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"He gets all of $1,100 over a year and a half, and he doesn't even want that," Loveseth says. "Doesn't really sound like an experienced drug broker, does it?"
The DEA works with 4,000 "confidential sources," to borrow its preferred term for informants, the vast majority of them ex-cons who turn to snitching to reduce their prison terms. Paying "retired" criminals to catch active ones, if an ethical compromise, reflects the blunt logic of the narc business, says Dan Addario, former special agent in charge of the DEA's San Francisco office. "You don't get information on dope dealers from rabbis, priests, and ministers. You need a crook to do the job." As for an informant's training, it largely consists of reading and signing a 15-page agreement -- a kind of snitch's code of conduct -- that, among a litany of admonitions, warns against committing crimes to obtain information. In practice, the rule proves far more elastic.
"An informant might have snorted coke with a defendant," says a DEA agent who asked not to be named, fearing reprimands from higher-ups. "But if he helped bring in a guy who delivered large amounts of coke and the jury buys the story, it's the lesser of two evils."
The task of leashing confidential sources -- monitoring their contact with investigation subjects, corroborating the information they provide -- falls to 5,300 case agents, who first learn the tricks of snitch management at the DEA's training academy in Quantico, Va. Once assigned to a field office, they pair with a senior agent experienced in the ways of the street -- or, at least, that's the official line.
In recent years, Addario says, the DEA has nudged aside snitch-savvy veterans in favor of Ivy League technocrats who, while adept at intelligence gathering, "have never worked the streets or made a narcotics buy. You have to actually handle an informant, not read 9,000 books on it."
Michael Levine, a retired New York DEA agent and an expert witness on informant conduct, argues that the department's credibility has withered as agents, ever eager to bag criminals, allow snitches to stray. "There's a lying sociopath running the case and he's saying, 'What is it you want to hear, Mr. Agent?'" Levine estimates that informants broke the law in over half of the 200 cases in which he's testified, their offenses ranging from entrapment to witness intimidation. "And it all stems from poor control by the agents," he says.
Bareng, who did not respond to interview requests, worked as a jailer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department before joining the DEA in 1996. He had supervised four other informants by the time he began handling Magid in 1999, and he has testified that Magid ranks as his most productive confidential source. Yet the Ismael case suggests that Magid's "success" may derive in part from an absence of agent oversight.
Court records reveal that Magid, flouting a DEA policy that discourages unsupervised contact between informants and targets of an investigation, met or spoke with Ismael on no fewer than 16 occasions, belatedly briefing Bareng or other supervisory agents about what allegedly occurred. "Sixteen times," says Loveseth, shaking his head. "That's sixteen times when the agents don't have a fucking clue what happened and have to take the guy's word for it."
Records show that Magid repeatedly fed information to DEA agents based on his untaped conversations with Ismael, creating the impression that Ismael initiated deals on his own. In one instance, he claimed that Ismael wanted money for introducing Magid to Sampson, yet when Bareng asks his price, Ismael says, "I don't care. It doesn't matter." Magid displayed similar solo tendencies while an informant with the FBI in 2002. According to a source familiar with the case, Magid had unsupervised contact with the subject of an investigation in Stockton and, over time, coaxed him to work as a snitch -- a scenario that loosely parallels Ismael's charge of Magid baiting him with the possibility of a government job.
Under federal statute, prosecutors can withhold such mundane details as an informant's name and age, to say nothing of past misconduct, from defense lawyers until the accused opts to go to trial. The dearth of information, coupled with the severity of drug-sentencing laws, compels most defendants to cut their losses and plead guilty. Prosecutors, meanwhile, have their own reasons for pressing plea deals -- they know the dangers of putting a rat on the stand. "It's like handling explosives," says former federal prosecutor Rory Little, a professor at Hastings College of the Law. "You're always worried someone's going to stumble and it's going to blow."
Even if a case moves toward trial, however, a snitch's history can remain buried. Earlier this year, Jorge Alvarez-Marroquin faced a jury on charges of possessing and distributing meth as part of a Fresno drug ring. The testimony of a federal informant helped convict him, and he received a 15-year sentence. The snitch's name? Essam Magid.
Prior to trial, John Garland, Alvarez-Marroquin's lawyer, sought information about Magid from federal prosecutors, who provided a copy of a letter written by the acting agent in charge of the DEA's San Francisco office. "The DEA is not aware of any information negatively impacting Mr. Magid's ability to testify accurately and truthfully," the letter stated, "and he is regarded as credible and reliable."