Attorney General Michael Mukasey asked longtime federal prosecutor John Durham to investigate the CIA interrogation tapes case last week. Known as a tough and tenacious prosecutor, Durham may be best known for the role he played in one of the most somber moments in FBI history: the arrest and conviction of a former agent for ties to the mob.
The agent was John Connolly, a highly regarded investigator in the bureau's Boston office, who was credited with helping lead the Boston FBI's battle against the Italian mafia. Connolly's responsibility was to manage high-ranking mob leaders like James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi. He persuaded them to become informants and to rat out leaders in Boston's Italian mob.
But Connolly got too close to them and was eventually convicted of racketeering; prosecutors said he had effectively become a member of Bulger's Winter Hill gang. He's now serving a 10-year prison sentence. Durham prosecuted him.
Durham had worked with the FBI for years, prosecuting organized crime cases in Connecticut when former Attorney General Janet Reno asked him to look into the unusually close relationship between the mob and the FBI in Boston. Durham led a special federal investigative task force that brought a few convictions, including that of Connolly.
"Durham had a very strong case on John Connolly," said Samuel Buell, a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked with Durham on the Bulger cases. "He was clearly the most culpable individual involved in this."
Durham's task force had managed to convict a very powerful former senior FBI agent of racketeering and obstruction of justice.
"That is unprecedented," Buell said.
From the start, there was always the question of how deep and how far the corruption ran through the ranks of the city's law enforcement. Prosecutors said there were other agents and police officials involved, but just who else was involved never came to light. The task force eventually convicted just three people: Connolly, a cop on the Boston police force, and a state police officer — one person from each branch of law enforcement thought to be involved.
Questioning Prosecutorial Zeal
Durham's detractors, like former FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick, who was in charge of the organized crime squad at the Boston Field Office at the time, say that Durham pulled his punches.
"We're left with the fact that Connolly did the whole thing. I find that ludicrous," Fitzpatrick said. "I can't live with that. I can't live with the fact that Connolly was the only guy involved. So we put Connolly in jail and the whole thing is over? I just don't believe that."
At the time, even U.S. Attorney Mike Sullivan seemed to suggest that Connolly would be only the beginning of something bigger.
"Connolly was not alone in mishandling of informants and assisting them in carrying out these crimes," he told reporters at a press conference after Connolly's 2002 conviction.
But the other shoe never fell. Connolly was the only agent Durham ever convicted. Another agent died while awaiting trial and another, Connolly's boss, was given immunity in exchange for his testimony against Connolly.
Durham promised a report detailing what he found, but it was never released. In fact, the Justice Department won't even confirm that they received it. Durham's office in Connecticut declined to talk about the case, or the CIA investigation he has just started.
Reputation for Being Apolitical
Boston Police Detective Frank Deewan was in charge of the department's intelligence squad at the time. He says there could be lots of reasons why the report never surfaced.
"Perhaps there are things that could not be corroborated that would smear people," Deewan said. "Perhaps the statute of limitations had run out on people. You just don't know what is behind the scenes."
The unreleased report aside, Durham's reputation in Boston was that he wasn't political. He went where the facts led him. During the Bulger investigation, he discovered secret FBI documents that indicated four men had been framed for murder and wrongly imprisoned. He turned the documents over to their lawyers. A civil suit followed. The families of the men won a $101.7 million judgment against the government. Deewan says that bodes well for the CIA investigation.
"John is a fine investigator and a man full of integrity," Deewan said. "What he finds, he'll go after, and if it is not there, he won't go after it. I think he'll do things right down the line."
Where everyone agrees is that Durham has his work cut out for him. His latest case is about more than just the CIA possibly obstructing justice. Durham and a team of FBI investigators will end up putting the Bush administration's terrorism strategy under a microscope.
The FBI has been saying for months that harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, don't work. Now they are launching an investigation that may testify to that. Durham will be in the middle of a classic inside-the-Beltway political case.
"Nothing gets dirtier and uglier than Boston politics," Buell said. "The Bulger and Connolly matters were all tied up with Boston politics, both within law enforcement and state government. Durham was able to navigate his way through that, so I don't think there will be anything about Washington that will catch him unawares."
Both civil liberties groups and members of Congress cautiously welcomed Durham's appointment. But what they really wanted was an independent prosecutor. Durham won't be independent. He will be reporting his findings to the deputy attorney general at the Justice Department.