Within the last few weeks, two separate and unrelated web sites -- http://www.whosarat.com and http://www.carmichaelcase.com -- have appeared on the Internet. Both web sites provide information, including photographs, about undercover law enforcement officers and "confidential informants," or snitches. And while law enforcement sources have pronounced themselves outraged, it all appears perfectly legal.
As DRCNet reported early in August, Leon Carmichael, an Alabama man charged with money laundering and drug trafficking offenses, won a federal court case where prosecutors had sought to order his carmichaelcase.com web site dismantled (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/349/pictures.shtml). The site contains the names and photos of four informants and one DEA agent involved in the case against Carmichael, under the heading, "WANTED: Information on These Informants and Agent." The web site then lists contact information for Carmichael's attorneys and the disclaimer that the web site "is definitely not an attempt to harass or intimidate any informants or agents, but is simply an attempt to seek information."
Despite the disclaimer, federal prosecutors argued that the web site "threatened" or "intimidated" undercover police officers and informants. But US District Court Judge Myron Thompson was having none of it. Blocking Carmichael's web site violated his First Amendment rights by seeking "prior restraint" on free speech, as well as his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights to defend himself. The web site was essentially no different than "time-tested investigative techniques" such as canvassing a neighborhood, the judge held.
The web site has worked, said Carmichael attorney Steven Glasscock. "We've been getting calls with information relating to witnesses whose names and pictures we posted. That is what my client wanted: information that may prove useful in the case," he told DRCNet.
"This is like going door-to-door in a neighborhood looking for information," said Glasscock, "but now people can do it at their convenience." The informants set Carmichael up, said Glasscock, who added that there was no physical evidence against him, only the word of informants, and a tremendous asset forfeiture potential. "This is the most pernicious of cases," he said.
Then, last week, Boston resident Sean Bucci debuted his "Who's A Rat" web site. Unlike the Carmichael case web site, which is for a single case, Who's A Rat is designed to be a searchable online database allowing users around the country to post local, state and federal agents' and informants' names, pictures and related information.
Relying on the same case law that supported the Carmichael web site, Who's A Rat also makes clear that its goal is not to target law enforcement officers and their informants, but to assist attorneys and defendants with few resources as they prepare to stand trial. To that end, each listing includes the informant's or officer's full name, age, location, race and occupation; agencies he or she works for; facts that bring the subject's credibility into question; known illegal activity and criminal record, if applicable; and picture, if available. Users are also required to supply their own contact information or that of their lawyers.
"Every month, nearly 100,000 Americans are arrested on drug charges," explained Bucci in a statement this week. "What's more, there are over two million people in jail in this country because the government dedicates most of its resources to the 'drug war' -- yet drugs are more readily available and cheaper than ever. Although Who's A Rat was created to assist individuals involved in any criminal matter, we expect it will be particularly helpful to those with drug charges against them.
"Until today, many defendants had no reliable way to get information about the agents that arrested them or the informants that all too often tell outright lies in an effort to get their own criminal charges or sentences reduced," said Bucci. "Our site's extensive database will solve that problem for those who are having a hard time proving the officers or informants set to testify against them are not credible. Who's A Rat is an important resource in finding that proof."
Bucci, 31, has a personal interest in such matters. According to court documents in Boston, he faces federal marijuana distribution conspiracy charges himself in an investigation that began after he was named by a DEA informant. Bucci declined a DRCNet interview request on Wednesday on his attorney's advice, saying little more than he needed to keep a lower profile. Meanwhile, he added, his web site had 25,000 hits Tuesday and he expected 45,000 Wednesday.
The DEA is not amused. "This creates a lot of concerns for safety," said DEA spokesman Bill Grant. "If you're posting the names of DEA agents working undercover, that creates a lot of problems for their safety," he told DRCNet. "They can find themselves in very dangerous situations if their cover is blown." The DEA's chief counsel is considering a response to the Carmichael case ruling, he added.
Tough cookies for the snitches and narcs, said Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org), an attorney, who limited his concerns to the posting of inaccurate information. "If someone posted that someone was a narc and he wasn't one, now there's a definite ethical problem. And if someone were injured on the basis of that false information, you could end up as a defendant in a civil lawsuit as well," he warned.
"But if someone is serving as a snitch or an undercover agent, there is a good bit of risk involved in that kind of work, and I think they know that going in. If a person puts up a web site looking for information, it's not fair to saddle them with responsibility for that person's career choice. So I don't see an ethical problem with that. These people are worried about their ability to cross-examine the snitch, and if you don't know your snitch has been caught in lies before, for instance, that weakens your case."
One multi-narc contributor to Who's A Rat is not a defendant in a criminal case, but a Texas libertarian from The Woodlands named Brian Drake who has posted the names and personal information of dozens of law enforcement officers. "If the state is going to have databases on us," he told DRCNet, "it seems only fair that we can have a database of agents and informers as a tool for defense attorneys and defendants. I don't have a particular negative law enforcement experience, in fact I've done ride-alongs with some of these guys, but if I can open a file on them maybe people will look out for them."
"The Woodlands is a pretty quiet place, but you'd be horrified at how many drug busts there are -- it's pretty much all they have to do," said Drake, who after getting 9% of the vote in the 2002 race for local state representative as a Libertarian, has forsaken politics for a career as a mediator. "I know some of these guys, they are doing what they think is right, but they're apt to do some wrong things. If somebody moves to The Woodlands, they deserve to know whether their neighbor is out there looking to arrest them. This is a resource for people looking to stay out of trouble, not just for criminal defendants and defense attorneys."
That's just good harm reduction, said NORML's Stroup. "If someone is posting information like that for the purpose of getting facts out on the table, I think that's ethically justifiable, too," said Stroup. "People might well want to post a list of narcs so people don't get entrapped. As for risk to the narcs, well, we all know the black market is risky, so I can't imagine them not knowing the risk involved."
Information is power.