A representative from the U.S. State Department congratulates and offers a partial payment to a fully disguised informant whose information led to the neutralization of a terrorist in the Philippines
Two-page totally confidential, direct and immediate letter from the Iranian Minister of Finance to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Hossein Fatemi) about creating a foreign information network for controlling smuggling, 15 December 1952

An informant (also called an informer or, as a slang term, a "snitch", "rat", "canary", "stool pigeon", "stoolie" or "grass", among other terms)[1] is a person who provides privileged information, or (usually damaging) information intended to be intimate, concealed, or secret, about a person or organization to an agency, often a government or law enforcement agency. The term is usually used within the law-enforcement world, where informants are officially known as confidential human sources (CHS), or criminal informants (CI). It can also refer pejoratively to someone who supplies information without the consent of the involved parties.[2] The term is commonly used in politics, industry, entertainment, and academia.[3][4]

In the United States, a confidential informant or "CI" is "any individual who provides useful and credible information to a law enforcement agency regarding felonious criminal activities and from whom the agency expects or intends to obtain additional useful and credible information regarding such activities in the future".[5]

Criminal informants

Informants are extremely common in every-day police work, including homicide and narcotics investigations. Any citizen who provides crime-related information to law enforcement by definition is an informant.[6]

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies may face criticism regarding their conduct towards informants. Informants may be shown leniency for their own crimes in exchange for information, or simply turn out to be dishonest in their information, resulting in the time and money spent acquiring them being wasted.

Informants are often regarded as traitors by their former criminal associates. Whatever the nature of a group, it is likely to feel strong hostility toward any known informers, regard them as threats and inflict punishments ranging from social ostracism through physical abuse and/or death. Informers are therefore generally protected, either by being segregated while in prison or, if they are not incarcerated, relocated under a new identity.

Informant motivation

FBI Anchorage aid for assessing confidential human sources

Informants, and especially criminal informants, can be motivated by many reasons. Many informants are not themselves aware of all of their reasons for providing information, but nonetheless do so. Many informants provide information while under stress, duress, emotion and other life factors that can affect the accuracy or veracity of information provided.

Law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and others should be aware of possible motivations so that they can properly approach, assess and verify informants' information.

Generally, informants' motivations can be broken down into self-interest, self-preservation and conscience.

A list of possible motivations includes:

Labor and social movements

Corporations and the detective agencies that sometimes represent them have historically hired labor spies to monitor or control labor organizations and their activities.[9] Such individuals may be professionals or recruits from the workforce. They may be willing accomplices, or may be tricked into informing on their co-workers' unionization efforts.[10]

Paid informants have often been used by authorities within politically and socially oriented movements to weaken, destabilize and ultimately break them.[11]


A redacted version of the FBI policy manual concerning the use of informants

Informers alert authorities regarding government officials that are corrupt. Officials may be taking bribes or be participants in a money loop also called a kickback. Informers in some countries receive a percentage of all money recovered by their government.[citation needed]

The ancient Roman historian Lactantius described a judiciary case which involved the prosecution of a woman suspected to have advised another woman not to marry Maximinus II: "Neither indeed was there any accuser, until a certain Jew, one charged with other offences, was induced, through hope of pardon, to give false evidence against the innocent. The equitable and vigilant magistrate conducted him out of the city under a guard, lest the populace should have stoned him... The Jew was ordered to the torture till he should speak as he had been instructed... The innocent were condemned to die.... Nor was the promise of pardon made good to the feigned adulterer, for he was fixed to a gibbet, and then he disclosed the whole secret contrivance; and with his last breath he protested to all the beholders that the women died innocent."[12]

Criminal informant schemes have been used as cover for politically motivated intelligence offensives.[13]

Jailhouse informants

Jailhouse informants, who report hearsay (admissions against penal interest) which they claim to have heard while the accused is in pretrial detention, usually in exchange for sentence reductions or other inducements, have been the focus of particular controversy.[14] Some examples of their use are in connection with Stanley Williams,[15] Cameron Todd Willingham,[16] Thomas Silverstein,[17] Marshall "Eddie" Conway,[18] and a suspect in the disappearance of Etan Patz.[19] The Innocence Project has stated that 15% of all wrongful convictions later exonerated because of DNA results were accompanied by false testimony by jailhouse informants. 50% of murder convictions exonerated by DNA were accompanied by false testimony by jailhouse informants.[20]

Terminology and slang

"Narc (Narcotics)" redirects here. For another usage of the phrase "narc", see Drug addict.

