From a $5,000 bounty on Jesse James in the 1880s to the $25 million reward for Osama bin Laden today, authorities have dangled cash to catch people accused of big crimes.
The principle remains the same: Money talks.
Over the years, the government has doled out millions to motivate people to turn in everyone from tax evaders to international terrorists. But the $25 million offered for bin Laden is in a new league.
Terrific money for an American, it’s an almost unfathomable sum in Afghanistan, where per-capita income runs about $200 a year. It’s equal to nearly 10 percent of U.S. humanitarian assistance planned for the entire country this fiscal year.
While the chances of a government reward actually paying off are generally low, prospects are somewhat better in terrorism cases.
“Pretty much the only place where a reward works is in the area of terrorism,” said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. That’s because terrorists’ associates aren’t apt to help out without financial incentive.
The government’s biggest reward payout so far: $2 million to the unidentified informant who in 1995 helped the government find Ramzi Yousef in Pakistan. Yousef was convicted of leading the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Other big reward offers: $5 million for former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and other senior officials indicted for war crimes; $2 million in the Oklahoma City bombing; $1 million still available for Eric Rudolph, wanted for the 1996 Olympics bombing and other crimes; $1 million for Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and $1 million for Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega.
Of those, only the Unabomber reward was paid because the other fugitives now in custody were captured principally without informants.
The notion of people turning one another in for cash dates to ancient times. The Bible says Judas Iscariot collected 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus Christ.
“It’s been going on forever and ever,” said Gilbert Geis, a criminology professor emeritus at the University of California at Irvine.
Until a few weeks ago, the most the government could offer was $5 million, but the new anti-terrorism law boosted the limit to $25 million. This week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell signed the authorization for that amount to be applied to bin Laden and other top al Qaeda leaders.
Even before that, the Defense Department was dropping leaflets in Afghanistan and airing broadcasts dangling the $25 million.
The full $2 million payout in the Yousef case was a rarity. It turns out there’s plenty of fine print attached to government rewards.
Often, criminologists say, tipsters get only a small portion of the money offered, depending on how big a role their information plays.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stresses the reward for bin Laden is “up to” $25 million.
Mr. Levin said rewards can be particularly effective in terrorism cases because those with critical information often “are themselves terrorists or they’re citizens of some other country who feel no allegiance at all to the United States.”
State Department officials say their “Rewards for Justice” program has paid out $8 million in 22 cases over seven years. The government won’t discuss specifics on who got what for fear of endangering informants. The money isn’t just for bounties on criminals: It also can be used to reward tipsters whose information helps prevent planned acts of terrorism.
Since September 11, the program has received 22,000 tips related to terrorist attacks, most through e-mail and telephone calls, but Mr. Boucher said none of the tips so far has produced a concrete result.
Criminologists caution that a big reward can also create big headaches.
“It brings out the pathological liars and those who would give us false leads and fabricated information,” Mr. Levin said.