Why Protecting Sources and Methods Really Matters


In my thirty-four years in law enforcement, I met with many confidential human sources working against terrorism, counter intelligence and violent crime targets.  I met them in inner city neighborhoods, rural small towns and a number of countries overseas.  The meetings often took place late at night, in the front seat of cars, in parking lots and on darkened one-way streets.  Sometimes the meetings were hurried, stressed and transactional.  But often the debriefings I conducted had a slow, methodical conversational tone.  Talking, and more importantly listening, helped tease out the subtle observations and impressions of the sources.  It also helped dissipate the anxiety and adrenaline that they felt after covertly meeting with violent criminals and terrorists.  My goal was to reassure them that their safety was my, and by extension the FBI’s, primary concern.  If the identity of the source were revealed, lives would be in danger.

The formal title that the FBI uses for people who provide the bureau with information about criminal activity or intelligence information is Confidential Human Source (CHS).  Other law enforcement and intelligence agencies may use the term Confidential Informant or Asset, but they are never called a “spy”.

The recent revelations that the identity and operational details of an FBI source were disclosed for political purposes is very disturbing.  This act breaks with longstanding tradition, tradecraft and policy.  It will have a chilling effect on efforts to recruit human sources in the future, particularly if they feel their identity is not going to be protected.

Protecting sources and methods are two areas where law enforcement and intelligence share a common goal.  All U.S. Government agencies operating human sources go to great lengths to protect the people and techniques used to penetrate and collect information on dangerous targets or groups, which pose a threat to the United States.  The FBI procedures are rigorous and meticulous.  The bureau’s Confidential Human Source Policy Guide is classified and contains over one hundred pages of rules and regulations concerning all aspects of operating a CHS.  In the FBI, all information about a human source’s identity and reporting is classified at a minimum at the “Secret” level, regardless of the type of target covered by the source, this is done to ensure the confidentiality of the source’s identity and the information provided.

Human sources are the Holy Grail for law enforcement organizations and intelligence agencies.  They provide invaluable insight and first-hand observations into the inner workings of criminal organizations, terror cells, and rogue governments, operating where no undercover Officer or Agent can.  Many sources are spotted, assessed and recruited over time, good ones passed on to a new handler every few years.  These sources take great risks.

There are many reasons why a person becomes a source for the U.S. Government – patriotism, anger, financial gain, a sense of feeling wronged, or they may be involved in criminal activity themselves.  Regardless of the source’s motivation, there is a sacred trust between the source, their handler and the agency the source is reporting to.  It is specifically against FBI guidelines to disclose the true identity of a CHS unless there is a need to know, the disclosure is approved at very high levels and “it is legally required or absolutely necessary to achieve important investigative, public policy or safety objectives”.

The disturbing revelations last week established that the White House pressured the Department of Justice to disclose the identity and operational details concerning an alleged FBI informant to Members of Congress.  The strange drama that unfolded had a few Republican House members attempting to limit the briefing about the reported source for a select few Republican House members.  After a lot of negative press last week, this exclusive briefing scheme failed, and Democrats were also briefed. The media reported that the President’s lawyer in the Mueller probe, and the President’s chief of staff attended the beginning of the briefing.  Neither of those two individuals have any need to know the identity or other details about an FBI human source.

There are profound and disturbing echoes of history in this case.  During the Watergate scandal, John Dean, President Nixon’s chief of staff, was improperly permitted to sit in on FBI interviews.  In addition, Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray also provided Dean with FBI reports in order to keep President Nixon informed on the progress of investigations into his corrupt White House.  The current attack on the FBI’s source was equally inappropriate.  It is never permissible to share the identity of a confidential source with those who do not have a legitimate need to know.  Nor is it ever appropriate to share any details of a law enforcement criminal investigation with a defendant, his lawyer or representative, unless done during a formal proffer session or plea negotiation.

Many of the human sources I met with over the years exhibited great courage obtaining sensitive information and intelligence on behalf of the U.S. Government.  It is essential that our justice officials and elected representatives exhibit the same courage and respect for the rule of law.

Josh Mayers recently retired from the FBI after serving as an FBI Special Agent for 27 years, during his career he recruited and handled many human sources in the U.S. and abroad.  The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Federal Bureau of Investigation FBI or the U.S. Government.

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3 Responses

  1. Paul Kelly says:


    1. What constitutes a political purpose? Isn’t it true that most “purposes” are ultimately political in at least some respects?

    2. The moniker is unimportant because the work is the same, and the work is that of a spy. Further, for all we know now the spy might very well be an FBI special agent. That’s not the same as what S.A. Mayers has discussed here. That said, I concur generally with his basic premise, but this is a unique case.

    3. I don’t believe that “chilling effect” is necessarily the most accurate description here. If there is any effect, it might be better described as “more fairly compensated in line with the ever-increasing risks incurred.”

    • Dennis Becker says:

      I appreciate and concur with comments made. Our business is more successful when that “source” believes that what is being said and who is saying it – is protected. Quite frankly this is logical to the source and valuable to the collecting agency.

  2. William Deno says:

    Mr. Mayers is a good man. I am not sure the FBI can replace him.

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