Who are informants and what role do they play in prosecutions?

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

Within the tPP dataset, there is a code that involves informants.  It is a binary variable and indicates whether or not an informant was used for the defendant.  Most of the informants within our dataset are from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).  With this variable, about 72% of our defendants had informants for their cases (817 of 1130 cases).  It is interesting to examine the rules and regulations behind these informants.  There have been five sets of guidelines over the past 30 or more years.  These guidelines were set by the attorney general at the time in conjunction with Congress and some of the committees that deal with criminals and terrorism.  Each of these guidelines builds off of the previous set of guidelines and adds different aspects to these guidelines respective to the time and the arising threats.

The five guidelines include; The Levi Guidelines (1976), The Civiletti Guidelines (1980-1981), The Smith Guidelines (1983), The Thornburgh Guidelines (1989), and the Reno Guidelines (2001).  The Levi Guidelines establish the basics of FBI investigations that occur due to finding specific facts that lead them to believe a violent crime is inevitable. These guidelines wanted to minimize the use of informants and maximize the rights of the citizens (Office of Inspector General).  These guidelines caused many concerns for the FBI especially with their collection and use of intelligence to help prevent large-scale attacks.

In the beginning of the 1980s, a new set of guidelines were put into place and these were the Civiletti Guidelines.  Most of the changes that these new guidelines brought about allowed FBI informants to participate in criminal activities through authorization, created new directions for FBI informants to follow, and clarified and revised undercover operations practices (Office of Inspector General).  Many of these changes were in response to actions of the FBI at the time and some of its undercover operations.

A few years later, the Smith Guidelines were introduced (1983).  These guidelines relaxed the restraints on domestic security investigations to allow for the FBI to protect citizens from more complex groups while also allowing for peaceful and lawful dissent (Office of Inspector General).  These guidelines also allowed for a greater look into terrorism and developed rules and regulations for a domestic security/terrorism investigation (Office of Inspector General).  The use of terrorism by groups within the United States was increasing at this time and becoming more of a problem for law enforcement.  These new guidelines helped to establish a way for the FBI to deal with these emerging threats in a lawful way.

At the end of the 1980s, the Thornburgh Guidelines were developed. It arose from a case that the FBI was working internationally with a group in El Salvador.  These guidelines added direction for field offices when dealing with cases involving international terrorism (Office of Inspector General).  Questions arose concerning the FBI dealing with some international cases of terrorism and whether they were going past their rights and any individual rights.  These new guidelines addressed what the FBI can and cannot do concerning international terrorism.

The last set of guidelines that were put into place were the Reno Guidelines in 2001.  Concerns had arisen about the capabilities of the FBI to handle large cases of terrorism such as McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  On the other hand, there were also concerns about the handling of informants by the FBI.  The Reno Guidelines clarified and revised the Civiletti Guidelines concerning the use and handling of informants as well as changing the interpretation of some of the previous guidelines to give greater confidence to the FBI when dealing with cases of preventing terrorist attacks (Office of Inspector General).

All of these guidelines build upon each other and help reconcile some problems the FBI has had in the past.  It makes sure that the FBI is staying within the rights of the citizens as well as helping them in combating domestic terrorism.  Understanding the role of the informant within these cases allows for a deeper analysis of the defendants who had informants within our dataset.

– Lizzy Springer


Office of the Inspector General. 2005. “Historical Background of the Attorney General’s Investigative Guidelines.” Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Compliance with the Attorney General’s Investigative Guidelines.

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