BOSTON — After years of scandal, criticism and widespread doubt about whether its agents really were looking for mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, the FBI may have expected that Bulger’s arrest last week would have helped lift the cloud.
Instead, there is skepticism on a couple of fronts: Congressman Stephen Lynch is calling for a Justice Department investigation of Bulger’s history as an FBI informant, and there are some raised eyebrows over the FBI account that just two days after the agency started running ads looking for Bulger’s companion, an anonymous tip from Iceland led to Bulger’s arrest in California.
WBUR’s David Boeri has been following the Bulger story for 25 years. He joined Morning Edition Thursday in the studio.
Deborah Becker: Describe the skepticism you’re hearing about Bulger’s arrest in California last week after 16 years on the run.
I find it stunning and actually disturbing. Wherever I’ve gone this week, I’ve encountered this almost universal refusal to believe that the FBI captured “Whitey” the way they describe it. I call it a “state of civil disbelief.” And it’s coming from surprising sources. You just mentioned Lynch, the congressman from Southie, who’s calling for a full Justice Department investigation.
And the disbelief is also coming from people like former state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger:
Anybody who has any prior connection with this has a degree of skepticism that is palpable. About how this all happened just now, coincidentally, at a time when we have just criticized Pakistan for not spotting Osama bin Laden for all these years and we made a national issue of that. Here we are with a major fugitive, clearly sanctioned by at least some members of the FBI, and only now we catch them and with some ad on daytime TV, two days beforehand with a person calling from Iceland. The story alone just doesn’t ring true.
It’s very pointed. We already know that there were a lot of problems with the FBI and Bulger. His handler, John Connolly and an FBI supervisor, John Morris, were protecting Bulger, and Connolly tipped off Bulger to his coming indictment so Bulger fled in 1995. But that’s history. Connolly’s been behind bars for 10 years, there’s a new team of FBI agents and maybe that’s just an old era.
You’re right, it’s history — history — and you can’t ignore it, the 16 years since he went on run and then 20 years before that when he had FBI protection. So Harshbarger agrees that today’s FBI office here is staffed with people who are highly professional. This is a staff that has integrity. But what he says is that the FBI is going to have to proceed with an understanding of that history:
But I lived with people who worked their careers trying to break into this and being demeaned by the FBI, being criticized by the FBI, being questioned about their integrity by the FBI, and they may never forgive, and that has passed on through generations as well.
Let’s talk about what the FBI might do going forward. Would the FBI be the sole agency, say, looking into Bulger’s life as a fugitive?
They had the warrant for him as a fugitive, so the investigation here, as his fugitive career goes, is up to the FBI. And what would you do? If you were to sit down with “Whitey” Bulger, what would you want to ask him? You’d want to ask him: Did anybody in the FBI help you?
Well that right there suggests the apparent conflict of interest. Harshbarger is saying, if the FBI wants people to believe its investigation, then really that investigation should be carried out by insiders.
Now, former U.S. Attorney Donald Stern, who was here when Bulger was indicted for those 19 murders, says there’s also the issue of public perception:
You know, there is the substance, which is, will any leads be thoroughly and professionally and aggressively followed up as a result of his capture? I think the answer to that is yes. Many of the agents who were in the FBI office in Boston probably weren’t even in high school at the time that “Whitey” Bulger became a fugitive. But, you know, that’s the substance, the reality has to include the perception.
Stern says the FBI needs to work very closely with the Massachusetts State Police and others with whom they’ve been feuding over all these years, but transparency to Stern is absolutely critical, just as it was 15 years ago when he was U.S. attorney and, by the way, he appointed an outside special prosecutor to prosecute FBI Agent John Connolly.
But what about folks who are not skeptical? Certainly there are people who lived through this history and they don’t have problems with this and they say, hey look, the FBI successfully arrested “Whitey” Bulger last week, get over it.
Well one of those people would be the last U.S. attorney (in Boston), Michael Sullivan. He told me the idea that the FBI wasn’t trying to find Bulger all those years, or that the FBI recently manufactured this siting to make the arrest in Santa Monica — it’s all just conspiracy theory:
I’m not surprised that quickly after doing a PSA they got tips. I mean the fact of the matter is every time we did publicity on Bulger, whether it was around a particular event or a particular time or just randomly, we got scores of tips.
Sullivan sided with the FBI during this whole fugitive process. He says the only difference here though is that this tip panned out. Still, Sullivan says he thinks there is some merit in Don Stern’s recommendation that the FBI should be working together with the other agencies here in the investigation:
Well, I would imagine the FBI would want to enhance their credibility to the extent that there’s an opportunity to do that in a post-Bulger arrest. And if that meant allowing other agencies to participate in the interviews and/or the questionings. Now, remember, at some point in time, Bulger is going to be able to independently make whatever statements he wants to make, and he can make them himself or he can make them through counsel and/or through others.
In other words, what Sullivan is saying here is: If Bulger does want to name names of FBI agents or gangsters or cops — there’s nothing the FBI can do about it, whether they’re running the investigation or not. Still, you have this state of civil disbelief.