Bulger's Capture Closes Difficult Chapter For FBI

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Guests

Ralph Ranalli, author, Deadly Alliance
John Gamel, former special agent in the FBI
Thomas Fuentes, former section chief of the FBI organized crime section

The FBI captured James "Whitey" Bulger, the infamous Boston mobster and former FBI informant accused of murdering 19 people. Bulger started working as a secret FBI informant in the 1970s and the case raised troubling questions about the FBI's relationship with informants.

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Sixteen years ago, a retired FBI agent told Whitey Bulger he was about to be arrested on 19 counts of murder. Along with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, the head of Boston's Winter Hill Gang vanished until last night, when an unusual public service announcement paid off.

Following quiet arrests of the couple last night in Santa Monica, the FBI's most wanted man appears in court in Los Angeles later today. By all accounts, James "Whitey" Bulger is smart, tough and ruthless. He inspired the Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese's movie "The Departed."

But the heart of the case is his relationship with the FBI. Agent John Connolly and his boss, John Morris, first recruited him as a confidential informant, protected him from police and other federal investigators and ended up on his payroll.

If you've worked in law enforcement with confidential informants, where's the line? How far is too far? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, your chance to weigh in on the president's plan to start the withdrawal from Afghanistan. You can send us email now. That address again is talk@npr.org. But first, the Whitey Bulger case. And we begin in Boston. Ralph Ranalli covered the Bulger case for a decade with the Boston Globe. He wrote the book "Deadly Alliance: The FBI's Secret Partnership with the Mob," and he joins us from a studio at member station WBUR in Boston. Nice to have you with us today.

RALPH RANALLI: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And are you surprised to finally hear the news that Whitey Bulger had been captured?

RANALLI: Well, it's always a shock when someone's been gone as long as he has, but he's 81 years old, and fugitives, even smart crime bosses, I think, tend to lose their fastball after a while. And I think that's probably what happened to Whitey. He just got old and couldn't take care of all the details anymore. So I think time, more than the FBI, really caught up with him.

CONAN: And as - we'll get to the corruption part of his case, but that time on the run, 16 years, a terrible embarrassment for the FBI.

RANALLI: Well, it really was a terrible embarrassment. I mean, his apartment in Santa Monica is only about three miles from the L.A. FBI headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, which is right next door. And the longer he was out there, the longer there was speculation that the FBI wasn't really trying that hard to find him, although to be fair, the - really, a generation of FBI agents had sort of come and gone from the days when he was really a big asset to them and less of a liability and an embarrassment.

So it was a new group of agents, but they weren't particularly successful. I have a hard time understanding all the hoopla and the people who are sort of patting the FBI on the back today. I don't see how this is much of anything but an embarrassment for them.

CONAN: And, as you said, nowhere near as embarrassing as the revelations about how the FBI treated James Bulger, confidential informant.

RANALLI: Right. He was part of an FBI program called the Top Echelon Informant Program, which was basically created by J. Edgar Hoover back when the FBI was first getting into the war on the Italian-American mafia in the United States.

J. Edgar Hoover desperately wanted to stay out of that war against the mafia as long as he could. He didn't want the FBI involved in that, because he knew his underpaid agents would be susceptible to bribery and wooing by these mobsters with their big rolls of cash. And so he didn't want any part of that. He thought, let's stay out of this as long as we can.

But JFK and Bobby Kennedy, who was the attorney general, essentially shamed Hoover and the FBI into going to war on the mafia. And all of a sudden, the FBI had to become instant experts, because the FBI - Hoover's FBI was, after all, Hoover's FBI. They were supposed to be the, you know, the be-all and end-all of law enforcement agencies, and they were supposed to know everything about everything.

So the Top Echelon Informant Program that Whitey Bulger was a part of was basically a shortcut to get the FBI from zero to 60 in its war on the mob as quickly as possible. And so what they did is they basically made deals with a bunch of top-level guys instead of the normal law enforcement, you know, method of starting with a small fish and working your way up to the big fish. They just made a bunch of deals with a bunch of big fish to get other big fish. And it was a way of playing catch-up, and it was cheating.

CONAN: Well, and they got caught, but in this particular case, they effectively made the top man in the rival Irish mob a confidential informant, and he of course told them a whole lot, almost everything he could, about what was going on with his rivals. And at the same time, they ended up protecting him while he left a string of bodies from Oklahoma to South Boston.

