Last spring, one small corner of the political world burst into blood-red turmoil. Well, you might think, there’s nothing new about that. Turmoil pretty much defines politics, especially on its fringes where this disaster struck. But this was unusual: A young libertarian activist was revealed to be a police informant.
By the time her (now former) friends caught her at it, she had talked three of them into committing felonies. I won’t type her name; she’s had her 15 minutes of notoriety and deserves to be forgotten. But here are the basics.
This young woman, a student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, thought she could be an anti-drug-war activist and at the same time make a little money selling club drugs—ecstasy and such. Little did she know one of her customers was an undercover cop. Pretty soon she was sitting at the police station trying to talk her way around multiple felony charges.
The cops did what cops do to naive kids who are inexperienced with the justice system—they scared her, then they pretended to befriend her, then they rolled right over her. It took about six hours. A trip to Dunkin’ Donuts was involved (seriously; they took her out for donuts).
That quickly, hoping to save her own skin by skinning her pals, she was on the streets trying to get friends into trouble. She succeeded at the latter—three friends fell victim to her ruses and committed drug crimes at her behest before she was outed. But she failed utterly at saving her own skin. She had never gotten any guarantees from police or prosecutors. They judged that she hadn’t given them enough help—and as of this writing, she’s facing 13 felony counts.
The only things that make her story unusual are that she was Ms. Middle- Class, a rising activist, and such a spectacular hypocrite that she blogged about her snitching, whining that she was the real victim and that her former friends should have stood by her.
Unfortunately, the snitch culture she joined is common and catastrophic.
I don’t know how you regard the drug war. I personally think it’s a waste, a destroyer of freedom, and does more harm to families than any drug it claims to fight—including the horribly dangerous meth.
Even if you think it’s a war worth fighting, there’s no doubt that the snitch culture fostered by the War on Drugs is corrosive, tragic—and spreading. It’s a culture of lies, corruption, and mistrust that now infiltrates society far beyond the world of drug users.
Let me be clear. When I’m talking about snitches, I’m not talking about good citizens who report murder or theft. I’m not talking about people who testify against violent criminals (unless they’re also violent criminals hoping to stick all the responsibility on some other guy). I’m talking about people who rat out their own non-violent associates, snoop into other people’s harmless business, or actually concoct plots to entrap the unwary.
Forget the drug war. Literally nobody is safe from the horrible effects of snitching nowadays.
One perfect example of this horror was covered in this column in the March 2011 issue of S.W.A.T. I’m talking about the case that became known as the Africa Sting. At the time that article appeared, at least one friend of S.W.A.T. and 21 other innocent businessmen and women faced multiple federal charges of conspiracy and bribery. Eventually, all 22 (including three who panicked and pleaded guilty) were exonerated— but not until they’d lost their jobs, businesses, and reputations. Not until some sold their homes to pay legal costs. Not until some spent time in hellish jails. And it was all done at the hands of the FBI and a criminal named Richard Bistrong, whom Britain’s Daily Mail calls a “cocaine-addled stool pigeon.”
Bistrong had gotten into real legal trouble by violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. To reduce his own prison sentence, he agreed to drag random associates into his web. Bistrong and undercover FBI agents assured the marks—all legitimate defense contractors, mostly small businessmen—that they should participate in a (fake) deal to sell firearms and equipment to the government of Gabon. The deal was completely legal. They lied. They said it was approved by the U.S. State Department. It simply required a 20% “commission” (the word “bribe,” let alone “illegal bribe,” was never mentioned) to be paid to a representative in Africa.
Naively, the 22 fell for it. Not only that, but most accepted invitations to a party to celebrate the deal. That’s where the conspiracy charges came in. Yes, because they went to a party together. Now they’re stuck attempting to rebuild their lives.
This is hardly the only time federal prosecutors have blown millions of tax dollars on a snitch-based case that simply fell apart. A few years ago, the IRS, FBI, and DEA landed hard on successful hip-hop music producer Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo, claiming that his whole operation was nothing but a front for laundering drug money. And how did they know that? They had persuaded a whole series of dubious “cooperators” to say so.
