The FBI is testing a new computer system aimed at streamlining the use of informants to gain key details in crime cases.
An informant was key to uncovering an alleged plot by six men to attack Fort Dix in May. It was the first of a spate of homegrown terrorism cases this year that relied on information from an inside man.
Confidential insiders have always been a controversial part of law enforcement because they frequently are not model citizens. But without informants, law enforcement would have trouble cracking cases, FBI agent Ken Brown said.
"Without developing informants and without someone inside the crime structure, there is no way to get that information out of there," he said.
Brown was the FBI's informant coordinator in New York City form 1989 to 1992. His job was to track the way agents were using information from informants and to make sure the information gleaned from informants got to the people who needed it.
Informants are cultivated over long periods of time as agents develop a rapport with them. The flow of information is slow and current system is bureaucratic and decentralized.
The FBI is testing a system called Delta they hope will change that. For example, Delta would allow an agent to search for a Muslim male in the New Jersey area, in his 20s, who could infiltrate a group such as the men accused in the Fort Dix case. The agent could type in the parameters and get perhaps a half dozen or more people who fit his criteria.
"Today it's a very paper intensive and labor intensive process," said Wayne Murphy, the FBI's assistant director of Intelligence. "The idea behind Delta was to make it more efficient not only to document information, but to manage information and incorporate elements of oversight."
The new system will be standard across the intelligence community. It will rate informants based on their track records and hold them accountable.
The FBI is also looking at an informant registry - something they call The Center – in which agents could put up the name of an informant and get feedback from others who might have used the same person in the past. But that is still on the drawing board.
Pat Colgan, who worked informants for 28 years as an FBI agent in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and elsewhere, said that having the right safeguards in place would help agents in the field.
"I would have loved to have been able to go into a database that would say lead me in this direction to a certain person with certain information," Colgan said. "It should have been done 30 years ago."
A new manual on validating sources went into effect several weeks ago to comply with revised guidelines from the attorney general's office on the use of informants.
The Delta system is now being tested in a handful of FBI field offices.