RANALLI: Yeah, the number of - the sheer number of murders that Whitey Bulger was involved in and the allegations of tipoffs by the FBI, by corrupt FBI agents, to people who were informing or potentially going to inform on Whitey, that's really the sort of saddest part of this case.

That - I mean, because you want to have a certain amount of faith in your government that they're not going to serve up some poor slob in order to make a case and get publicity and the headlines if that guy's likely to be killed. But there's just no doubt that that happened in this case.

And John Connolly, the FBI agent who was Whitey Bulger's primary handler, was convicted down in Florida of tipping off Whitey about a guy named John Callahan, who was going to be interviewed by the FBI, and Whitey was afraid he didn't - he wasn't going to stand up, and so they killed him.

CONAN: Joining us now from his home in Boston is John Gamel, a retired former FBI special agent from the Boston office. He worked on the Whitey Bulger case. Nice to have you with us today.

JOHN GAMEL: Glad to be here.

CONAN: And tell us what you did to investigate Whitey Bulger.

GAMEL: Well, I began working on the Bulger case in July of 1990, working with cooperating witnesses and informants and doing surveillance, all of the various pieces that are fairly common in the organized crime investigative line, so to speak.

And over the years, we worked in conjunction and sometimes in parallel to the Massachusetts State Police, the DEA and the Customs Department on this case, all with the U.S. attorney's office in Boston.

CONAN: And were you aware that Mr. Bulger was a confidential informant at the time?

GAMEL: Well, I would say that what happened was that because of the nature of informants within the FBI and the closely held - I should say confidential - identities of informants, I knew that there were people out there that had information that was going to be useful or historically useful, but I didn't know particularly until later on that he was an informant for the FBI.

CONAN: And that, effectively, people in your own office were working to make sure that your investigation never succeeded.

GAMEL: Well, you know, it's not quite that way. It's - you know, my investigation was conducted in a pretty clandestine manner up until the point where it became a little bit more overt on the organized crime squad. But the number of people who knew what I was doing in 1990 was pretty limited.

CONAN: So, anyway, you were working, another office was working at different purposes, as it turned out. And, of course, it all ended up in Whitey Bulger bolting with his girlfriend, and the difficulties, the frustration must have been terrible.

GAMEL: Well, it was pretty high, you know. And then when the various pieces of fallout started to occur in the years following, you know, and once he was gone, so to speak, he and Catherine were gone, then the frustration in not finding him was pretty high. But that didn't stop us from working extremely hard to do that.

CONAN: And I wonder, obviously, the terrible situation regarding the treatment of him as a confidential informant, that's one thing, but as you mentioned - and we talked with Ralph Ranalli a minute ago - the difficulties of catching him also a terrible embarrassment.

GAMEL: Well, you know, it - I think I would disagree some with Ralph about this, the ways in which this was conducted. The FBI has had a very intense group of people working on finding these two people, working all over the world with various leads and things of that sort. So I don't think it was age that caught up with him. I thought it was the inevitability of the fact that he was going to be making mistakes at some point and then, possibly in this instance, he stayed in one place too long.

CONAN: And what we're told is that there was a series of targeted public service announcements broadcast on programs like "The View," programs watched by women the age, the same age as Catherine Greig, and that in fact those were what turned up the telling tip.

GAMEL: That's what they're saying. I haven't heard the details yet about who actually - and if we ever will know - who actually made the tip on this thing. Was it a woman? Was it a man? Was it somebody who just saw him on the street or lived across the street or something like that? One doesn't even know yet.

CONAN: Well, somebody may collect $2 million. That was the amount of money for the arrest of - reward for the arrest of Whitey Bulger.

GAMEL: Yeah, and another $100,000 for Catherine.

CONAN: So somebody, it sounds like it, is going to collect that money. As you - do you end this day with some satisfaction?

GAMEL: Well, you know, when I got that phone call at 1:20 this morning from a local television station in Boston telling me that he'd been captured, I frankly was not surprised because my phone never rings in the middle of the night. So I knew exactly what it was when that phone rang, you know, at 1:20 a.m.

CONAN: Either that he'd been captured, or perhaps he died.

GAMEL: Yeah, something like that, yeah, one or the other.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

GAMEL: Glad talking with you.

CONAN: John Gamel, former special agent in the FBI for 16 years in Boston, former supervisory special agent for six years in that city, as well, joining us from his home there.

