DOJ watchdog finds security risks in FBI handling of confidential sources

By Tammy Kupperman, Josh Campbell and Chandelis Duster, CNN

(CNN) –A Justice Department audit on how the FBI manages its confidential sources found security risks in the agency’s handling of communications with, and information from, its sources.

The report, released by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General on Tuesday, examined the FBI’s confidential human source validation processes, a program to vet the credibility of a source and information they provide. The audit examined information dating back to 2011, the office said. The report criticizes FBI compliance with existing guidelines for approving the use of specific sources.

The inspector general found inconsistent methods of communication by FBI agents with their sources. The inspector general notes that FBI policy recommends against but does not prohibit the use of FBI-issued devices for contacting sources, so a number of field agents use their work phones rather than communication devices and platforms that are not traceable to the government.

“Ineffective management and oversight of confidential sources can result in jeopardizing FBI operations, and placing FBI agents, sources, subjects of investigation, and the public in harm’s way,” Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in video released along with the report.

The inspector general’s office also noted inconsistencies in how different FBI field offices across the nation approached operational security in communicating with government sources. Rather than uniform policy and training applied to the entire organization, investigators discovered that whether a particular office employed sophisticated security protocols in communicating with informants was in part the result of the preferences of individual supervisors leading teams of agents.

“Without clear guidance, we believe there is increased operational security risk that could result in agents and (sources) being put in harm’s way,” the report said.

Additionally, the inspector general raised alarms about potential access to confidential source information by those without a specific “need to know” within the FBI.

“We found the FBI was not ensuring its highly classified (source) documentation was safeguarded from potential unauthorized access,” the office found. The lack of “proper safeguards” increases the “potential for unmitigated insider threat risks.”

The audit report makes 16 recommendations to tighten the FBI’s procedures, ensure compliance with guidelines, and “develop and implement” a policy for approved devices for communicating with sources. It also recommends until the FBI replaces its current system that it takes steps to restrict access to confidential source information to those with a need to know.

CNN reached out to the FBI for comment about the report and was directed to the agency’s response to the inspector general included in the report. In a letter dated September 24, 2019, the FBI said it had initiated meetings with the Justice Department about improving the process and agrees with the recommendations.

 

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