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Why the FBI’s Troubling History With Informants Is Getting New Attention

9 minute read
Forrest is a national-security reporter for The Wall Street Journal. His new book is Lost Son: An American Family Trapped Inside the FBI's Secret Wars

In June 2015, a young American named Billy Reilly disappeared in Russia. Reilly’s last known location was in the southwest of that country, where he mixed with men endeavoring to cross the border into Ukraine and fight the war against Kyiv. Deepening the mystery of Reilly’s vanishing was his role with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Reilly worked for the FBI as a Confidential Human Source, a freelance generator of information and intelligence that assists the Bureau in disrupting conspiracies and crimes. After Reilly went missing, FBI agents told his family that they were ignorant of his whereabouts and purpose. But this was untrue.

The FBI’s denials and Reilly’s provocative disappearance in Russia’s war in Ukraine come to light amid a broader reckoning over the conduct of federal law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. When our agencies shield the truth from us, they underscore the need for diligent and reasoned scrutiny of those we grant special powers.

The FBI has used cooperators and informants since its founding. Historically, such people have worked ad hoc for the Bureau to escape legal jeopardy, or for pay or for country, developing evidence that is critical to investigations and prosecutions.

Over the decades, some FBI agents developed a pattern of playing fast and loose with these resources, authorizing cooperators and informants to commit crimes or entrap investigative targets. Such indiscretions drew rounds of Congressional and Department of Justice censure restricting the FBI’s use of outside help.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 loosened these chains, as Congress demanded that the FBI make more, not less, of informants and cooperators. The FBI began using them not only as windows into criminal conspiracy but as sources of intelligence, working beyond the scope of DOJ in concert with the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies. In 2004, the FBI initiated the Confidential Human Source Reengineering Project, collecting all informants and cooperators into this new category: CHS. The change in nomenclature signified a deeper meaning, as the FBI transformed into an international intelligence agency.

In the hunt for intelligence, the Bureau addressed internal deficiencies by recruiting scores of CHSs who had abilities that FBI agents and staff lacked yet needed. In 2006, for example, with Islamic terrorism a central threat, just 33 out of roughly 12,000 FBI agents, or less than one percent, spoke Arabic, the language of many of their suspects.

FBI agents recruit outsiders to the CHS program in a variety of ways. Trained to use people’s vulnerabilities against them, agents sometimes pressure immigrant citizens who are ignorant of their rights, lawful permanent residents who want to retain their green cards, and people who are visiting the U.S. legally on a visa or illegally without one. Coercing a person to become an informant can be even easier if the target has committed a crime or is believed to have done so. While idealistic and financial motives guide some people to CHS work, FBI pressure is also often difficult to resist.

“Confidential human sources have access to criminal actors that allow the FBI to safeguard against national security threats, criminal activity, and potential harm to the American people,” the FBI said in a statement to the author. “Information from confidential human sources and members of the public is critical to the work of the FBI.”

There is no typical CHS, nor any typical CHS duty. A CHS might infiltrate a drug-trafficking gang or develop social-media communications with terror suspects. What a CHS does, especially in the initial stages of the relationship, depends on what a CHS can do, contingent on the knowledge, abilities, and access that the person brings to the role. The nature of the FBI’s relationships with CHSs varies, depending on the urgency of particular investigations and the style of a handling agent. Some CHS relationships quickly outlive their utility. Others last for years. A few have resulted in the alleged entrapment of terror suspects. The longevity and intensity of the connection relies on the quality of information a CHS can consistently generate.

As Bureau budgets surged in service to the War on Terror, the FBI, instead of hiring sufficient numbers of agents and staff who had relevant experience and lingual and cultural knowledge, turned time and again to CHSs, farming out difficult and dangerous work to freelancers like Billy Reilly.

Reilly lived with his parents outside of Detroit and had deep interests in place of close friends. He’d taught himself the Arabic and Russian languages to a competent degree and was employing these skills to chat with intriguing people via social media. His online traffic piqued the interest of the FBI, which came calling in 2010, as Reilly, then 23, was preparing to graduate college. Bureau agents drew Reilly, a rank amateur, into professional intelligence.

Reilly worked for agents in the FBI’s Detroit office, luring investigative targets, mostly in counterterrorism. He worked both online and in the field. Like other CHSs, he received effectively no training from the FBI. Agents, nonetheless, encouraged him to assume hazardous tasks.

