Who helps drug agents find cocaine? Informants.

How the DEA Ditched an Informant

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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A federal court last week unsealed an opinion detailing a particularly egregious -- some would say horrifying -- series of missteps by the Drug Enforcement Agency. This time, the scandal doesn't involve domestic surveillance or concealing information from opposing counsel. This time, the DEA turns out to have mistreated one of its own informants.

The case is SGS-92-X003 v. United States, with the plaintiff identified only by her DEA informant number. Around the agency, however, she wasn't called SGS-92. She was known as the Princess.

Over a four-year period in the 1990s, the Princess traveled repeatedly to Colombia at the behest of the DEA, and brought in solid information. Her work also took her elsewhere in Latin America and Europe. Then, in 1995, she was kidnapped by one of the drug cartels, and held for three and a half months until a ransom was paid. (The source of the ransom isn't clear.)

So far, just another infiltration gone bad. It happens. But here is where the case grows particularly dismaying -- and how it wound up in court. According to the Princess, it was the DEA's repeated bungling that essentially blew her cover. Then, after her release, she developed a chronic medical condition that would require increasingly expensive care. The DEA refused to help out. She therefore brought an action claiming breach of contract. In particular, she argued that the DEA, in hiring her as an informant, had agreed to protect her.

It broke that promise.

The opinion is well worth reading, and many of the details are appalling. In 1994, the Princess returned from Colombia with a handwritten note from one drug dealer to another, warning that the Princess worked for the DEA. She turned it over to her handlers. The agency sent her back anyway. On her next trip, she was warned by a source that there were many dealers who would no longer meet with her. The agency sent her back anyway.

The court tells us what happened next: "In early 1995, DEA thwarted a plot to assassinate the Princess." Then, in March of that year, a federal prosecutor informed a criminal defendant in Chicago -- a defendant with connections to the cartels -- that the Princess was a confidential informant. A few months later, "DEA in Rome, Italy, intercepted a conversation between drug traffickers that suggested the Princess's cover had been compromised."

You will not be surprised to learn that the agency sent her back anyway. And this time, her handler did not follow proper procedures for alerting the DEA's people in Bogota that an informant was on the way.

Shortly after her arrival for that final trip, the Princess was kidnapped at gunpoint. She was held in a small hut for three and a half months, where she spent five days with a noose around her neck. Although the opinion of the Court of Claims says she was not physically abused, her interrogation became, in the words of the Princess's own testimony, "a little bit I will say violent." She was finally freed after an unnamed source paid a ransom of $350,000 "from his own funds."

Ironically, the Princess was put at risk in part because the drug money she was supposed to be laundering was instead stolen by a supervisory agent, who later pleaded guilty to the theft of $760,000 and was sentenced to prison. But the Princess, pressed by the cartel on the whereabouts of their money, could hardly tell them that a fellow DEA employee had stolen it. So she made up a story instead -- a story that was sufficiently weak that the cartel evidently began to suspect not that she was an undercover informant, but that she herself had stolen their money.

She began to develop health problems a few months after her return to the U.S., and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The medical witnesses at trial were firmly of the view that the condition was brought on by the stress of her captivity. The court found that the government had agreed to protect her, that it had broken the promise, and that the possibility that she would grow physically ill because of her confinement was foreseeable. The Princess was awarded damages of $1.4 million, and, from what's in the court's opinion (I've given only the smallest flavor) is entitled to every penny.

During the trial, the government risked the court's ire by constantly missing deadlines to produce documents. At one point, the DEA was unable to find in its files the records of its initial debriefing of the Princess after her release from confinement.

Still, the most remarkable aspect of the case was that the government didn't settle in the first place. It's true that the Princess had already been well compensated. She was apparently paid $25,000 every three months while undercover, and was eligible for bonuses, although it does not appear from the court's opinion whether she received any. In addition, after being freed from captivity, she was approved for a payment of $996,000, apparently over five years, including $350,000 upfront.

But once it became clear that the captivity had affected her health -- the expert testimony was overwhelming that stress was a trigger for her illness -- the DEA should have found a way to settle. The bad publicity about the agency's treatment of an ex-informant is bound to have some effect at the margin on the incentives of future informants. And it isn't as if there isn't any money available. According to the legal scholar Alexandra Napatoff's 2009 book "Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice," the federal government spends in excess of $100 million a year compensating its sources.

Some news reports suggest that the U.S. is developing a reputation for not paying informants the promised bounties when drug kingpins are arrested and convicted. Maybe that's just so much tabloid blather. But drug informants, like the agents who run them, often take enormous risks on the nation's behalf. It won't take a lot of bad news to start scaring them away.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net