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The Role of Informants and Cooperators in Federal Target Letter Investigations

The Role of Informants and Cooperators in Federal Target Letter Investigations

Informants and cooperators play a crucial role in many federal criminal investigations and prosecutions. An informant is someone who provides information to law enforcement, often secretly, about criminal activity. A cooperator is someone who has been charged with or convicted of a crime and agrees to “cooperate” with prosecutors in exchange for potential benefits like reduced charges or a lighter sentence.

Cooperators can provide critical insider information and testimony that allows prosecutors to build cases against major criminal organizations or conspiracies. Their cooperation is often essential for the government to prosecute complex white collar, organized crime, drug trafficking, or terrorism cases. But the use of informants and cooperators also involves risks and raises ethical issues that need to be carefully managed.

Why Do People Become Informants or Cooperators?

There are a few common reasons why someone might agree to be an informant or cooperator:

  • To avoid or reduce criminal charges against themselves
  • For financial compensation
  • Out of a sense of civic duty
  • To get revenge against former criminal associates

For cooperators, the biggest incentive is usually the potential to receive a reduced sentence or dismissal of charges through a cooperation agreement with prosecutors. These deals allow cooperators to exchange information and testimony for legal benefits. The cooperator must provide “substantial assistance” to the investigation and agree to testify truthfully if called upon.

Benefits and Risks of Being an Informant or Cooperator

There are significant potential benefits but also risks involved with becoming an informant or cooperator, including:


  • Avoiding criminal charges
  • Reduced sentences or dismissed charges
  • Financial compensation
  • Relocation and protection of identity


  • Retaliation from those informed upon
  • Ongoing cooperation obligations
  • Possibility of prosecution for other/perjury if cooperation inadequate
  • Stigma associated with being a “snitch”

The benefits are substantial but so are the risks. Before agreeing to cooperate, a defendant should have an experienced criminal defense lawyer help evaluate their options and negotiate any cooperation deal with prosecutors.

What Does Cooperation Involve?

If someone becomes a cooperator, they will be expected to provide complete and truthful information and testimony to federal agents and prosecutors. This can include:

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  • Submitting to debriefings and interviews
  • Wearing a wire or recording conversations
  • Participating in undercover operations
  • Testifying before grand juries or at trial
  • Providing documents and other evidence

The specific cooperation duties depend on the nature of the case and the cooperator’s role in the criminal activity. Their information and testimony must substantially assist the investigation for them to receive benefits under a cooperation agreement.

DOJ Guidelines on Informant and Cooperator Use

The Department of Justice has guidelines governing the FBI’s use of confidential informants that aim to balance the value of informants against the risks they pose. Some key provisions include:

  • Informants can only be authorized and supervised by senior FBI officials
  • Their use must be justified based on operational needs and risks
  • Informants cannot participate in acts of violence
  • Special approval is required for certain types of informants
  • Their reliability, productivity, and scope must be continually evaluated

While helpful, these guidelines still leave agents with significant discretion. There have been instances of FBI agents allowing informants to overstep boundaries or failing to properly supervise them.

Target Letters in Federal Investigations

In many federal white collar crime investigations, prosecutors send target letters to individuals identifying them as targets who are likely to be indicted. This gives the target an opportunity to cooperate prior to charges being filed. The letter typically informs the target of:

  • Their status as a target in the investigation
  • The specific crimes they are suspected of
  • An opportunity to meet with prosecutors
  • A warning that information they provide may be used against them

Receiving a target letter is obviously bad news. But it also represents a crossroads – the target can choose to cooperate and potentially mitigate their liability, or take their chances and fight the charges. Having an experienced white collar defense lawyer assist with the decision is essential.

Ethical Considerations

While informants and cooperators provide invaluable help to prosecutors, their use raises some ethical issues including:

  • They often have significant credibility problems due to their criminal history
  • They may be motivated to fabricate information for personal gain
  • Agreements can create incentives to entrap targets or lie on the stand
  • Serious misconduct by informants may be overlooked to keep them productive

These issues can be managed through careful oversight and scrutiny of informants. But there are invariably tradeoffs between the benefits informants provide and the ethical compromises required to obtain those benefits.


Informants and cooperators will continue to be a key part of federal law enforcement investigations and prosecutions. Their information shines light on criminal activity that would otherwise go undetected. But their use requires oversight, especially when cooperators exchange testimony for legal benefits. With proper precautions, informants and cooperators can significantly advance justice without compromising ethics.


[1] The Cooperating Witness In A Federal Criminal Case

[2] DOJ Office of the Inspector General Special Report

[3] The FBI’s Troubling History With Confidential Informants

[4] Informants and Cooperators

[5] Target Letters From Federal Law Enforcement

[6] Cooperation with Federal Prosecutors

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