By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The Globe, the tipster and the FBI

Note: Please see this update.

The Boston Globe on Sunday published an exhaustive story about Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig’s life on the lam. The package of articles, by Shelley Murphy and Maria Cramer, reveals the identity of the tipster who led the FBI to Bulger and Greig’s apartment in Santa Monica: Anna Bjornsdottir, a former actress from Iceland. Bjornsdottir declined to talk to the Globe.

Today, the Boston Herald counters with a front-page splash claiming the Globe may have endangered Bjornsdottir and chilled future witnesses by revealing her identity. The story, by Joe Dwinell, quotes former U.S. attorney Michael Sullivan as saying, “They can’t guarantee her 100 percent safety going forward. It’s unnecessary publicity and unnecessary harassment.”

First, kudos to the Globe. The Bulger saga has already been over-covered for my taste, but Sunday’s package is truly definitive. But the Herald deserves some credit, too, for coming up with an unexplored angle. This morning’s question: Is there anything to the Herald story or not? At the moment, we have no way of knowing. (Although see the addendum below: Murphy points out in a Globe video that Bulger and Greig almost certainly knew already who had turned them in.)

It’s not clear from the Globe’s reporting how the paper learned of Bjornsdottir’s identity, though the friends and neighbors who were interviewed certainly could have supplied the name. The paper has this to say in a sidebar explaining the backstory: “The Globe relied on sources familiar with the circumstances of the tip as well as Bjornsdottir’s friends and people who knew her in Santa Monica to reconstruct her relationship with Bulger and Greig.” Was the sentence carefully crafted to avoid saying whether Bjornsdottir’s name was originally supplied by an FBI source? There’s no way of knowing.

More to the point, the Globe does not say whether the FBI asked that Bjornsdottir’s identity be protected. If it had, and if the Globe decided to publish her name anyway, I would like to think that the editors would at least explain their reasons. Not that the FBI’s wishes should necessarily be the deciding factor.

The Herald, for its part, quotes no one in a position of authority. In addition to Sullivan, Dwinell offers up former federal prosecutor Michael Kendall and Jamarhl Crawford, described only as a “Roxbury community activist.”

The FBI is notoriously close-mouthed about its operations, and Dwinell writes that he was unable to get the agency to comment. FBI officials ought to reconsider, given that its every move in the Bulger case is suspect for obvious reasons. The Globe should be prepared to tell us more as well.

More: Commenter Ally Manning points to a video in which Shelley Murphy talks about the decision to reveal Bjornsdottir’s name. She says that “a lot of thought went into whether or not we would name her,” and points out that Bulger and Greig almost certainly already knew who the tipster was: it had been reported some time ago that the tip came from Iceland, and they knew they had befriended Bjornsdottir.

Murphy notes that there had been a lot of speculation over whether the Icelandic connection was real or an FBI fiction, and says naming Bjornsdottir was an important part of getting the truth out: “If we were to write a story and say, ‘We know who it is but we can’t tell you, we’re keeping her name secret,’ that that would cause more — it would just fuel this conspiracy theory that’s already out there.”

Murphy is absolutely right that Bulger and Greig had to have known who turned them in, and I’m smacking my forehead for not thinking of that myself. But neither she nor Maria Cramer addresses what (if any) dealings the Globe had with the FBI and whether the agency tried to talk them out of naming Bjornsdottir. I still think that’s an unexplored question that’s worth answering.

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10 Comments

  1. Ally Manning

    If you watch the video with Shelley Murphy and Maria Cramer, they describe the decision whether or not to print her name. The FBI made it public the tip came from Iceland, and Bulger would have known who it was without the Globe naming her.

    http://brightcove.vo.llnwd.net/d17/unsecured/media/245991542/245991542_1207009547001_111006-backstory-whitey-full.mp4

    I’m not sure where the Globe had this video posted on the website (I clicked a link on twitter). They probably should have made that argument more clear in the sidebar.

  2. Lenny Rosen

    You’re giving the Herald too much credit for “coming up with an unexplored angle,” more like at obvious and short-sited shot at their competitor. As a NEWS organization, they should know better than to take the position the the Globe had a duty to protect the feds tip program or hide this woman’s identity. It’s tremendously newsworthy.

