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Life as an informant: ‘Folks end up getting burned’

Sometimes, things don’t end well for informants.

Air Force Office of Special Investigations agents “have no authority to protect any of their sources, who are usually already in trouble or labeled as misfits or as a troublemaker,” retired Capt. Christopher Nelson, a former OSI agent, told Air Force Times in a Dec. 4 interview.

Agents may make promises they are incapable of keeping, such as offering a lesser penalty for the informant’s own misconduct or a chance to stay in the Air Force when facing a discharge, Nelson said.

“More times than not, they’re [OSI agents] not telling the truth,” he said. “If anything, OSI prolongs an informant’s career so they can use them longer. Folks end up getting burned.”

If discharged, informants usually return to their home of record, he said.

The informant program allows Air Force investigators a way to infiltrate criminal activity without being on the inside or going undercover, Nelson said.

“As long as you treat them right, you can get sources for years,” Nelson said.

But, he said, that doesn’t always happen.

OSI colleagues who worked drug and sex crimes often targeted lower-ranking enlisted airmen as informants — usually senior airmen or, in some cases, staff sergeants. They are easier to find and often more pliable than senior non-commissioned officers and officers,he said. They are also more likely to live in dormitories, where any drug activity on base is likely concentrated.

“For the most part, these people aren’t advised of their rights well,”Nelson said. “Even if they are, they’re advised of their rights by someone who doesn’t know the intricate dangers of doing that kind of job. The senior officership often will not go out on a limb unless he’s personally involved in a case or has an interest in covering his own reputation and record.”

Law enforcement officials routinely lie to criminal suspects, said Greg Rinckey, a former Army judge advocate general now in private practice, who was part of multiple cases in which confidential informants were used.

“It’s completely legal,” Rinckey said in a Dec. 4 interview. “Police officers can lie when you’re being questioned. They can say, ‘Hey, we’ve got your buddy and your buddy just ratted you out, so you might as well spill your guts.’ It doesn’t have to be true.”

That’s why it is vital to consult a lawyer before agreeing to be an informant, he said.

“A lot of times, people who become confidential informants are scared,”Rinckey said. “They are approached and told you can go to jail for many years, we have you dead to rights. It scares them into becoming a confidential informant.

“Anytime the government wants to talk to you, it’s always best to invoke and say, ‘You know, I don’t feel comfortable, and I want to talk to a lawyer.’ That can’t be used against you. As a defense attorney, I’m always shocked how many people confess to a crime. They think, ‘If I confess, it will get better.’ Confession is really only good for church,” Rinckey said.

Rinckey said he was involved in cases while in the Army in which informants were used in drug cases to prove someone was a drug dealer. But he finds the case of former Air Academy cadet Eric Thomas disturbing.

“What’s different in this case is using classmates of other cadets. I think it’s very disturbing the way this confidential informant was treated. It’s something that should be investigated.”


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