These snitches simply made up fanciful stories, like one about drug money being dragged into the record company in garbage bags. In all the vast, costly preparations for their case, investigators never conducted the basic investigation that would have told them Gotti’s company was legitimately funded by other record labels! All they would have had to do was subpoena the information. Or even just ask. But since they had “cooperators,” they didn’t bother. The defense demolished the prosecution’s lying witnesses, and Gotti was acquitted.
Well, that’s government as usual. But sadly, you don’t even have to be falsely accused to be hurt by snitch culture. Every victim of a violent crime also suffers.
The combination of snitches and ready money given by the feds for drug arrests and drug-war fighting equipment has led to an enormous drop in the number of violent crimes that get solved. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1976 (early days of the modern drug war), 79% of all U.S. homicides were cleared by an arrest. By 2005, that had dropped to 62%. How many families are forced to live in fear because police and prosecutors are taking the easy road, using snitches and federal funds to bust drug suspects rather than investigating violent crimes?
Even within the drug war, it’s hard to say that snitching truly “works”—if by “works” you mean delivers justice. When people are arrested for drug crimes, it’s standard to offer them sentence reductions for snitching on associates. But who has the most information to trade? The people at the top of the heap, of course—the ones the media like to call kingpins, the ones the Mafia would call capos.
So prosecutors encourage and enable legal atrocities like the one committed against Texas grandmother Elisa Castillo. Did she take part in a scheme to smuggle cocaine from Mexico? Seemingly, she did. However, she was at the bottom of the organization. She never even saw the drugs. She certainly didn’t kill or rob anybody. But when the ring got busted, she knew so little that she had no information to trade. Today, Castillo—a grandmother and first-time offender—is in prison for life. She’s serving a longer sentence than many notorious drug lords.
And her story isn’t unusual.
In and outside of the drug war, informants are often scummier than those they rat on. Richard Bistrong is one example.
Here’s another. Joshua Allen Jackson is a guy you wouldn’t want your daughter to date. He’s currently in prison for holding an 18-year-old woman as his sexual captive. Before that, he had a long history of abusing women, including making threats to torture and kill their family members. And all the while he was running around loose? He was an informant for the Bureau of Alco-hol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which even kindly paid for the motel room where he held his victim captive.
On the other hand, many snitches are just busybodies and fools who might be harmless if they weren’t being encouraged by various government programs. Take what happened to blogger “ToddG” of the website pistol-training.com.
Like a lot of you, he orders big bunches of ammo. One day the truck driver who delivered a shipment became suspicious, thanks to endless “See something, say something” propaganda. Shortly thereafter, ToddG came home to find business cards from an FBI agent and a local detective. The driver had sicced the feds on one more perfectly innocent man. ToddG had to go through the trauma of a false accusation, explain his legitimate ammo purchases to law enforcement, and waste otherwise valuable investigative time and money.
In light of this past summer’s most high-profile mass ammo purchasing event, expect much more of this snitching on “suspicious” activity to occur. And who can say how much ammo or how many guns your friendly delivery men may consider worthy of reporting to the authorities?
The guy who comes to fix your phone could be a snitch. The clerk at the surplus store. Your banker. The guy who gives you your latest tattoo. And they could report on you for perfectly innocent activities.
In fact, both the FBI and DHS actively encourage them to do exactly that on the thinnest of pretexts. You paid cash. You bought too many MREs. Or someone you’ve known and trusted all your life is pressured to lie to save his own skin.
And remember, innocence may not help you. Not if the lies or entrapment schemes are good enough. Not if you lose your reputation, livelihood, and life savings defending yourself.
The old Soviet Union and East Germany learned the hard way where snitch culture leads. Given the horrors of their history, some former communist countries now strictly limit the use of snitches and agents provocateur—at the very time the “Land of the Free” is embracing these rats in multitudes.