Web site identifies undercover agents, informant 'rats'
There are three "rats of the week" on the home page of whosarat.com, a Web
site devoted to exposing the identities of witnesses cooperating with the
government. The site posts their names and mug shots, along with court documents
detailing what they have agreed to do in exchange for lenient sentences.
Last week, for instance, the site featured a Florida man who agreed in
September to plead guilty to cocaine possession but not gun charges in exchange
for his commitment to work "in an undercover role to contact and negotiate with
sources of controlled substances." The site says it has identified 4,300
informers and 400 undercover agents, many of them from documents obtained from
court files available on the Internet.
"The reality is this," said a spokesman for the site, who identified himself
as Anthony Capone. "Everybody has a choice in life about what they want to do
for a living. Nobody likes a tattletale."
Federal prosecutors are furious, and the Justice Department has begun urging
the federal courts to make fundamental changes in public access to electronic
court files by removing all plea agreements from them -- whether involving
cooperating witnesses or not.
"We are witnessing the rise of a new cottage industry engaged in republishing
court filings about cooperators on Web sites such as www.whosarat.com for the
clear purpose of witness intimidation, retaliation and harassment," a Justice
Department official wrote in a December letter to the Judicial Conference of the
United States, the administrative and policymaking body of the federal court
In one case described in the letter, a witness in Philadelphia was moved and
the FBI was asked to investigate after material from whosarat.com was mailed to
his neighbors and posted on utility poles and cars in the area.
The federal court in Miami has provisionally adopted the department's
recommendation to remove plea agreements from electronic files, and other courts
are considering it and experimenting with alternative approaches.
Judge John Tunheim, a federal judge in Minneapolis and the chairman of a
Judicial Conference committee studying the issue, acknowledged the gravity of
the safety threat posed by the Web sites but said it would be better addressed
through case-by-case actions.
By ADAM LIPTAK, THE NEW YORK TIMES
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