Government Informants

Both law-enforcement and intelligence agencies fundamentally depend on informants. Informants in foreign intelligence are at best traitors to their respective countries. Informants in domestic crime issues are often paid, either in cash or in deals cut on crimes they have committed. Altogether, they are a sleazy lot.

One point many people often don’t understand is that CIA officers are not spies. They are "case officers." Their job is to recruit spies (informants) and funnel the information back to the analysts.

Naturally, every country tries to depict its spies as noble people opposed to tyranny rather than people trapped and blackmailed, soreheads and neurotics or simply greedy opportunists. Often, informants working for money in domestic criminal cases will actually entrap some innocent person. That’s how the sorry episode of Randy Weaver began, which ended with the deaths of his wife, his son and a deputy U.S. marshal in 1992.

A paid informant badgered Weaver, who was hard up for money to feed his family, into illegally sawing off a shotgun, something any 8-year-old with a hacksaw and a vice can do. The idea was to arrest him, threaten him with a long prison sentence and then coerce him into becoming a federal informant. It was a federal cluster you-know-what from start to finish.

This is a short preface to the current problem of domestic spying. The Bush administration says it only intercepts calls from terrorists. OK, how does the Bush administration know that somebody in Europe or the Middle East is a terrorist? Terrorists don’t walk around the street with little name tags identifying them and their organization. They don’t call people and say: "Hi, al-Qaida calling. Can I interest you in a bomb-making kit?"

The answer is an informant or some other country’s intelligence agency. The first thing you know is that this person is a terrorist suspect. If anyone had proof that he was a real terrorist, he would be arrested. You can get some idea of how unreliable these suspect lists are by the instances of pop stars, U.S. senators, babies and other innocent people winding up on the U.S. terrorist watch list because of bureaucratic goof-ups.

Furthermore, it stands to reason that the National Security Agency has no way of knowing who this suspect is calling until the call is actually made. NSA doesn’t put wiretaps on telephones. It sweeps the calls out of the air, and then the NSA supercomputers comb the messages for certain key words. My guess is that the NSA is intercepting all the overseas calls from Americans of Arab descent, people of the Muslim faith, as well as those who have spoken out on Middle East issues or have business dealings in the region. In other words, it’s a massive invasion of privacy, not a selective invasion of privacy — or at least that’s my guess.

Ronald Reagan said of his arms deals with the Soviets: "Trust, but verify." The problem is, there are no ways the American people or their elected representatives can verify anything President Bush says on the subject of national security. It’s all classified. The very practice of one equal branch of the government keeping secrets from another equal branch of the government is an unconstitutional act that ought to be ended immediately. We will have to wait for a Congress with guts for that to happen.

I fear the expansion of American government power more than I do the terrorists. They are, after all, criminals who might shoot us or bomb us and get killed in the process. They are, by nature, a passing threat. A secretive government that scoffs at the rule of law and the restraints of the Constitution, however, is a very permanent threat to the freedom of the American people.

Government power that isn’t checked will just keep on growing until one day the American people will wake up neither free nor secure.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.