The Cost of Free Information

08/21/2014 04:22 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2014

The Drug Enforcement Agency paid over three quarters of million dollars for information that it could have gotten legally and for free. It paid $854,460 to be exact.

This money went to an Amtrak employee identified only as "secretary to a train and engine crew" for confidential information about train passengers. (Apparently, the arrangement deprived the Amtrak Police Department of the share of seized funds it is supposed to get in exchange for providing the DEA with the same information -- for free.) That is quite a bit of money for information available through law enforcement networks. This development brings up familiar themes of modern government: superfluous bureaucracy, complicated laws, and enforcement agencies that compete rather than collaborate. But there is another story -- a story that deals neither with red tape nor ineptitude, but with acquiring information.

Rather than exploring what information was available or investigating what was legal or exhausting all possible options, the DEA decided to pay for information -- for surely, the thinking goes, information that is covert is preferable, better and perhaps even more accurate than information that is open and free. The DEA is not alone in thinking this way. In 2005, Stephen C. Mercado, an analyst in the CIA Directorate of Science and Technology, wrote a groundbreaking article criticizing the CIA and other government agencies' preference for secretive rather than content-driven investigations. Favoring information gathered through back channels and paid informers, Mercado insisted, provides, at best, an incomplete picture and, at worse, leads to paying for information that is easily accessible in open sources.

The DEA clearly did not read Mercado's research, and the unidentified Amtrak employee benefited from the agency's preference for "secret" information. But the simple truth of the matter is that covert information is not always best. The DEA assumed that information that required payment would afford them some greater truth and would reveal something that they otherwise would not know. Not only was this framework of operation flawed, but it also exposed a much bigger problem. The DEA was more interested in acquiring secretive passenger information than in understanding how those "secrets" were acquired. They cared more about the covert nature of information than about its content or process.

To be sure, I am not a CIA analyst nor do I work for any spy agency. But as a historian, I am in the business of gathering and interpreting vast amounts of information. My work involves sifting through a wide variety of sources to understand how people that are foreign to me made sense of their world. In particular, I study how people acquired and thought about information in seventeenth and eighteen century America. The gulf between the South Carolina colonial officials I study and today's DEA officials is so vast that a comparison at first feels futile, especially since there are fundamental differences in the amount, speed, and type of information that circulated then and now.

But when it comes to information, colonial and contemporary officials shared many core concerns. How could information be acquired? Who was a good informant? What information could be trusted? Could information be bought? Paying for information was seen as both necessary and dangerous. Colonial officials understood that as soon as they paid for information they became doubly compromised.

First, there was the issue of the informer. Once a person had been selected to acquire news and their news had been deemed so important that it merited payment, then this informer's reports were more likely to be to trusted, even in the face of contradictory information. This is what happened to the DEA. Once the DEA empowered that Amtrak employee with collecting information, they were keen to believe and trust what he or she was telling them was not only true, but worth paying for.

Second, paid informers are often incentivized to report the type of information that whoever is compensating them expects to hear. In colonial South Carolina, English officials often relied on Indian informers to tell them of developing unrest or coming attacks. Rewarded for reporting on violent threats, they were likely to furnish the English with these types of reports, whether they were accurate or not, to receive payment. In other words, if South Carolina had relied exclusively on paid Indian informers, they would have had a very selective understanding of South Carolina. This also happened to the DEA. Dependent on a paid informant, they gained access only to a fraction of a much larger and robust information network.

I am not suggesting that government agencies not pay for information. I am simply reiterating the missed opportunities and room for error that come from privileging secret and paid information over what is open and free.

Alejandra Dubcovsky is an assistant professor of History at Yale University whose research and teaching focus on Colonial America and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.