Safety, Training Lapses Endanger FBI Undercover Agents, Watchdog Says

By Matt McClain / Washington Post
The exterior of FBI headquarters in 2015.

When FBI agents go undercover, they need to know they are backed by a well-functioning system to protect their personal and operational security.

But the Justice Department’s Inspector General says that security could be compromised by bureaucratic and other issues that potentially endanger agents and their cases.

A redacted inspector general’s audit says training for undercover agents is inadequate, some undercover activities are not tracked and a program to evaluate an agent’s compatibility with undercover operations “is overworked, under-resourced, and unable to assess UCEs (undercover employees) in a timely manner.”

Furthermore, in the December report the inspector general’s office says it “identified risks resulting from certain tradecraft challenges that we believed were significant,” warning “poor tradecraft can lead to important investigations, including national security investigations, being compromised,” which could also “jeopardize the lives” of FBI agents and others.

Another potentially compromising factor, not covered by the inspectors but cited by a former FBI undercover supervisor, is the “cavalier” attitude some agents can develop toward the rules of engagement.

The good news is “we found that the FBI is directing its undercover operations resources to the highest priority threats,” Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a statement. “However, we also identified several aspects of the program that should be improved.”

Troubling aspects cited in the report include:

– Training. Undercover applicants go through a training and certification process, but after that they are not required to take advanced or refresher courses. “All FBI staff must employ proper tradecraft to prevent exposure,” the inspectors said, calling for a comprehensive training plan for initial undercover certification plus continuing education. Currently, training deficiencies “are broad and may impact FBI operations beyond” undercover activities.

– Tracking. Short-term undercover operations are not tracked, “so the FBI does not have any data on how often these activities occur and for what purpose.” Also, “during our audit, several FBI officials told us that oversight of [redacted] undercover activities is minimal.”

– Backstopping. This term refers to the need to provide agents the goods and services to make their undercover operations realistic to criminals. “You have to backstop false identifications,” said Dennis Lormel, president of the Society of Former Agents of the FBI. Unfortunately, the FBI Stagehand program, which backstops undercover operatives, doesn’t control staffing at its regional locations, the inspector general found, “resulting in Stagehand not being able to ensure the staff at the regional locations have the needed experience and qualifications.” More than a phony driver’s license, these “covert assets” can include money, the creation of sham companies to support an undercover narrative and bogus bombs to fool suspected terrorists. Because of the lack of tracking, the report found, “the FBI does not know how many times, if at all, [redacted] operations were compromised due to poor backstopping.”

– Safeguarding. The FBI’s Safeguard Unit was designed to preserve “the safety, security, and psychological well-being of personnel” on clandestine duty. But now it serves more than undercover agents. While Safeguard’s responsibilities have expanded to include other employees, the unit’s resources have not. Reviews by the inspector general’s office and the FBI’s Inspection Division found the growth in agents served was done “without a corresponding increase” in staffing, resulting “in a decrease in the efficiency and effectiveness of the Safeguard Program, which presents a risk to the safety and overall well-being of the agents the program is designed to protect.”

FBI headquarters agreed to all 10 recommendations from the inspector general’s office.

The last agent killed while undercover was Chuck Reed in 1996, according to the inspectors. It’s a story that tragically demonstrates the need for safeguarding and backstopping.

Reed “agreed to meet with the subject of an investigation in an undercover capacity,” according to the inspector general’s report. “The Philadelphia Division did not thoroughly backstop Special Agent Reed’s legend, and the subject of the investigation discovered that the registration of Reed’s car did not match his driver’s license. This led to an argument and, ultimately, a shooting that cost Special Agent Reed his life.”

There also are more undercover success stories than we know.

A 2019 operation thwarted a scheme by an Atlanta-area man who planned a terrorist attack against the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty and a synagogue. After being confronted with evidence gathered by an undercover agent, the suspect pleaded guilty. The FBI also learned of a man who sought “to join a Pakistani terrorist organization and carry out shootings, bombings, and beheadings on its behalf,” the inspectors wrote. An undercover agent and the suspect agreed on a plan for the man to travel to Pakistan, but he was arrested at the airport. He started a 15-year prison sentence in 2020.

Lormel was involved in numerous undercover operations during his 28 years with the bureau. He welcomed the inspector general’s report as a way of getting an “independent look” at undercover operations. However, “I get the impression that they lacked any experience in actual involvement or understanding of what the undercover process is,” he said. “So, they looked at it more from an audit perspective than a practical perspective.”

From his practical experience, he knows that in addition to any bureaucratic problems, personal issues can make undercover operations go astray. At times, undercover agents “may get a little cavalier in their roles and get cavalier about … the administrative requirements.”

Lormel recalled supervising an agent that he had to pull from a corruption sting that required paying off a county judge. Lormel was concerned that his colleague was “losing perspective” on “what his function is” as a law enforcement officer. Lormel is adamant that undercover employees must be “extremely disciplined … you have to follow the precise script. And if you deviate from that … you’re jeopardizing our ability to conduct these investigations.”

Blowing an undercover operation, for whatever reason, can have serious consequences.

Separately from the inspector general’s report, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2017, wrote the FBI about a whistleblower who alleged that “every single investigation or criminal prosecution” in a Miami undercover operation “between 2008 and 2011 was compromised, and the identities and sensitive information of FBI undercover agents were disclosed to foreign governments.” The FBI did not respond to questions about Grassley’s letter or the inspector general’s report.

During her 35 years with the FBI, including undercover work involving drug cartels in Miami, Nancy Savage dealt with “hairy situations.” The bureau, however, was “very concerned about my safety and did a lot of things to protect me in a lot of different ways as best they could.”

Now, as executive director of the former agents society and past president of the FBI Agents Association, Savage praised FBI Director Christopher A. Wray for being “very, very, very attentive to agent safety.”

But it’s always a risk, carefully calculated and consciously accepted.

“Yeah, it’s dangerous,” she said, adding “you’re out there protecting American people … you know what you sign up for.”