Slang terms for informants include:

The term "stool pigeon" originates from the antiquated practice of tying a passenger pigeon to a stool. The bird would flap its wings in a futile attempt to escape. The sound of the wings flapping would attract other pigeons to the stool where a large number of birds could be easily killed or captured.[50]

List of notable individuals

By country

Russia and Soviet Union

A system of informants existed in the Russian Empire and was later adopted by the Soviet Union. In Russia, such people were known as osvedomitel or donoschik, and secretly cooperated with law enforcement agencies, such as the secret-police force Okhrana and later the Soviet militsiya or KGB. Officially, those informants were referred to as "secret coworker" (Russian: секретный сотрудник, sekretny sotrudnik) and often were referred by the Russian-derived portmanteau seksot. In some KGB documents has also been used the designation "source of operational information" (Russian: источник оперативной информации, istochnik operativnoi informatsii).[53]


Main article: Unofficial collaborator


Main article: pl:Tajny współpracownik


Main articles: Snitch Law and es:Patriota cooperante

See also


  1. ^ "informer". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 6 June 2016. 2: one that informs against another; specifically : one who makes a practice especially for a financial reward of informing against others for violations of penal laws
  2. ^ "The Weakest Link: The Dire Consequences of a Weak Link in the Informant Handling and Covert Operations Chain-of-Command" by M Levine. Law Enforcement Executive Forum, 2009
  3. ^ "Pursuing strategic advantage through political means: A multivariate approach" by DA Schuler, K Rehbein, RD Cramer – Academy of Management Journal, 2002
  4. ^ "Reading English for specialized purposes: Discourse analysis and the use of student informants" by A Cohen, H Glasman, PR Rosenbaum-Cohen, TESOL Quarterly, 197
  5. ^ "Special Report". oig.justice.gov. Retrieved 2021-01-28. According to the Confidential Informant Guidelines, a confidential informant or "CI" is "any individual who provides useful and credible information to a Justice Law Enforcement Agency (JLEA) regarding felonious criminal activities and from whom the JLEA expects or intends to obtain additional useful and credible information regarding such activities in the future."
  6. ^ Palmiotto, J., Micheal. Criminal Investigation. 4th ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2013. pp. 65–66
  7. ^ a b Lyman, D., Micheal. Criminal Investigation: The Art and the Science. 6th ed. Columbia College of Missouri. Pearson, 2010. p. 264
  8. ^ Allen, Bill Van (2011). Criminal investigation : in search of the truth (2nd ed.). Toronto: Pearson Canada. p. 217. ISBN 978-0-13-800011-0.
  9. ^ "Private detective agencies and labour discipline in the United States, 1855–1946" by RP Weiss. The Historical Journal, 2009. Cambridge Univ Press
  10. ^ "Judicial Control of Informants, Spies, Stool Pigeons, and Agent Provocateurs" by RC Donnelly – Yale Law Journal, 1951
  11. ^ "Thoughts on a neglected category of social movement participant: The agent provocateur and the informant" by GT Marx – American Journal of Sociology, 1974
  12. ^ Lactantius. "On the Deaths of the Persecutors".
  13. ^ "CIA Assets and the Rise of the Guadalajara Connection" J. Marshall – Crime, Law and Social Change, 1991
  14. ^ scc.lexum.umontreal.ca Archived 2010-11-10 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ "A Conversation with Death Row Prisoner Stanley Tookie Williams from his San Quentin Cell". Democracy Now!. November 30, 2005. Archived from the original on November 15, 2007.
  16. ^ Mills, Steve; Possley, Maurice (December 9, 2004). "Man executed on disproved forensics". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved September 1, 2009.
  17. ^ "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. CLAYTON FOUNTAIN, THOMAS E. SILVERSTEIN, and RANDY K. GOMETZ, Defendants-Appellants". Project Posner. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved May 28, 2007.
  18. ^ James, Joy, ed. (2007). Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. pp. 96–99. ISBN 978-0-8223-3923-6.
  19. ^ Berman, Thomas; Sher, Lauren (May 26, 2010). "Etan Patz Case Reopened 31 Years Later". ABC News. Retrieved July 16, 2011.
  20. ^ Stutzman, Rene (December 27, 2011). "Wrong convictions spur Florida to rethink using jail informants". Orlando Sentinel.
  21. ^ a b c "snitch". Thesaurus.com. September 2023.
  22. ^ a b Wilmer, HA (1965). "The Role of the "Rat" in the Prison". Fed. Probation. 29.
  23. ^ Orwant, Jon (2003). Games, Diversions & Perl Culture: Best of the Perl Journal. O'Reilly Media. ISBN 9781449397784.
  24. ^ "The Origin of fink 'informer, hired strikebreaker'" by William Sayers. A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews. Winter 2005 Cornell University
