ATF’s management of high-risk informants lacking, audit finds

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives mismanages its highest-risk confidential informants, according to a federal audit released Tuesday.

The ATF employed more than 1,800 informants between 2012 and 2015 to gather intelligence, however, some carried higher levels of risk than others — due to their senior ranking positions in criminal organizations, for example — and required special permission before working on behalf of the agency.

An audit conducted by the Department of Justice’s office of inspector general shows this procedure — established by the attorney general’s guidelines for handling informants — wasn’t followed.

Guidelines specify the Confidential Informant Review Committee must provide written approval for the use of high risk informants, though the agency told auditors the committee never conducted such business during its meetings.

Review of the agency’s records identified 20 active informants who qualify as “high risk” whose files had not been reviewed by CIRC, according to the audit.

“Although the determinations not to categorize these CIs as high-level were made by ATF’s field divisions, ATF headquarters lacked an efficient mechanism for identifying, tracking, and reviewing these decisions,” the audit reads.

Another category of high risk informants includes those serving longer than six years. Audit findings show field offices sometimes deactivated these informants just before reaching their sixth consecutive year of service, only to see the informant reinstated a few months later.

Auditors also noted 8 percent of the records pulled from the National CI Registry System were missing activation dates, making the task of identifying informants for CIRC review impossible.

“We are concerned that this decentralized process and ATF’s insufficient CI information environment did not provide an adequate level of accuracy for identifying CIs requiring CIRC review,” the audit reads.

Auditors also identified issues with the frequency and work load of CIRC meetings. The OIG analyzed three meetings scheduled between December 2015 and April 2016 in which the committee only issued decisions on five of the 25 long term informant files up for review.

“While we acknowledge the need for the CIRC to be thorough and to obtain all relevant information to make an informed decision, we believe that, taken together, the irregular meetings of the CIRC and the inefficiencies we witnessed during the meetings have combined to create an unnecessarily drawn-out process for providing oversight of long-term Cis,” the audit concludes.

The ATF agreed it should “develop an improved procedure to convene the CIRC” when necessary.

The agency also committed to creating a tool within its Confidential Informant Master Registry and Reporting System to identify high-risk informants in need of CIRC review.