We're talking about the capture of Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger and the difficult relationship he had between - with the FBI and the often-difficult relationships between informants and law enforcement. When we come back, former FBI Assistant Director Thomas Fuentes joins us to talk about the bureau's relationship with informants and how it's changed as a result of the Whitey Bulger case. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. James "Whitey" Bulger was known as the Irish godfather of Boston. He spent years on the FBI's Top 10 Most Wanted List. If you're just joining us, last night the FBI caught up with him in California after 16 years on the run.

During the 1970s, while Bulger allegedly ran gambling and drug rackets and ordered and committed murders, he acted as an informant for the FBI. For the most part, he ratted out members of rival gangs and was eventually tipped off by his FBI handler that he was about to be arrested.

It raised all sorts of troubling questions about the relationship between law enforcement and informants. If you've worked in law enforcement and with confidential informants, where's the line? How far is too far? Give us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is former Boston Globe reporter Ralph Ranalli. He went on to write the book "Deadly Alliance: The FBI's Secret Partnership with the Mob." And also joining the conversation is Thomas Fuentes, who served as section for the FBI Organized Crime Section from 1997 to 2002. He retired from the FBI in 2008 as an assistant director. Nice to have you with us today.

THOMAS FUENTES: Thank you.

CONAN: And obviously working on organized crime cases often means working with unsavory characters.

FUENTES: Yes, it does.

CONAN: And if you are trying to get information on people, well, like the Italian mob in Boston, do you go immediately to the Irish mob, to their rivals?

FUENTES: Well, not necessarily immediately. But you're going to try to determine which people can give you information about the criminal activity. And, you know, the old expression that Boy Scouts don't make good informants is really true. You need to find people that have inside information of what's occurring, what crimes are being committed, who the criminals are.

In organized crime, the objective is to identify the structure and the scope of criminal operations, and in order to do that, you're going to need confidential information provided by people who have that direct knowledge, who are inside the organization to some level.

So yes, there's an element of making a deal with the devil, and it's a very difficult, fine line to have enough of a relationship to get the information but not so much that you become - you know, create an unholy relationship with the informant.

CONAN: Well, part of the problem is if they have that information, presumably they are criminals, too, and involved in criminal enterprise.

FUENTES: Well, that's true.

CONAN: And how do you draw the line between wait a minute, should I arrest you for what you're doing, or would you tell me please about what your rival is doing?

FUENTES: Well, there's - you know, the number of pages in the guidelines book, you know, are huge to determine what is crossing the line, what is the greater good. If you have an individual involved, let's say, in nonviolent crime, maybe he's a gambler or something like that, and he's going to give you information which can lead to arresting and convicting murderers, you know, you're trying to balance that. And that's - that has to be determined by the - you know, by management if possible.

CONAN: And when it's - you're protecting, as it turns out, an alleged murderer, that - well, that crosses a line.

FUENTES: Well, it crossed the line in this case, but you have to understand that what John Connolly was doing was certainly not in compliance with FBI policy or guidelines even at that time, even without changed guidelines. You know, you have a rogue agent who himself was a criminal. And the FBI investigated Connolly, and Connolly was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

So this is not your garden variety FBI agent-informant relationship.

CONAN: Ralph Ranalli, Connolly grew up with Whitey Bulger.

RANALLI: Well, I mean, he grew up in the same neighborhood. There's really no evidence that he was a childhood pal. They were different ages. They weren't really contemporaries. There's sort of apocryphal stories about them bumping into each other, but the evidence suggests that it was a much more clinical relationship than that, much more - one that was just simply advantageous to both parties.

But I would like to weigh in on this whole issue of guidelines and the Connolly case being some sort of an aberration. I mean, the research that I did for my book - and a lot of this was later incorporated into actually a move under Attorney General Janet Reno to redo the guidelines.

A lot of the research that went into my book found that the Connolly case was almost inevitable, given the way that this FBI informant program was set up. It was shrouded in secrecy. There was very little effective supervision of agents who were running informants.

Agents were incentivized, the agents who had the big informants were incentivized to keep them and keep them productive, including incentivized with sort of career enhancements and cash bonuses. And there was no effective controls that would sort of create an automatic balancing test that once an informant was accused of committing murder, there was an automatic review.

A lot of times, these sorts of reviews just didn't happen, and you had a system that operated in secrecy and incentivized agents basically to keep informants as productive as possible.

The Reno guidelines, the new guidelines, took a lot of that - those incentives out.

CONAN: You're referring to Janet Reno, the former...

