STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next, we're going to ask if federal agents should face scrutiny when they cross a delicate line. Agents work with confidential informants, and they know those informants are often criminals. The question is whether the FBI should ignore the informants' own crimes when they have information about specific crimes. One Massachusetts congressman is considering a change in the law. The bill says if FBI agents fail to report their informants' crimes, agents would face criminal prosecution - which has FBI agents wondering if they'd have to stop using informants. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston concludes a series on confidential informants.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI's detractors have long seen the bureau as an institution with its own agenda. They say the bureau is more concerned about building a successful case than upholding the law. Massachusetts congressman William Delahunt is one of those people.
Representative WILLIAM DELAHUNT (Democrat, Massachusetts): I have had a long-term concern about the sharing of information by specifically the FBI with local and state law enforcement.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Delahunt says the FBI has developed into a model of arrogant uncooperativeness when it comes to helping local cops fight crime. And nowhere is this problem worse, in his view, than in the FBI's confidential -informant program. He says time and again, FBI agents neglect to tell local police when they know their informants have broken the law because agents arbitrarily decide that their cases are more important than local ones.
Rep. DELAHUNT: What is totally unacceptable is having violent criminals out on the street preying on American citizens everywhere while there is information that isn't being disclosed to local and state law-enforcement authorities that have the primary responsibility in this country to protect us from violent crime.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Delahunt's solution is to introduce a bill that would essentially hold agents criminally responsible if they keep quiet.
Rep. DELAHUNT: If an average citizen should lie to an FBI agent, there's a criminal penalty involved. Compare that to a situation where an FBI agent has information and fails to disclose it to appropriate local and state law- enforcement officials. Should there be a penalty?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Delahunt says there should. To understand why he feels so strongly about this, you need to go back to Delahunt's hometown of Boston.
Rep. DELAHUNT: There have been cases here in the greater Boston area where the high standards of the FBI have not been honored.
TEMPLE-RASTON: What he's referring to is the Whitey Bulger case. Whitey Bulger was the godfather of the Irish mob and a confidential informant for the FBI. He gave an agent named John Connolly information that helped the FBI wipe out the Italian mob in Boston. During that time, it seemed that no matter what state and local law enforcement did to gather evidence against Bulger, he remained one step ahead of them. It came out later that Connolly was tipping him off. Delahunt was district attorney in neighboring Norfolk County at the time.
Rep. DELAHUNT: Serious crimes went unsolved while at the same time, the FBI had significant information that in my judgment, could very well have led to a successful prosecution.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Delahunt is certainly not the only person to cry foul about the FBI's informant program. The Justice Department's inspector general is concerned, too. He came out with a 301-page report that says in nearly nine out of every 10 cases he reviewed, agents mishandled informants. They allowed informants to engage in criminal activities without approval, they failed to report it when they broke the law, or they approved illegal activity after the crime had already been committed. Jack Weinstein has been...
Judge JACK WEINSTEIN (Eastern District of New York): ...a sitting judge for 40 years now.
TEMPLE-RASTON: He's a United States federal judge in the Eastern District of New York and has probably heard more mob cases using confidential informants than any other judge in the country. He's worried about Delahunt's bill.
Judge WEINSTEIN: I do think that to tie the hands of the FBI unduly is something that ought to be seriously considered before it is done. My experience with the FBI over the past 40 years has been very good.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Valerie Caproni is the general counsel for the FBI.
Ms. VALERIE CAPRONI (FBI General Counsel): I don't think if it passed that we could get agents to, in fact, run informants.
TEMPLE-RASTON: She said the way the bill is drafted, an agent has to inform local law enforcement if they obtain information that a confidential informant has committed a crime. What happens, she asks, if they aren't sure the information they obtain is reliable?
Ms. CAPRONI: Because you would put the agent in a situation where they are having to choose between criminal liability on their own part, and disclosing information that they may believe in their heart of hearts - and everybody objectively believes - the information is not reliable. And yet, they're risking criminal exposure if they don't disclose that to a local law enforcement.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Caproni says if that was the law of the land, the FBI couldn't put their agents in that kind of position. It would effectively end the informant program.
Rep. DELAHUNT: I think that's baloney.
TEMPLE-RASTON: ...says congressman Delahunt. He says he is simply requiring the FBI agents to comply with the guidelines that already exist.
Rep. DELAHUNT: My role is one of oversight, monitoring and ensuring that the FBI achieves the high standards that we all believe the FBI aspires to.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The attorney general is expected to release revised guidelines for FBI investigative procedures in the next couple of weeks. Delahunt says he'd like to see those provisions before he moves ahead with his bill.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
INSKEEP: The first two reports in Dina's series on confidential informants are at npr.org.