FBI manuals are explicit about the need to manipulate and coerce CHSs, advising agents to use “natural actions” when cultivating a CHS to create a “seemingly personal relationship.” Guidelines instruct agents how to “inspire an individual to do something that they may not otherwise do.”

When war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Reilly became intensely interested in it. The following spring, he left for Russia. His parents, Terry and Bill Reilly, assumed that their son was traveling at the FBI’s behest, or perhaps at the urging of a fellow agency, though they didn’t know for sure.

The Bureau indeed sometimes dispatches CHSs on overseas missions, but regulations prohibit FBI agents from communicating with them while they are on the road. This has been a clear and hard rule, symbolic of an institutional division of labor, with the FBI working domestically, the CIA abroad. When CHSs travel internationally on a task, FBI agents are required to hand them over to CIA officers working in a relevant region. Such is the fluidity of CHS handling, revealing one of several ways in which a CHS may fall under the guise of the CIA.

FBI regulations themselves are fluid. If one reads deeply enough into the Bureau’s many handbooks and policy manuals, it can become difficult to understand which rules apply, which rules an agent may flout. Occasionally secreted amid the Bureau’s many regulations are permissions to break them. Some FBI guidelines indeed permit agents to communicate with CHSs who are traveling for duties abroad. This imprecision establishes a shadow zone of responsibility and deniability amid high-stakes operations, and it should give the public pause.

When Billy Reilly disappeared in 2015, his parents at first worked with the FBI to trace their son’s steps. Agents said they were surprised to learn that Reilly had traveled to Russia and asked his parents why he had gone there. Before long, however, the Reillys discovered digital proof that Bureau agents had known about Billy’s travels all along.

Reilly’s parents had encountered a conflict between the FBI’s goals and their own. Their son’s disappearance was a provocation to the FBI, the sort of event that handling agents feared.

Agents encourage CHSs to lead double lives, to deceive. A CHS is meant to shield the truth from FBI targets while revealing the truth to FBI agents. The more adept a CHS is at this game, the more effective a CHS can be. But FBI agents can never be sure where the lying ends. The very qualities that make people worthy CHSs (duplicity, proximity to crime or terror) make them a threat to the agency that nurtures them.

Had Billy Reilly traveled to Russia on an FBI errand and somehow gone rogue? Or was the truth more troubling?

In this instance, truth took a back seat to the FBI’s reputation.

Bureau managers and case agents had learned a difficult lesson during the mid-1990s revelations of the James “Whitey” Bulger case. The one-time leader of Boston’s Irish mob, Bulger had committed heinous crimes while he was an FBI informant. Because of the damage Bulger inflicted, the FBI subsequently instructed its agents to drop a source immediately if they had doubts about the partnership. The negative Bulger publicity made the future risks of questionable source relationships intolerable.

Bulger and 9/11 created a witches’ brew for CHSs. Because few agents possessed relevant skills, they needed CHSs, often maneuvering them into hazardous situations. And because of Bulger, agents were licensed to release CHSs to their fates without a moment’s notice. CHSs, their true identities locked away behind alpha-numeric designations on an FBI database, had nearly no recourse.

Billy Reilly’s family, on the other hand, found what they hoped was a way to force the FBI to answer.

In 2019, U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow and Rep. Elissa Slotkin, all from the Reillys’ home state of Michigan, sent a letter to the Department of Justice’s Inspector General calling for an investigation into the case. They pursued the answer to a fundamental question: How was the FBI—or another U.S. agency—involved in Billy Reilly’s disappearance?

Now, three and a half years later, and eight years after Reilly went missing, DOJ hasn’t responded to this request from Capitol Hill. One may assume that DOJ is unlikely ever to respond.

Where does this leave Billy Reilly’s parents, Terry and Bill Reilly, Americans born and raised, Michiganders? How are they to perceive our government if their elected representatives, justifiably skeptical of the FBI’s conduct in this case, are powerless to elicit a response from the Department of Justice?

This snafu might well have been avoided if the FBI ceased enlisting “civilians” to do its work, or more carefully regulated their usage.

The Reillys might never discover their son’s purpose in Russia, be it adventure or a more defined goal. This information is now obscured in the wider war between Russia and Ukraine and the great sum of military and intelligence assistance the U.S. is providing the country.

The FBI might well have shed the Reilly case of its mystery long ago, if only the Bureau had come clean about what it knew and had done. When government is a monolith and oversight vacant, the FBI’s misuse of CHSs hollows public trust and leaves some families devastated.

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