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 system.

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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