    Also, if anyone is to blame for the tipster’s identity coming out it’s whoever originally gave the story that she was from Iceland. From that point forward, it was just a matter of time before she was identified.

  3. Martin Callaghan

    Dan:
    I thought the Globe story was clearly meant to demonstrate, at least in part, that there was in-fact an informant. As you state: Was the sentence carefully crafted to avoid saying whether Bjornsdottir’s name was originally supplied by an FBI source? There’s no way of knowing.

    As I recall though, the Globe story doesn’t even mention seeking a comment from the FBI. Which leads me to believe that if they had acquired the name independently they would have at least given the FBI the opportunity to “no comment”

  4. Martin Callaghan

    Ally:

    Thanks for the video link. I just watched and as you say their feeling was that once it was known that the informant was from Iceland, Bulger knew who it was. Implying that if she was in any danger, them reporting the name would not be the reason because Bulger had to know who she was

    They also said that if they didn’t release the name it would have “fueled this conspiracy theory.” They also stated that they repeatedly tried to contact, left her notes etc. and that the informant would not comment.

    So, not being a journalist, a few questions; Is it their role as reporters to worry about the “conspiracy theories” surrounding the FBI? Based on their concern about the conspiracy theories, I wonder if the informant agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity would they have spoken to her? And, as a follow-up, hypothetical I know, but if the informant were to now state that she told the reporters that she would speak to them if they protected her name, would that matter?

  5. Why isn’t there more outrage over this? The decision to reveal the tipster is highly irresponsible – something I might have expected from the National Enquirer, but not the Globe.

    What public interest is being served by revealing this woman’s identity? It doesn’t make any difference how the name was obtained – the Globe editors should have the judgment and common decency to keep it out of the paper.

    In the background story video, the reporters argue that revealing the woman’s identity was essential to the credibility of the story – that readers needed to know there was a real person and not some FBI conspiracy behind the tip. Sorry, this doesn’t wash. Reporters routinely hide the identities of juvenile defendants, rape victims and confidential sources without sacrificing the credibility of their stories. How is this any different?

    To be sure, the story is interesting and perhaps more interesting when you know the identity of the tipster and her background. But that doesn’t justify a terrible (and potentially dangerous) decision by the Globe.

  6. Michael Pahre

    The Globe stated that they tried to approach Bjornsdottir at least two times, and that her husband responded that they would not be forthcoming.

    That means that Bjornsdottir had every opportunity to try to speak to the paper off-the-record, or to request quietly that she not be named because she might fear for her life. She did not.

    The Globe’s reporting makes it pretty clear that Whitey has not been involved in organized crime since going on the run; it’s unlikely that’s going to change now, so I doubt Bjornsdottir fears much for her own safety. The Herald is just flailing about wildly because they totally got scooped.

    Many people have made the suggestion that the FBI has a much deeper involvement and might be embarrassed further if Whitey were to talk. If so, Bjornsdottir would have more to fear from the FBI knowing her name than Whitey. And the FBI already knows her name.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Michael: If I were the editor of the Globe, I’m pretty sure I would have made the same call. I would just like to have seen the Globe lay out its reasoning. Shelley Murphy is now telling interviewers that the FBI was contacted and did not object to Bjornsdottir’s being named, as you can see in my new item. I’m embarrassed that I did not perform my due diligence before writing my first item this morning. Still, I think it’s part of the story, and I would have liked to see it in there yesterday.

  7. So because the tipster did not ask the reporter to keep her identity secret, it’s her own fault and the Globe is off the hook? Please.

    No one – not the tipster, not the FBI – should have to tell the Globe that revealing this woman’s identity is potentially dangerous.

    And even if Whitey knew her identity, there are enough wise guy wannabees out there to keep her looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life.

  8. I can’t believe there are so many commenters supporting the Boston Globe’s decision to print the name of the tipster. Your rationale for this heinous act of simple yellow journalism reeks of elitism, amoral and cold-hearted sensibilities and pseudo-integrity. Your attempts to switch the roles of the victim and the perpetrator (Globe) are astonishing- and pretty gross- on just about any level.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Well, Charles, I am nothing if not an elitist.

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