau. With deputy director approval, according to the policy guide, an informant may earn more than $500,000 per year.

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9 Informants can make money from forfeited assets

An informant may be eligible to receive 25 percent of the net value of any property forfeited as a result of the investigation, up to $500,000 per asset.

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10 Payments after the fact shield informants from questioning

While this document does not specify the timing, lump-sum payments are generally provided after the trial, saving the informant and federal prosecutors from having to disclose the full amount of compensation an informant will receive and thereby limiting a defense lawyer’s ability to undermine the informant’s credibility.

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11 The FBI operates covertly overseas

The FBI may deploy informants in countries around the globe without having to notify the host countries of their presence. FBI legal attaches, or legats, are central to this capacity. Legats are stationed in U.S. embassies and their official duty is to serve as liaisons between the FBI and the law enforcement agencies of other nations. But legats can also function as the FBI’s version of CIA station chiefs — intelligence agents operating in other countries under nominal State Department cover.

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