RANALLI: Janet Reno, the former attorney general, ended some of that career-bonus kind of incentive program stuff and required more candor on - and more supervision on behalf of the agents.

But then you immediately had agents, and even in some cases some FBI supervisors, complaining that the new rules were too onerous. And I think, you know, as a consequence of September 11th, a lot of that was simply sort of abandoned or forgotten. I think, you know, my fellow guest can, you know, inform us a little bit more on what exactly is the status of the guidelines right now.

CONAN: Thomas Fuentes?

FUENTES: Well, I actually don't want to get into the details of the exact nature of the rules that are required right now. But I can say that the supervision is supposed to be in place. And - but there's only so much you can do when you have an agent having a direct personal relationship with an informant.

You know, under the modern guidelines, meetings are supposed to have two agents present. Payments are supposed to be witnessed by a second agent. A supervisor is supposed to personally meet that informant on a periodic basis, I think every six months now.

So there are some management, you know, efforts to try to rein in the possibility of somebody going bad, but the truth is that if you have a rogue agent, who in fact himself is a criminal - be rare - but if you have that, there's going to be almost nothing that you can do completely to stop it while it's in progress, until after the fact.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Nancy(ph), Nancy's on the line with us from South Miami.

NANCY: Yes, thanks for taking my call. I was very interested in this subject. About 30 years ago, I was already a lawyer, but I became a police officer with a well-respected agency. And at one point, I was assigned to guard a CI. And it developed in the course of doing that that the CI was involved with sex and obtaining drugs from her controlling agent, and she also faked a suicide and was injured. And I think they picked up the medical bills. I'm not really sure.

And the other piece that I think is probably quite common is I ended up in trouble with the agency because I called the situation to their attention. And it led to a lot of trouble. I mean, the investigation went on for a really long time, and I think this was the period that your guests are talking about.

There are a lot of incentives where the controlling law enforcement officer - these are expensive investigations. Once you have a CI, there's a real reluctance to let them go. There's a real feeling that you've got to kind of cover up for them.

The reference to Janet Reno's guidelines, too, I think that's very appropriate, and she came to that conclusion, I'm pretty sure, because of her experience as the state attorney in Dade County, where I am.

CONAN: But just remind us, you say you were guarding a special informant, a confidential informant, and her handler was involved sexually with her and providing her with drugs, and you informed on him, and you got in trouble?

NANCY: Right, well, I informed on her. As it turned out, I signed an affidavit in defense of another agent who the CI had accused of some kind of improper behavior, and one of the things I said was this was no kind of CI. I'm not sure what her information was. But I talked about the drugs and the alcohol, the sexual relationship, the - you know, her general lack of cooperation with the guarding and so on.

And that ended up - little did I know, that ended up casting aspersions on her reliability as a witness.

CONAN: Oh, I see. So that's why you could - you're getting a whole case in jeopardy at that point.

NANCY: Exactly, exactly. But that was the point. How is it - how did she become the central figure of this very expensive investigation? And it shows how important it is, I think, in light of what your guests are saying, in Janet Reno's guidelines of how you have to keep reassessing this and how you have to keep bringing in fresh eyes, for example, the idea of having a second person there when you pay them and so on. I understand at some level you have that.

But when you get into these big investigations - because this was one with wiretaps and so on and so forth. As they become more expensive, there is a risk that you're going to let the CI control the investigation instead of the officers controlling the CI.

CONAN: Oh, I just want to clarify one thing. You clearly don't want to say what agency it was. Can you say it was not the FBI?

NANCY: It was not the FBI.

CONAN: All right. Just wanted to clarify that. Thanks very much for the call, Nancy. Appreciate it.

NANCY: Thank you.

CONAN: And Thomas Fuentes, bureaucratic inertia is what she's talking about can also be as much of a factor?

FUENTES: Yeah, but I've not experienced bureaucratic inertia when it comes to that type of an issue. That would be aggressively investigated. The Connolly matter, when it came to light, was aggressively investigated and eventually he went to prison. So I think that the idea that that would be covered up is not a normal situation.

Also, I'd like to clarify something just from a strategy standpoint. You know, it was made to sound as if - that maybe in the old days, the top echelon program 30 years ago or 25 years ago, the goal was to have great informants and you would be rewarded and promoted and get incentive rewards for great informants. The rewards in the FBI are for lawful convictions of gangsters, of dismantling criminal enterprises.

