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  • Moral Hazard

    Posted by Jonathan on March 2nd, 2003 (All posts by )

    Former FBI agents are interviewed and defend the Bureau’s longstanding de facto practice of overlooking serious crimes, including murder, that are committed by informants.

    Several said they would never protect known killers, but others said it was defensible in some circumstances.

    “You have to weigh the odds of whether killing one or two people is better than killing a whole planeload,” said Wesley Swearingen, whose service as an agent from 1959 to 1977 included tours in Los Angeles and Chicago.

    For example, he said, agents ignored the murder of a small-time mobster by an FBI informant in Chicago in the 1960s because “the information that the FBI was getting was more important. Somebody in the mob is going to kill that person anyway.”

    The utilitarian logic here is difficult to refute, but it’s not the real point. The point is that tolerating a murder of which you have foreknowledge is not far removed morally from participating in that murder. We don’t allow government agents discretion to commit murder in situations where doing so might prevent more murders. Why then do we allow them to use informants as subcontractors to do, in effect, the same thing?
    Clifford Zimmerman, a Northwestern University law professor who studies informant practices, says it is immoral, and perhaps illegal, for agents to shrug off violent crimes.

    “They’re doing their own little cost-benefit analysis and really not taking into account, in my opinion, the damage to society that these people are causing,” he said. “Is a federal official entitled to make that decision — that one person’s life is more valuable than another’s?”

    It’s even worse than that, because the government officials who make these decisions aren’t neutral judges. They benefit from the murders but don’t pay any of the costs.