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This next story is a reminder that in law enforcement, the good guys often have to rely on bad guys, confidential informants. Many of the best informants are ruthless criminals. And while their information helps the FBI to crack cases, the practice of using these informants is fraught with risk. And that risk is where we begin a series this morning on confidential informants. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been looking at the FBI's confidential informant program, and this morning she'll report on how a single case in Boston changed the way that agents work with criminals.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Crooked agents in league with the mob boss is the FBI's worse nightmare. But that's exactly what happened in Boston in the 1970s. The godfather of the city's Irish mob, Whitey Bulger, became a confidential informant for the FBI, and in the process managed to corrupt two agents - John Connolly and his boss, John Morris. Jim Ring was a supervisor in the Boston FBI office at the time.

Mr. JIM RING (FBI Agent): I was asked a question at the trial - civil trial - in which I was testifying, what was my first reaction when I heard that John Morris admitted taking money from them. My answer was: I started to throw up.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI's unholy alliance with Whitey Bulger all started with a meet at Wollaston Beach on Boston's South Side.

(Soundbite of waves)

TEMPLE-RASTON: It was 1975, and FBI agent John Connolly had asked Bulger to meet him at the beach parking lot, just a short walk from the housing projects in Southie where the two men had grown up. It was late at night. No one was around, and all that could be heard were waves slapping on the shore. Connolly had driven to the beach in the middle of the night to convince Bulger to become a top echelon informant. That's someone who provides the FBI with first-hand information about high-level organized crime figures. Connolly didn't think Bulger would rat out the Irish mob, but he did get him to agree to provide information on the rival Italian mafia. That meeting was the beginning of the relationship that would end up fundamentally changing the FBI's confidential informant program. From the moment Jim Ring heard Connolly was working Bulger as an informant, he was worried.

Mr. RING: I told him information goes one way. Informants are not consultants, they're not friends; they're informants. The agent remembers that and treats them accordingly.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But the information didn't go one way. For almost 30 years, Connolly and Bulger had an unholy alliance. Bulger provided tips that helped the FBI dismantle the Italian mob, and Connolly protected Bulger from investigations by the FBI and other agencies. He needed to keep Bulger out of jail so he could keep getting tips from him. Valerie Caproni is the FBI's general counsel.

Ms. VALERIE CAPRONI (FBI General Counsel): I think what the Whitey Bulger case was it really shined a light on the relationship between the bureau and informants. They are killers, they are liars, they're cheaters, and those are the people who are our informants. And so I think in part the problem with the Whitey Bulger case was people looked at the relationship and were appalled.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The case rocked the FBI to its core. The wave of negative publicity forced the Justice Department to take a hard look at the use of informants and how agents dealt with them. That review produced a set of guidelines that agents say are so strict, they gut the program.

Mr. BARRY MAWN (Former FBI Assistant Director): The unfortunate thing I think is that whenever you have something like this, there tends to be an overreaction.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Barry Mawn is a retired assistant director at the FBI. He worked in the Boston Field Office when a federal judge started looking into the FBI's relationship with Bulger in 1997. The guidelines grew out of that investigation.

Mr. MAWN: Well, when you start to put a lot of guidelines and a lot more rules and make it very difficult and the agents for that reason as well as for some other reasons tend to shy away.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Jim Ring said he would go through the guidelines to show me some of the reasons why agents are so upset. Today, Ring works for a prominent law firm in Boston. He's sitting an office that is profoundly quiet. The view outside is nothing but Boston Harbor, water as far as the eye can see.

Mr. RING: I'm looking through the guidelines.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Flipping through the 28 single-spaced pages of guidelines, he stops at a section about informants committing crimes. The guidelines say the FBI has to authorize any crimes informants commit while working with the FBI. Ring says the rule makes sense if you have a drug informant who needs to sell a nickel bag as part of a case. But for top echelon informants, he says the rule seems naïve.

Mr. RING: So if I'm going to have a capo as an informant in La Cosa Nostra, am I to assume that he's going to say, okay, I won't commit crime?

TEMPLE-RASTON: He says that defeats the purpose. The reason top echelon informants are so valuable is precisely because they are in the middle of a criminal enterprise. Crime is all around them. In most cases they are violating racketeering statues just for being a member of the mob. He flips to another section.

Mr. RING: Let me read you something out of the guidelines. United States government will strive to protect your identity but cannot promise or guarantee either that your identity will not be divulged or that you will not be called to testify in a proceeding as a witness.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ring throws up his hands.

Mr. RING: Now, if you were considering doing business with me as a member of al-Qaida or a capo in the La Cosa Nostra, would you want to do business with me after I told you that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: NPR spoke to more than a dozen current FBI agents who echoed Ring's remarks, saying they can't develop confidential informants if they can't protect their identities. In some cases, asking them to testify would be tantamount to giving them a death sentence. Their criminal organizations would have them killed. Again, the FBI's Valerie Caproni.

Ms. CAPRONI: The agents sometimes like to complain and this is something they can complain about, that the rules have changed a little bit, it's laid out much more clearly when they will have to disclose a source's identity. But I think as a general rule we have a very good track record with maintaining the confidentiality of the identities of human sources.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ring says that if the FBI wants to get insiders from al-Qaida or the mob to help them fight crime, they need to put what happened in Boston in the past. Agents need to be allowed to use their judgment.

Mr. RING: The result is they have tried by legislation to make what Morris and Connolly did impossible, and I think that is impossible to do, because corruption is a matter of the heart.

TEMPLE-RASTON: New attorney general guidelines on a variety of FBI procedures are expected to be released in the next couple of weeks. In spite of agents' complaints, Caproni says the confidential informant guidelines won't change.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can see photos of some of these characters as well as places where Bulger did business on our website at npr.org. The series continues tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston looks at the legal liabilities for agents who develop confidential sources.

Unidentified Man: As someone said to me, after this happened to you, I would never touch an informant.

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