Covert Human Intelligence Source

The risk from freedom of information requests - covert human intelligence sources

Many UK police services have to deal with the problem of ongoing requests from journalists under the Freedom of Information Act. While many of these journalists may be genuinely seeking information which will be of interest to their readers and which form part of living in a free and democratic society, a failure to deal with these requests in a professional manner creates a risk to both individual covert human intelligence sources (informants) and to sensitive methodology. 

North Yorkshire police recently refused a request and were very precise in their use of the correct legislation to legitimately refuse the request. Well done them!  See the following site:

https://northyorkshire.police.uk/access-to-information/foi-disclosure-log/covert-human-intelligence-source-payments-519-2017-18/

If a police service gives out to much detail it is quite possible for a person to be identified as a human source or for a person to be wrongly identified as a human source. I both such cases there is a real risk to the life of the person concerned. 

This risk is increased where journalists mount what is often referred to as a 'mosaic attack' where they send in a large number of separate requests for information in order to hide just how much information they are requesting.  If the member of the receiving police service is unaware of the nature of human source (CHIS) work or fails to identify the existence of a number of related requests then very sensitive methodology can be exposed. All the journalist has to do is put the answers from the number of requests together and put each piece in place as one would a jigsaw puzzle.This is a risk to policing throughout the UK as it is the same methodology that is used across the country. 

Police services need to recognise this risk, document it and put in place control measures to deal with it.

Managing Risk - Using a paedophile as an informant

There has been much written in the UK press recently about the use of a covert human intelligence source [CHIS]  (UK legal term for a confidential informant) in connection with a child abuse investigation.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/09/police-paid-convicted-child-rapist-10000-spy-asian-grooming/

Northumbria Police have come under substantial criticism for using a convicted child rapist to provide information on a group of paedophiles preying on young girls in the area.  18 people were convicted as a result of the investigation. 

Much,  if not all of, the criticism has been ill informed. While the specifics of the management of the human source have, of necessity for his safety, remained secret one can speak in general terms about the management of any human source under such circumstances.

When managing any human source one must balance the risks of adopting a course of action against the benefits to be gained. However, what is often forgotten about is the risk of not doing something. In this case, there were risks in managing a source who has serious previous convictions for sexual assault and this had to be balanced against the benefit that could be gained from obtaining his information namely the prevention of further sexual assaults taking place and the conviction of offenders. That in itself is a fairly strong case for using the source, however distasteful it may be. But what if we choose the path of not using the source - we accept that there is a very high probability the offending will continue and many other children will be subjected to a high degree of physical and mental harm.  We allow the sexual abuse of children to continue because we feel bad about paying someone money for information.  

Chief Constable Steve Ashman was right to authorise the use of this human source and should be praised for his robust defence of the tactic. What the public should be more concerned about is the fact that there are senior officers out there who would not authorise the use of a human source under these circumstances. Such a risk averse approach means that offending of this type which could be stopped is not stopped. 

This type of scenario is one I often raise in our training on managing risk in covert operations as it causes students to open their minds and  understand what effective risk management is about.  If you are interested in risk management training for using human sources (confidential informants) we have a two day course which covers this and many other topics and provides a robust defensible system for managing risk.   For further reading see our publication:  Invest Now or Pay Later  - The Management of Risk in Covert Law Enforcement.  If you have any comments or questions please get in touch.