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Globe editors explain decision to name Bulger tipster

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / October 11, 2011

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Boston Globe editors said yesterday that they decided to identify the woman whose tip led to the capture of fugitive gangster James “Whitey’’ Bulger after concluding that the public interest served by publishing the full story of his arrest outweighed concerns for her privacy - and that she would not be put in danger.

In a front-page story published Sunday, the Globe named Anna Bjornsdottir, a native of Iceland who lived near Bulger in Santa Monica, Calif., as the anonymous tipster behind the FBI’s capture of Bulger in June. She received $2 million for the tip.

The revelation was part of a story, written by reporters Shelley Murphy and Maria Cramer, that chronicled Bulger’s life in hiding and the circumstances that led to his stunning arrest. It detailed how Bjornsdottir befriended Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, and bonded over a stray cat.

It promptly drew criticism from some quarters, including a front-page story in the Boston Herald, that the paper put Bjornsdottir’s safety at risk.

Editors who oversaw the Globe story said they deliberated at length over whether to print her name, but were ultimately convinced that doing so posed no danger. It had already been widely reported that the tipster was from Iceland, making her identity clear to many neighbors in Santa Monica, including Bulger and Greig.

“We were confident Whitey Bulger and Cathy Greig knew exactly who the tipster was,’’ said Jennifer Peter, the Globe’s deputy managing editor for local news. “We asked people directly involved in the investigation if she would be in danger if we named her. No one told us she would be in danger at all.’’

Globe editor Martin Baron said the paper had learned “from a variety of sources’’ that Bulger would certainly have known the tipster’s identity already.

Murphy said that she told representatives at the FBI and the US attorney’s office before the story ran that the newspaper was considering naming Bjornsdottir, and that neither agency raised concerns about her safety.

Bulger, a longtime FBI informant, fled shortly before a 1995 federal racketeering indictment after being warned by a corrupt former handler that charges were looming. He is now being held without bail on charges of killing 19 people.

Bulger’s former associates cooperated against him after it was revealed he had been informing on his friends, as well as Mafia rivals, for years.

Globe editors said that identifying Bjornsdottir served a vital public interest - rebutting rampant speculation that the FBI had invented the tipster.

“The only way to document that there was a tipster was to identify the tipster,’’ Baron said.

Given the FBI’s corrupt history with Bulger, and the public’s deep skepticism around their efforts to find him, editors said it was critical to set the record straight.

“There have been so many deceptions and lies in the past,’’ Peter said. “In order to provide a definitive story, and tell the story as it actually happened, we had to name her. If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be a credible retelling of how Bulger was arrested.’’

Still, a number of readers were unconvinced. Many who called the Globe yesterday and wrote comments about the story on denounced the newspaper’s decision.

Some thought the disclosure could lead to retaliation, while others thought it would dissuade other tipsters from notifying law enforcement.

“Does she not realize the risks involved here?’’ asked one. “Whitey Bulger was a mass murderer.’’

“You feel it’s OK to print the name of the person who gave the anonymous tip to the FBI that finally caught this mass murderer?’’ another asked. “Where is your sense of decency?’’

Some thought the tipster’s desire for privacy should have been respected, regardless of the intense interest in the subject.

“I don’t mind the Globe tracking her down to ask if she wanted to tell her story, but when she so strongly declined that should have been the end of it,’’ one wrote.

Dan Kennedy, a media writer and assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, said the newspaper could have informed readers on Sunday that reporters notified law enforcement before publishing the tipster’s name, and made it clear Bulger almost certainly knew who she was.

“I would have liked to see that yesterday,’’ he said, referring to Sunday’s paper.

Kennedy added that “it ought to be rare when we place privacy concerns over newsworthiness.’’

Murphy said she made repeated efforts to tell Bjornsdottir about the story, and to give her an opportunity to comment. When approached by a Globe reporter in July and again last month, Bjornsdottir ran inside her Reykjavik apartment.

In an e-mail to Murphy, her husband said Bjornsdottir valued her privacy.

The Globe reported these efforts as part of the Sunday story.

In a Sept. 20 e-mail, Murphy said she told Bjornsdottir and her husband that the Globe was preparing to identify her as the tipster, and that she hoped to speak with her about any concerns she might have. She did not respond.

On Friday, Murphy said she sent a final e-mail telling her the story was about to run. Bjornsdottir again did not respond.

Although Bjornsdottir seemingly made it clear she did not want to be identified, editors decided that her pivotal role in apprehending one of the country’s most wanted fugitives outweighed her desire for privacy.

“In the end we believed that was the most important thing to do,’’ Peter said. “Our primary interest was the importance of knowing how the FBI came to apprehend Whitey Bulger.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globepete.