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How Whitey Bulger corrupted the good guys

Author T.J. English condemns the broken US justice system – and particularly its reliance on criminal informants – but says reform is possible.

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Here’s one way to tell that author T.J. English may be America’s top chronicler of organized crime: Even the bad guys read his stuff.

Like Boston mobster and murderer Patrick Nee, who talked to the author after reading one of his books about the Irish mob in New York City. And a fellow mobster by the name of Whitey Bulger who kept English’s follow-up book on a shelf in his Southern California apartment.

Bulger won’t be skimming the true crime section at Barnes & Noble ever again. He’s behind bars for good as his crimes continue to fascinate journalists and filmmakers, including those behind the new Johnny Depp film “Black Mass.”

English, who attended every day of Bulger’s 2013 federal trial, wants to expose the truth behind the mobster’s case. But he has bigger prey than one prominent killer and his criminal colleagues. In his fascinating new book, English indicts the federal criminal justice system in New England, accusing it of enabling an entire era of murder and mayhem.

Thoroughly gripping and thoroughly depressing, Where the Bodies Are Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him is a disturbing and addictive read. In an interview, English expands on the roots of the legal system’s corruption, points to the “original sin” behind endless injustice, and offers some hope about the future.

Q: What were the roots of the shocking level of corruption in law enforcement exposed by the Bulger case?

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover denied that there was anything such as a mafia hierarchy. Then he was made to look foolish in 1963 when Attorney General Robert Kennedy put Joseph Valachi, a top Mafia member, in front of a congressional committee. [Valachi testified about Mafia life and rituals.]

It was riveting, unprecedented, and televised live. Now, the Mafia was front and center in the public imagination.

The FBI had created the Top Echelon Informant Program, developing informants who were actual criminals out on the streets. The program was riddled with problems. It empowered the swaggering, street-smart agent who could go out and enter into relationships with gangsters. The agents who were good at that played loose and fast, and were willing to cut corners in the interests of creating these relationships.

They were allowed to exist in a gray area. They weren’t well supervised, and there wasn’t a lot of accountability. The emphasis was on results, with the ends justifying the means.

Q: You write about how the FBI framed four innocent men for a murder they didn’t commit in order to protect an informant. What should we think about that?

It’s a shocking fact even to this day that the FBI not only knew that the perjury was taking place, they helped it happen. It was authorized all the way up the chain of command to J. Edgar Hoover. That’s the dirty little secret which I refer to as the original sin. It became the mandate of the criminal justice system that the secret should never be known.

Mobsters Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi became custodians of this dirty history, and they entered into a pact to make sure this history was never revealed. That’s one of the reasons the government was so adamant about protecting them. If they were exposed as informants, the scab would be ripped off this history.

Q: What’s wrong with the rationale that the ends justify the means, that using these informers helped to get more violent crooks off the street?

Quite often the criminal winds up being more manipulative and wily than the agents, and the criminal gets more out of it than the agents. And you have blood on your hands if you’re protecting informants who are still killing people on the street. The consequences of it are quite devastating and have been devastating.

Q: Is there a way to use informants that doesn’t cause so much havoc?

I’m not fully condemning the use of informants. But there has to be supervision and accountability. That’s what’s lacking in these cases. The use of informants is allowed to exist in a murky, gray area.

A lot of this happened due to human failings. But the system is supposed to have built-in checks and balances

Q: Are there heroes in this story? 

It’s a depressing story because the people who are being cited for corruption and enabling are the good guys.

There are some people who heroically tried to go against the tide. There were agents and officers who were suspicious of what was going on and tried to do something about it, but they got crushed.

Q: Isn’t it good news, however, that the Mafia has been eradicated in New England?

It was eradicated, yes, but it was eradicated in other major cities too through criminal prosecutions or the assimilation of Italian-Americans. You have to ask about the cost. The reputation of the justice system in New England has been severely damaged, and it will take generations for it to recover.

Right now we seem to be caught up in the cult of Bulger, the fascination with him. It’s a fascinating story, but the legacy will also be the degree to which he was an extension of the corruption of the system.

Q: Is there reason for hope?

I don’t think lessons have been learned, and I think the system has remained largely unexamined.

But the reason we know what we now know about all this is because light has been shed through courtroom cases, journalistic investigations, and books. It’s been laid out on the table. We now have an opportunity to examine the system and make changes.

There needs to be reform of the system, and an independent body that deals with issues of the government’s use of informants and its abuse of those relationships.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned, the system is not capable of correcting itself internally. It needs to be monitored.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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