The Problems With Confidential Human Sources (CHS)
Margot Cleveland did her Sussmann trial coverage this morning and touched on an interesting issue: the use of CHSs (informants) by law enforcement. In this case, by the FBI. It’s a very big topic and I can only really touch on it:
Question: Why do law enforcement agencies put so much emphasis on the recruitment and use of informants?
Answer: Because informants can provide quick access to closely held information that might otherwise be difficult to practically impossible to obtain. It gets around the difficulties—even in this age of high tech law enforcement—in obtaining technical coverage of various sorts, of obtaining search warrants, or it may obviate the time and expense of surveillance operations.
Problem: Informants often to almost always have ulterior motives. They may feel they are using law enforcement just as much as law enforcement is using the informant. This problem becomes even more acute the more valuable an informant proves to be to law enforcement. Law enforcement becomes loath to let go, to doubt, the informant.
This can happen at any level. In the Sussmann trial we can see this happening at a very high level. We see just how dangerous for the FBI it was to be involved with a CHS who was also highly connected in the political world. Of course, the top FBI management was also very much involved in the political world, and Rodney Joffe was telling them (through Sussmann) things they very much wanted to hear. Now it’s coming back to bite the FBI:
…, Sussmann’s legal team also challenged the prosecution’s case by arguing that Joffe had no reason to use Sussmann to share the Alfa Bank information with the FBI. They said that was because at the time of Sussmann’s meeting with Baker, Joffe was a confidential human source, or a “CHS,” for the FBI.
Interestingly, however, while Joffe really was a CHS for the FBI—or maybe Joffe thought he had a CHS in the FBI, it’s all a matter of perception—there was confusion as to who Joffe’s “handler” was. It appears Joffe must have thought SA Tom Grasso was his handler, and told that to Sussmann. The FBI saw it differently:
However, yesterday when the defense called Grasso to testify on behalf of Sussmann, Grasso revealed that he was not Joffe’s handler. Rather, Grasso, who knew Joffe was a CHS, had a long working relationship with Joffe and believed Joffe had provided credible information in the past.
In Grasso’s testimony we learn that Joffe—no doubt, a smart guy—had obtained a fair amount of information regarding the FBI. True, some of it came from Sussmann, but it illustrates the problems involved in handling a CHS at this level. You think they’re working for you, but they have their own agenda and, uh-oh, they may even lie to you. You won’t really know until it’s SHTF time:
First, Grasso testified that “in early October 2016,” the tech executive had “called Agent Grasso and provided some information on the purported ties between the Alfa Bank/Trump Organization. Joffe further informed Agent Grasso that there was an ongoing investigation on this matter – something Agent Grasso had been unaware of up until that point.”
That testimony proves significant because it shows that within two weeks of Sussmann meeting with Baker, Joffe knew the FBI had launched an investigation into the Alfa Bank “intel,” even though FBI agents testified that they were holding the investigation “close.” The only logical explanation for Joffe’s knowledge is that he knew of the Alfa Bank investigation because Sussmann apprised his client that he had given the data to the FBI.
Grasso also testified that “Joffe specifically asked [Grasso] not to disclose his identity to other people in the Bureau.” According to Grasso, Joffe claimed he wanted to stay anonymous because “this is very sensitive information. People’s safety could be at risk.” Because of that request, Grasso did not contact Joffe’s handler to inform him that Joffe had provided Grasso supposed intel—something Grasso testified he had done in the past when Joffe gave him information.
So, who’s handling whom?
The bottom line for this case is that the FBI was dealing with a very savvy criminal organization, one that employed sophisticated lawyers who had extensive law enforcement experience and inside knowledge (Sussmann). Comey, McCabe and Co. thought they were being smart. But Clinton and Co. thought they were being pretty smart, too. Were they both right? Both wrong?