Mike Barnicle

Jimmy Bulger: Fox in FBI coop

By Mike Barnicle
Globe Columnist / June 24, 1997
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If Louis Freeh, head of the FBI, thinks the bureau had a headache after Waco, wait until he discovers how many naive dopes he had working as agents here in Boston. Why, Freeh's squash will be bigger than the Goodyear blimp with this migraine because it appears that for years a crook turned his cops into informants.

The entertaining story begins long before Judge Freeh got the big job running the bureau. It starts about 25 years ago with a bunch of obsessed Irish FBI agents thrilled at the prospect of arresting almost any Italian at all.

Then, the FBI sought desperately to put Jerry Angiulo, and anybody who had ever nodded to him on Hanover Street, inside federal prison until they rotted. Of course, the government had a significant advantage in this war on the Mob: Angiulo and his men were merely bragging morons with bad tempers who lacked the self discipline to keep their faces shut.

To real police, this fatal flaw would have been enough. But because the FBI for decades sought to portray itself -- through the media, through movies and through constant propaganda eagerly consumed by a public that grew up on myths of Dillinger and communists -- as infallible, the bureau constantly required more material to prop up its image and grab gangsters so dumb they often held the keys to jail in their own hands.

So the FBI went out and retained an army of confidential informants to help catch their splendid prize, this Angiulo. Among those enrolled as Junior G-Men was Jimmy Bulger, today a fugitive.

According to observers at federal court, the Bulger file has been in the Justice Department through the terms of several United States attorneys. It is stamped ``T.E.'' for Top Echelon status.

Reportedly, one of the former US attorneys who learned of it was William F. Weld. James ``Whitey'' Bulger's alleged role as informant was, according to sources, revealed to Weld years ago when he sought sophisticated electronic surveillance on Bulger but was told the bureau did not tap active informants.

Jimmy Bulger is many things. Stupid is not among them.

Now while a federal judge, Mark Wolf, tries to peel away several layers of secrecy in order to find out who is lying more -- the good guys or the bad guys -- the foundation of prior convictions quakes beneath the possibility of perjury having been committed by those sworn to uphold truth: Government lawyers who may have said the Mafia had to be tapped because there was no other way to get them. This is called ``lying people into jail'' and it can happen when arrogant prosecutors feel their cause is so just that any means necessary to achieve it -- including deception or omissions under oath -- must be tolerated.

The FBI figured Bulger was their prize source on all things criminal, locally. What the FBI apparently did not factor into that lame equation was Bulger's cunning. According to sources, the man has his own tapes -- years' worth -- of FBI agents supplying him with more critical information than Bulger ever gave the bureau. This is a classic case of an informant being cute enough to end up actually handling his own handlers.

There were times when Bulger would arrive, electronically wired, for a meet with an agent assigned to gather intelligence (and that is a truly ludicrous word when employed in this scenario) from him. Perfect irony, tapping the tappers.

The entire spectacle has marvelous potential. It is loaded with the possibility of deep embarrassment and perhaps worse for the government, for the FBI as well as for a few former Justice Department lawyers. The government might see some convictions tossed out. The FBI could be put on display as an agency easily conned, and some lawyers might have to explain what they knew about the role of confidential informants and when they knew it.

And the tale is also a tribute to the power of charm. Jimmy Bulger, enmeshed in a bad business as his chosen career, had the capacity to be enormously charming at times. Certainly, his personality and demeanor were far more entrapping and seductive to Irish FBI agents than to complete thugs named Salemme, Angiulo, Ferrara or Carozza, which explains why, whenever the FBI would be be told the truth by the State Police or Boston cops, some agent would always say, ``Hey, Jimmy's not a bad guy. We know him.''

Well, judgment day is close at hand. And the Justice Department might soon have to stand in open court and explain how it was that the FBI became thick as thieves with a fugitive they only thought they knew.

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