Whitey Bulger trial and the FBI: How have rules about informants changed?
James 'Whitey' Bulger is not the only one facing scrutiny as his trial begins Tuesday. So is the FBI, which infamously used Bulger as an informant for years. Today the FBI relies more heavily than ever on confidential informants, but under new rules.
For 15 years former FBI Special Agent John J. Connolly Jr. was the handler for a confidential informant known only as BS-1544-TE in bureau files, a secret identifier given to reputed Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In those years, from 1975 to 1990, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's main criminal target was the Italian mob – and Mr. Bulger, a "TE" or "top echelon" informant, was a means to that end.
So while Bulger's Winter Hill Gang allegedly continued loan-sharking, gun-running, and murdering anyone who got in their way, he and his Irish-American mob associates fed the FBI information about their competition: the Patriarca family, the New England wing of "La Cosa Nostra." In return, the FBI shielded its prize informants – Bulger and his lieutenant, hit man Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi – from state and local police investigations.
RECOMMENDED: Four of the most famous mob busts in history
Informants have played a major role with the FBI since the days of J. Edgar Hoover, breaking up spy rings, organized crime empires, and, most recently, terrorist plots. Infiltrating crime groups can be done with wiretaps or agents. Yet today the FBI relies more heavily than ever on insider "snitches" or confidential informants for details of crime group structure, methods, and murders, say criminologists and former FBI agents.
But for the G-men, relying on such informants has always been a double-edged sword. While informants trade their knowledge of labyrinthine inner workings of criminal groups to the Feds for a lighter prison sentence or even payments, those same informants may turn the tables, manipulate investigations, and subtly transform good lawmen into lapdogs or even accessories to crime.
"Informants are one of the most important tools in law enforcement today," says James Wedick, a 35-year FBI veteran who retired in 2004. "It's a good and a bad thing. We need the information these criminals provide. But we have to monitor their activity carefully and in detail. Some agents do a very good job at handling informants, while other agents just don't."
Indeed, as he comes to trial Tuesday, Bulger is not the only one facing scrutiny. So is the FBI system that once embraced his decades-long role as an informant, a system in which the bureau looked the other way on murders in order to hang onto the inside knowledge he gave it about the Mafia.
After that decades-long dance between the violent Bulger gang and the FBI agents who knew about it was revealed in 1998, lawmakers were aghast. While Bulger has been accused of participating in 19 murders, his own FBI handler was convicted in 2002 of racketeering and in 2008 of second-degree murder for leaking information to Bulger that led to a murder.
The Bulger-FBI linkup proved a bombshell for the bureau. Tough new guidelines for informants were adopted in light of the revelations, which were closely followed by congressional investigations.
"What happened in New England over a forty year period is, without doubt, one of the greatest failures in federal law enforcement history," the House Committee on Government Reform conceded in a lengthy 2004 report, "Everything Secret Degenerates: The FBI's Use of Murderers as Informants."
Under the new FBI guidelines, confidential informants undergo scrutiny for suitability before being approved and are regularly warned about limits on their authority. Informants may engage in otherwise illegal activities only as they are justified according to unusual circumstances and only after those activities are "carefully defined" and approved by Department of Justice and FBI personnel, the DOJ reported in 2005.