“Whitey” Bulger: the cost of courting the mob to take down the mafia
In September of 1988 the Boston Globe ran The Bulger Mystique. The title referred to the city's famous brothers, both at the top of their fields at the time, one a prominent politician (William “Billy” Bulger) and the other an Irish mob boss (James “Whitey” Bulger)
The article chronicled local law enforcement's frustration in trying to get anything to stick to “Whitey” and an unprecedented level of fingerpointing between enforcement agencies – mostly directed at what many perceived to be an unseemly relationship between Whitey and the FBI.
Two weeks ago the FBI finally arrested Whitey – an event many hope will mark the end to an embarassing chapter for the FBI.
In 1995, seven years after the Boston Globe's revealing article and as law enforcement officials finally prepared to indict him on racketeering charges, Whitey dramatically fled Boston taking with him his mistress and leaving behind his longtime girlfriend and a slew of victims. Court documents later revealed that Whitey’s retired FBI handler had tipped him off.
In the twenty years prior to his disappearance, Whitey served on both sides of the law. He was considered by many in the FBI to be instrumental in the 1980s dismantling of the New England Mafia – the local branch of La Cosa Nostra (aka the Patriarca family). He was also named as a murderer and organised crime leader by President Reagan's 1985 Commission on Organized Crime.
Then a court decision in 1999 and congressional hearings at the turn of the millenium blew the lid off federal policies that do not quite lose their conspiracy theory glow despite their official recognition: «Federal law enforcement officials made a decision to use murderers as informants beginning in the 1960s. Known killers were protected from the consequences of their crimes and purposefully kept on the streets» - House Committee on Government Reform.
In 1975, the FBI paired Whitey, a South Boston gangster and former courthouse janitor, with Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, a longtime FBI informant and mob assassin. The two were characterized as “Top Echelon,” the FBI's highest level for confidential informants. As they rose in the ranks of the Irish mob, they fostered business relations with the Patriarca family and obtained unparalleled access to the FBI's number one target: the Italian mafia. The information they provided permitted the Boston FBI to take down three generations of the Patriarca family by obtaining surveillance warrants to plant bugs. In exchange, their FBI handlers agreed to look the other way and to “protect” Whitey and Flemmi from prosecution for their own criminal activities. Thus, as the Patriarca family was systematically weakened throughout the 1980s, Whitey’s hold on the Boston underworld grew – creating a legend of the man everyone knew was up to no good but no one could get the goods on.
Whitey recently pleaded not guilty to the nineteen charges of murder filed against him, eleven of which allegedly occurred while he was an FBI informant. At the time of his disappearance, many speculated that the FBI had as much to lose by trying Whitey as they had to gain. But with the public revelations of the past decade as well as the retirement, death or imprisonment of most of the FBI agents involved, incentives have changed. And this might be the FBI's best shot at redemption.
In October 1988, in a follow-up to “The Bulger Mystique”, the Boston Globe's Dick Lehr wrote: «[F]ormalized contact with crooks is often viewed as the trade-off in a society that, in order to secure strong privacy rights, has imposed tough controls on such intelligence-gathering techniques as warrantless searches and unrestricted police interrogations. To many police and legal experts, the question is not whether to use them, but how to manage informants so they don't eventually mark the deck in their favor. It's a high-stakes poker game».
As Attorney General in the early 1960s, Robert Kennedy set his sights on taking down organized crime. The then head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was initially reluctant to acknowledge or take action against the mafia. But when Senate testimony and an FBI wiretapping operation lay bare La Cosa Nostra's structure, erasing any doubt that it was mere myth, the FBI declared war on the mafia.
By 1968 wiretapping was legalized under the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. Two years later, the perhaps better known prosecutorial tool, RICO, was enacted in the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. RICO has often been cited as the reason for the federal government's incredible success in jailing countless mafiosi over the past four decades. But if RICO cast a wider net for federal involvement in organised crime investigations and closed loopholes that permitted mafia bosses to elude capture, it seems that electronic surveillance was at least as essential in wresting the cloak of secrecy from the mafia's intimidating grip. “Omerta” - the Italian word for “code of silence” - had until the 60s prevented law enforcement from obtaining information on the inner workings of the highly secretive organisation. As wiretapping transcripts were made public and former mafiosi among the first participants in the Witness Protection Program, the mafia's reliance on omerta began to crumble.
To law enforcement officials, there was just one problem. To obtain admissible transcripts, they needed warrants. To obtain warrants, they needed probable cause. And to obtain probable cause, law enforcement generally needed an informant who could provide reliable information on the target's location and their suspected criminal activities.
And so began a courting process. As the FBI sought to tempt well-connected criminals to gain access to the mafia's upper echelon, their incentives read like a mafia playbook: give the FBI what they wanted and in return the FBI would eliminate the competition, offer “protection” and provide cash. The FBI's chummy relationship with organized criminals was seen as a necessary evil in a larger struggle to take down La Cosa Nostra.
Accepting that the Boston FBI's aggressive and informal measures against La Cosa Nostra resulted in the inexcusable protection of repeat murderers, the failure seems like a predictable result of a system that would ask agents to develop highly secretive relationships with entrepreneurial criminals. Perhaps this was a calculated gamble on the part of the FBI. By most accounts, America's La Cosa Nostra is not as formidable as it once was. A recent article about the New England Mafia characterized the FBI's continued pursuit as chasing old men in diapers.
Some have suggested that figures at the center of the scandal might be martyrs to the FBI's cause. The FBI seemed to foster the relationship between Whitey, Flemmi and their handlers – perhaps creating the feeling that they were partners in a common cause against the Mafia. Connolly, Whitey’s handler, was eventually convicted on racketeering charges for his relationship with him under the same RICO statute he used to put away so many mafiosi. Later, he was also convicted of second degree murder for his part in the 1980s death of a man Whitey allegedly had killed to prevent him from snitching.
At Connolly's trials, the prosecution's star witnesses were some of the same convicted mobsters Connolly once used as confidential informants as well as his admittedly corrupt FBI supervisor – all of whom received some form of reduced sentence for their cooperation. Connolly maintains his innocence, calling himself “a prisoner of war”.
And it might be tempting to see these men as mere products of circumstance or soldiers to a cause. Even now, unearthing conflicting views of Whitey and Flemmi, men who are supposed to have terrorized Boston for several decades, is not difficult. Whitey, a sometimes hero in his old neighborhood, was known to give out turkeys during the holidays. Flemmi was charitable with war veteran causes and maintained many contacts with fellow Korean war vets.
But the problem with viewing their crimes as the honorable acts of men engaged in the FBI's war on the mafia is that their victims were not limited to their fellow gangsters. They also included witnesses to their crimes, legitimate businessmen and, in Flemmi's case, people with whom they had close personal relationships.
Connolly, Whitey and Flemmi seem to be men who view the world only in shades of gray. There were no lines they couldn't cross. Perhaps the FBI shared this view: Whitey Bulger was just the price paid for the New England Mafia.