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from Injustice Department.
Now that the trial of Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger is grinding to its conclusion, the morally bankrupt dealings of the Boston branch of the FBI and its favorite local informants are once again making front-page news. Bulger is facing federal racketeering charges based on his alleged loansharking, extortion, distribution of illegal drugs, shakedowns of local drug dealers and at least 19 murders.
Bulger’s alleged crimes violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act, passed by Congress in 1970 to aid the FBI in taking down criminal organizations such as the Mafia and corrupt labor unions. The law defines a RICO as any organization that participates in, among other things, “any act or threat involving murder, kidnapping, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery, extortion, dealing in obscene matter, or dealing in a controlled substance or listed chemical.” The evidence produced so far at the Bulger trial clearly implicates Bulger and his Winter Hill Gang in racketeering acts. But that same evidence also shows that the FBI, built almost singlehandedly by the widely reviled J. Edgar Hoover (whose name still adorns the Bureau’s Washington, DC, headquarters – indicating that revilement of Hoover is far from universal), easily qualifies as a RICO.
The FBI’s culpability comes from its agreement to protect Bulger and his associates from local, state and other federal agencies’ investigations into their moneymaking schemes and murders. In exchange for this protection, Bulger passed along tips that helped the FBI take down the once-powerful Boston branch of the Patriarca New England Mafia crime family, led by the Angiulo family with headquarters in Boston’s North End. FBI handlers also passed tips to Bulger about his rivals and enemies, many of whom ended up in shallow graves around the Boston area not long after. As a result of this corrupt partnership – one might even call it a conspiracy – the FBI received widespread adulation for eliminating the Boston Mafia, while Bulger and his Winter Hill gang eliminated the competition for their lucrative rackets. (One could argue, we suppose, that the FBI and its partner Bulger conspired to violate anti-trust laws, but for current purposes we’ll stick to the anti-racketeering statute.)
When the game was up and Massachusetts prosecutors were about to issue an indictment against Bulger, Bulger’s FBI handler John Connolly, currently serving a 40-year state-imposed sentence in Florida for murder, tipped him off (for which Connolly served an earlier federal sentence). Bulger escaped and spent the next sixteen years on the lam. You read that correctly: in exchange for his help in taking down the Italian mob, the FBI helped Bulger avoid answering for the savage crimes that made him king of the Boston underworld. It was a match made in Heaven (or Hell, if one prefers). And, in fact, the match may well involve not just the Boston FBI, but the Massachusetts United States Attorney’s office as well. Bulger claims that a high official in the New England Organized Crime Strike Force (a collaborative effort spearheaded by the FBI and Boston US Attorney’s office) promised Bulger immunity for any crime, including murders committed in the future, that he might perpetrate during his cooperation with the feds in bringing down the Mafia. But we’ll likely never learn the whole truth about this, since federal District Judge Denise Casper, herself a former prosecutor, denied Bulger’s motion to present the jury with evidence to support his immunity claim. Even so, the evidence thus far adduced in the Bulger trial gives ample indication of the close relationship between the Winter Hill mob and the Boston FBI office.
If the Bulger saga were the only example of such unsavory conduct by the FBI, one could argue that this level of corruption was not sufficiently embedded and widespread to constitute the kind of racketeering enterprise that the RICO statute targets. But the FBI’s lawless, or at least highly dubious, activity goes well beyond this.
There are the historical outrages, like the FBI’s spying on homosexuals to create rap sheets that J. Edgar Hoover could use against his political enemies, or the FBI’s round-the-clock surveillance of the highest levels of the civil rights movement (a Memphis undercover cop who was a regular FBI informant was present during the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.). Even earlier in the organization’s history, when it was still known as the Bureau of Investigations, an ascendant Hoover earned his chops overseeing the trumped up prosecutions of leftists, foreigners and other such “undesirables” in cases so egregious that they led concerned citizens to form the ACLU. During the McCarthy era, Hoover and his agents passed information to McCarthy’s staff, helping McCarthy destroy the lives of those who came in his sights.
More recently, the FBI has come under deserved scrutiny for the fatal shooting of Ibragim Todashev by an FBI agent. Todashev was under investigation as an alleged accomplice to Boston Marathon Bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a 2011 triple homicide and had undergone several earlier FBI interrogations apparently without incident. The official FBI story so far is that Todashev, on the verge of signing a confession, suddenly went crazy and lunged at the FBI agent, who then shot him. In early accounts, Todashev was armed with a knife, in later accounts he was unarmed. Official accounts also claim that two Massachusetts state troopers who had accompanied the FBI agent to Todashev’s apartment were conveniently out of the room when the shooting occurred, leaving no living witnesses except the FBI agent who pulled the trigger.
The Todashev shooting is not a fluke. According to the New York Times, FBI agents fatally shot 70 people and wounded another 80 between 1993 and 2011. While some may be shocked to discover that internal FBI investigators have deemed every single one of those shootings appropriate, those of us who see the FBI as a racketeering organization know that such self-justification is par for the course among such groups. Just ask John Martorano, the unrepentant Winter Hill Gang enforcer who confessed to twenty murders, all perpetrated while Bulger was under FBI protection, and served only twelve years after cutting a rather favorable deal with the feds.
The FBI can get away with this slew of supposedly justified killings because, like any good racketeering organization, the FBI hates conducting its business on the record. Its official rules ban the recording of interrogations and witness interviews, which are instead typically conducted by two agents, one of whom asks questions and the other of whom takes the notes that will eventually become the official report of the interview. Any witness or defendant who dares contradict this official report is subject to prosecution under a statute that provides for a five-year sentence for lying to a federal agent. This scheme of extorting (or, more politely, creating) testimony that aligns with what the FBI wants to hear largely explains the fact that a staggering 97% of federal cases end in guilty pleas.
Examples like these could fill this space a dozen times over, leading us to suspect that racketeering activity is so deeply ingrained in the agency’s culture that the FBI qualifies as a Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization under any reasonable reading of the RICO Act. Perhaps it’s time to shut down the organization, take Hoover’s name off the building, and start over. And when the job of either reforming or dismantling the FBI is done, perhaps we might focus our efforts on any of the other federal law enforcement agencies that have run off the rails, such as those that enforce the drug laws. Now there’s a fertile field just waiting to be plowed.
Silverglate’s research assistant, Zachary Bloom, who resides in Somerville, MA, co-authored this piece.