FBI informant system called a failure
House report finds no prrof against Bulger
By Ralph Ranalli, Boston Globe Staff, 11/21/2003
Ending a two-year investigation into the 40-year history of the FBI's organized-crime informant program in New England, a congressional committee has branded the program as "one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement" and has vowed to turn its attention to nationwide FBI management practices.
The report by the House Committee on Government Reform charges that, as a result of the ultrasecret informant program, FBI agents became corrupt, encouraged perjury in death penalty cases, let innocent men languish and die in prison, and allowed people to be murdered, all in the name of protecting informants.
The report states that continued vigilance over the FBI's use of informants is essential in an era "when the United States is faced by threats from international terrorism, and a number of law enforcement tools are being justifiably strengthened."
"The results of the committee's investigation make clear that the FBI must improve management of its informant programs to ensure that agents are not corrupted," the report states. "The Committee will examine the current FBI's management, security and discipline to prevent similar events in the future."
The report also states that the committee failed to substantiate allegations that one of the probe's key witnesses, former Senate president William M. Bulger, received any favors from the FBI or used his power to punish those who investigated his informant brother, South Boston underworld boss James "Whitey" Bulger.
It does, however, allege that some of William Bulger's testimony before the committee was inconsistent with the testimony of other witnesses.
Titled "Everything Secret Degenerates: The FBI's Use of Murderers as Informants," the report also faulted the US Department of Justice for not doing more to aid the congressional probe and obstructing its work.
"Throughout the Committee's investigation, it encountered an institutional reluctance to accept oversight," the report states. "The Committee has concluded that the Justice Department failed to take responsibilities to assist Congress as seriously as it should have."
The critical report is the latest fallout from the Boston FBI informant scandal, which has been unfolding for more than five years. Related events have included the imprisonment of a decorated former FBI agent for racketeering, the release of innocent men who were wrongly imprisoned for more than 30 years, and protected FBI informants and witnesses being exposed as serial murderers.
The scandal prompted Janet Reno, in one of her last acts as US attorney general, to adopt tough new informant guidelines in January 2001. Among other changes, the new rules gave Justice Department lawyers a role in monitoring the FBI's use of informants.
In response to the report, an FBI spokesman in Washington said yesterday that, under Director Robert Mueller, the agency has not only embraced the Reno reforms, but has gone beyond them to completely "reengineer" the agency's informant programs with improved training, record-keeping, and accountability.
"When Director Mueller was brought on board, his intent was to change the direction of the FBI and move it into the 21st century," spokesman Edwin Cogswell said. "While the FBI recognizes that there have been instances of misconduct by a few FBI employees, it also recognizes the importance of human-source information in terrorism, criminal, and counterintelligence investigations."
In making its case against the FBI's past practices with informants, the 141-page report went back more than 40 years, focusing on the efforts of agents to recruit and protect informants and witnesses with violent and murderous pasts, such as underworld hit man Joseph "The Animal" Barboza.
To illustrate, the report recounted a tape-recorded conversation between Barboza and New England mob boss Raymond L. S. Patriarca in which Barboza said he planned to kill a rival by burning down his apartment building, even though the man's mother was likely to be inside.
The FBI later used Barboza as a witness to frame four men for the 1965 murder of small-time criminal Edward "Teddy" Deegan. Two of those men died in prison, while the other two, Joseph Salvati and Peter Limone, have been released in recent years after spending more than 30 years in prison. Part of the reason they were framed, the report concluded, was to protect other FBI informants.
"The use of murderers as government informants created problems that were, and continue to be, extremely harmful to the administration of justice," the report states.
While also extremely critical of the Boston FBI's use of two other informants who have been charged with numerous murders, Stephen Flemmi and James "Whitey" Bulger, the committee was less harsh with Bulger's brother William, who has long been rumored to have had a closer relationship with his criminal sibling.
The committee appeared to take at face value William Bulger's representations under oath that he did not use his power to punish law enforcement authorities who pursued his brother, or to aid FBI agent John Connolly, his brother's chief handler with the bureau.
"This is an exoneration," William Bulger's attorney, Thomas Kiley, said yesterday. "This report gives the lie to all of the street legends that people have passed along forever."
Kiley called it unfortunate that the committee spent so much time pursuing his client that it may have distracted them from their legitimate inquiry into FBI wrongdoing.
"All we are is a sideshow to a very critical report on the way that the FBI conducted its business over the years," Kiley said.
The committee report does say that it was "concerned about the factual accuracy" in two areas of William Bulger's testimony, including his assertion that he was not contacted by the FBI about his fugitive brother's whereabouts until years after he disappeared in 1995. That testimony was contradicted by the statements of retired FBI agent John Gamel, who told the Globe that he had spoken with William Bulger shortly after Whitey Bulger's indictment in January 1995 on racketeering charges.
Overall, the report called the informant scandal the inevitable result of the government's use of an "ends justifies the means" approach to law enforcement.
"No one disputes the proposition that destroying organized crime in the United States was an important law enforcement objective," the report states, referring to the use of Irish gangsters to inform on their rivals in the Italian Mafia. "However, the steps that were taken may have been more injurious than the results obtained."