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FBI violating informant guidelines

Inspector general finds 87 failure rate

The US Department of Justice announced yesterday that the FBI has continued to violate informant guidelines adopted several years ago amid public condemnation over its mishandling of notorious Boston gangsters James ''Whitey" Bulger and Stephen ''The Rifleman" Flemmi.

A review of 120 confidential informant files at a dozen of the nation's FBI offices, including Boston's, found that agents failed to follow the rules in 87 percent of the cases, according to a 301-page report by Glenn A. Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general. The review was conducted between June and August 2004.

'These numbers are just extraordinary, and they're damning," said US Representative William D. Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat who participated in Congressional hearings investigating the FBI's relationship with Bulger and Flemmi.

''I think what they mean is legislation is now required to ensure compliance," Delahunt said yesterday. He said that he and US Representative Daniel E. Lungren, a California Republican and a fellow member of the House Judiciary Committee, will file a bill mandating that the FBI follow the guidelines and include sanctions for agents who do not.

The report cited agents' failure to report illegal activity by informants; failure to obtain authority to let informants engage in illegal activity such as buying drugs during investigations; failure to evaluate informants for suitability to work with the FBI; and failure to document when informants were deactivated, the report said.

Fine concluded that the violations were caused by inadequate training, a lack of administrative support for agents, and a failure of management to hold supervisors accountable for lack of proper oversight to handling agents.

According to the report, FBI director Robert S. Mueller III ''told us that he frequently hears agents complain about the burdensome procedures for opening and operating informants."

The report also cited ''lingering differences" between the FBI and the Department of Justice over how informants should be handled.

Tougher guidelines adopted in May 2002 -- aimed at preventing the cozy relationship that developed among Bulger, Flemmi, and their FBI handlers -- required the FBI to share information on informants with other agencies, including federal prosecutors.

The FBI in Washington released a statement yesterday saying that many of the recommendations in Fine's report have already been adopted or are under review as part of a project launched several months ago between the FBI and the Justice Department to revise its Confidential Human Source Program.

The project aims to simplify and standardize administrative procedures, clarify compliance requirements, and improve compliance with the attorney general's informant guidelines, according to the statement.

Delahunt said he will push for legislation that goes even further than the current informant guidelines, to include a provision that requires the FBI to notify state and local law enforcement officials if they learn that an informant is involved in criminal activity.

Retired FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. was convicted in US District Court in Boston in May 2002 of racketeering, obstruction of justice, and related charges for warning his longtime informants, Bulger and Flemmi, to flee just before they were indicted on federal racketeering charges in January 1995. Bulger, who has since been charged with killing 19 people, remains a fugitive.

Connolly, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison on the federal charges, was indicted earlier this year on state murder charges in Miami in allegedly plotting with Bulger and Flemmi in 1982 to kill a potential witness against them, John Callahan, a Boston financier with ties to Bulger's gang. Connolly is awaiting trial.

Flemmi, who pleaded guilty to killing 10 people and is serving a life sentence, is now cooperating with the government and is slated to testify against Connolly in Florida.

The FBI's relationship with Bulger and Flemmi was exposed during pretrial hearings in US District Court in 1998, which led to Congressional hearings and the overhaul of the informant guidelines.

Former US attorney Donald K. Stern, who helped US Attorney General Janet Reno revamp the older guidelines, said yesterday he was disappointed by the number of violations cited in the report by Fine, the Justice Department's internal watchdog. ''It was clear from the efforts to get the guidelines changed that this was to some degree a significant shift in attitude and culture that would be required at the FBI," Stern said, ''because for so long the handling of informants was their domain, and they didn't have to share the responsibility or get any oversight outside."

But he said it is important to give the FBI the training and oversight it needs to comply with the guidelines because the previous system did not work.

''If you just assume that everything is OK because the line agent or the immediate supervisor says it is, you're going to have problems," Stern said. ''And as we've learned from the Bulger and Flemmi case, those problems could have disastrous consequences."

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