And if you look at what the FBI has done in the last 30 years overall, not just an anomaly case like Whitey Bulger, but overall, during that period, dismantling America's La Cosa Nostra, the American mafia, at the same time - and other groups that were here, like the Westies in New York or the Winter Hill Gang, but also preventing Chinese, Russian, Albanian, African, Vietnamese criminal groups from gaining the same foothold in the United States that La Cosa Nostra had, that was able - that it was able to gain, controlling labor organizations and industries and having politicians, even senators and congressmen, in their hip pocket.

Those days were over and that was largely a result of FBI investigations with Department of Justice prosecutions. Now, in the FBI, those successes are the result - most convictions are the result of electronic surveillance, of wiretaps. The ability to get a wiretap requires the probable cause that's going to be furnished usually by a criminal informant. So you need wiretaps to get convictions. You need informants to get wiretaps. You need people on the street trying to develop informants in order to obtain the use of them.

Now, an additional guideline, if I could add, is to tell an informant, if you do criminal activity and you're not authorized to do it by us, you will be arrested. You will be convicted. We will not come to your aid. And that's something - that warning or admonition has to be given to an informant on a regular basis. It's documented. It goes into the informant file and should be witnessed by a supervisor or a second agent when it's done. And that's a key issue.

In order for a criminal informant to actually be able to engage in criminal activity, he has to be authorized. And that authorization comes from the FBI. It's reviewed by management. Often reviewed by the U.S. Attorney's Office and, of course, it'd have to generally - you don't have them engaging in murder conspiracy or things like that, but you're letting them get a little bit into the organization, as far as into the criminal conversations, into the discussions, and then provide that information so that you can disrupt the act before it actually occurs, before someone else gets hurt.

And the number of times that that's been happened, the number of situations that I was personally involved in where confidential information by an informant that was allowed to be in the discussions where they were plotting to kill somebody enabled us to know who they were going to kill and oftentimes when and where and how and then the FBI was able to step in and prevent the actual murder. So again, the idea of informants being off to do whatever they please is just not the situation.

CONAN: Former assistant director of the FBI, Thomas Fuentes. Also with us, Ralph Ranalli, author of "Deadly Alliance: The FBI's Secret Partnership With The Mob." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's talk to Greg(ph). Greg with us from San Francisco.

GREG: Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

GREG: Yeah, I'm a retired special agent from an agency not of the FBI, but I have worked in taskforces with FBI informants. And I came in from the mid '80s, just retired last year. And the way the Feds have handled informants have changed radically since I started. And much of what your callers say is true and much of it is the result of rules that came along through one problem after another.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. So trial and error.

GREG: Yes, yes. But it's - until recently - and I still believe that, you know, as of last year, informants are absolutely critical to - typically to an agent's career and their evaluations, especially the first 10 years of their careers.

CONAN: So if you're going to succeed, you better have developed a few.

GREG: Absolutely. And you absolutely have to have them if you - especially if you work in narcotics, but also other areas. And your supervisors tend to very aggressively push you to use them. And that causes a lot of problems in the past. Plus the old traditional thing you see in the movies and TV about just being so seductive, it's a seductive life, that informants can often introduce you and expose you to.

CONAN: Were you tempted?

GREG: No, I wasn't, but I've avoided major league celebrity informants, partly for that reason. And a wise older agent who wants to stay well within the ethical, you know, side of things tries to change their career so they can get out of the informant business.

CONAN: Greg, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Ralph Ranalli, I will give you the last word. The other callers suggest that this is hardly a problem that was exclusively at the FBI.

RANALLI: No, it's a situational problem and it's the way the system's set up. And if you are a part of a very important investigation, an informant that - a very important investigation is relying on you - in Boston, they actually bugged a mafia induction ceremony using information from these top echelon informers. That had never been done before and that was a huge victory for law enforcement. So there's tons of pressure, be it the FBI, DEA, ATF, local law enforcement agencies to keep these informants productive.

And if - and are you going to give them up to derail a case just to be a Boy Scout? That's - that was the crux of the problem, is that no one was willing to derail a case just to be a Boy Scout. And people - innocent people got killed because of it.

CONAN: Ralph Ranalli's book is "Deadly Alliance: The FBI's Secret Partnership With The Mob." Thanks very much for your time today.

RANALLI: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Also, our thanks to Thomas Fuentes, section chief at the FBI's organized crime section and later, assistant director. Thank you for your time today, too.

FUENTES: You're welcome.

CONAN: This is NPR News.

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