  25. ^ Devlin, A (1995). Criminal Classes: Offenders at School. Waterside Press. ISBN 9781906534493.
  26. ^ "The Intelligence War in Northern Ireland" by K Maguire – International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Volume 4, Issue 2 1990, pp. 145–165
  27. ^ "grass". Oxford English Dictionary. A spy or informer, esp. for the police
  28. ^ Greer, Steven C. (1995). Supergrasses: a study in anti-terrorist law enforcement in Northern Ireland. Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780198257660.
  29. ^ Chicano intravenous drug users: The collection and interpretation of data from hidden Populations by R Ramos. 1990
  30. ^ Prison patter: a dictionary of prison words and slang by A Devlin. 1996
  31. ^ "Some ethical dilemmas in the handling of police informers" by C Dunnighan, C Norris – Public Money & Management, 1998
  32. ^ "nose". Oxford English Dictionary. A spy or informer, esp. for the police
  33. ^ a b Nicaso, Antonio; Danesi, Marcel (2013). Made Men: Mafia Culture and the Power of Symbols, Rituals, and Myth (1st ed.). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-4422-2227-4. LCCN 2013006239. OCLC 1030395983.
  34. ^ Rossi, Federica (April 2021). Treiber, Kyle (ed.). "The failed amnesty of the 'years of lead' in Italy: Continuity and transformations between (de)politicization and punitiveness". European Journal of Criminology. 20 (2). Los Angeles and London: SAGE Publications on behalf of the European Society of Criminology: 381–400. doi:10.1177/14773708211008441. ISSN 1741-2609. S2CID 234835036. The 1970s in Italy were characterized by the persistence and prolongation of political and social unrest that many Western countries experienced during the late 1960s. The decade saw the multiplication of far-left extra-parliamentary organizations, the presence of a militant far right movement, and an upsurge in the use of politically motivated violence and state repressive measures. [...] The early 1980s were characterized by the appearance of the first pentiti (justice collaborators), waves of arrests and trials, and the incarceration of several hundreds of radical left activists, many of whom were sentenced to very long terms (22 years and over). According to available data, 4087 activists were detained at the beginning of the 1980s in prisons around the country, including a few hundred in maximum security facilities.
  35. ^ a b Drake, Richard (2021) [1989]. "The Blast Furnace of Terrorism: 1979–1980". The Revolutionary Mystique and Terrorism in Contemporary Italy (2nd ed.). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. p. 220. ISBN 9780253057143. LCCN 2020050360.
  36. ^ Sullivan, Colleen (2011). "Dozier, James Lee (1931– )". In Martin, Gus (ed.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Terrorism (2nd ed.). Los Angeles and London: SAGE Publications. pp. 162–163. ISBN 9781412980166. LCCN 2011009896.
  37. ^ "Speaker and Structure in Donne's Satyre" by NM Bradbury. Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, 1985.
  38. ^ "Sociology of Confinement: Assimilation and the Prison 'Rat'" by EH Johnson. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science. 1961
  39. ^ a b "Reflections on the role of statutory immunity in the criminal justice system" by WJ Bauer – Journal of Criminal Law. & Criminology, 1976
  40. ^ Natapoff, Alexandra (2009). "The Role of Rap and Hip Hop". Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. New York and London: New York University Press. pp. 135–138. ISBN 9780814758588.
  41. ^ "snout". Oxford English Dictionary. A police informer
  42. ^ "Instigated Crime" by S Shaw – Alta. LQ, 1938
  43. ^ a b "Elevating the Role of the Informer: The Value of Secret Information". MW Krasilovsky. ABAJ, 1954
  44. ^ "On Truth and Lie in a Colonial Sense: Kipling's Tales of Tale-telling" by A Hai – ELH, 1997
  45. ^ "Telling tales in school" by A Minister. Education 3–13, 1990
  46. ^ McDonald, Henry (2000-10-28). "End of 'touts' in Northern Ireland". Retrieved 2018-02-01.
  47. ^ "The murky world of informers". BBC News. 2006-04-04. Retrieved 2018-02-02.
  48. ^ Prison ministry: hope behind the wall by Dennis W. Pierce – 2006
  49. ^ "De onde surgiu o termo X-9?" (in Portuguese). Super Interessante Magazine. 21 December 2016. Retrieved 11 August 2023.
  50. ^ Fuller, E. (2014). The Passenger Pigeon. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. pp. 72–88. ISBN 978-0-691-16295-9.
  51. ^ "Lawyer X: how Victoria police got it 'profoundly wrong' with informant Nicola Gobbo". the Guardian. 2020-09-04. Retrieved 2022-08-27.
  52. ^ Ash, Timothy Garton (September 25, 2003). "Orwell's List". The New York Review of Books. Archived from the original on 2016-03-05.
  53. ^ Andropov to the Central Committee. The Demonstration in Red Square Against the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. September 20, 1968 Archived 2007-10-12 at the Wayback Machine

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