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

The Globe, the tipster and the FBI (III)

Whitey Bulger

Boston Globe editors today explain why they decided to release the name of Anna Bjornsdottir, the former actress from Iceland who tipped off the FBI that Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig were living in Santa Monica, Calif. Sunday’s story, by Shelley Murphy and Maria Cramer, stands as the definitive look at Bulger and Greig’s life on the lam.

The comments from Globe editor Marty Baron and metro editor Jennifer Peter parallel those Murphy made yesterday on WFXT-TV (Channel 25): that the FBI raised no objection to Bjornsdottir’s being named; that Bulger surely knew her identity already; and that attaching a name and a face to the story was important given the FBI’s corrupt dealings with Bulger over the years. Those dealings led to widespread speculation that the Icelandic-tipster angle was just another ruse. Here’s Peter:

We were confident Whitey Bulger and Cathy Greig knew exactly who the tipster was. We asked people directly involved in the investigation if she would be in danger if we named her. No one told us she would be in danger at all.

Today’s story, by Peter Schworm, also quotes me as saying the Globe should have included this information in its original story on Sunday, and that the newsworthiness of the story trumps Bjornsdottir’s privacy concerns (Bjornsdottir declined to speak to the Globe, and her husband asked that she not be named). Let me explain.

Schworm and I were talking in the context of there being no safety threat. He asked me if I thought Bjornsdottir’s desire to keep her name out of the paper should be respected purely from a privacy point of view. I responded that as long as publishing her name wouldn’t place her life in any danger, then no. Newsworthiness should in most cases trump privacy concerns. She had come forward, contacted the FBI and accepted $2 million in taxpayer money.

If that sounds cold, journalists reading this knows how many stories would never see the light of day if they respected the wishes of family members who contact them. The idea is to treat people with dignity and respect, and not to make decisions that are gratuitously cruel — but to report the news. Given all that, I think the Globe made the right call.

The Boston Herald, which raised questions yesterday about the Globe’s decision to name Bjornsdottir, doubles down today with another front-page splash. This one quotes two congressmen, Stephen Lynch, D-Boston, and Dan Burton, R-Ind., as saying there ought to be an investigation into whether the FBI was complicit in Bjornsdottir’s name being released. But Murphy told Channel 25 yesterday that the Globe got the name from neighbors. Here’s her answer to the first question from anchor Kim Carrigan as to how the Globe learned Bjornsdottir’s name:

Really from going out to Santa Monica and interviewing neighbors. Word had come out shortly after Bulger’s arrest that the tip came from a woman in Iceland, and what we discovered in talking to neighbors is that there really was only one woman from Iceland who lived in that neighborhood and knew Bulger and Greig by name and could have called in that tip.

Another way of looking at this, though, is that the Icelandic connection was the real breakthrough, and that identifying Bjornsdottir was easy once it had been established that the tipster was an Icelandic neighbor of Bulger and Greig’s. Here is how the Globe reported it on June 25:

Also, a law enforcement official said yesterday that the tip that led authorities to Bulger came from a woman from Iceland who had crossed paths with the fugitives in Santa Monica. She was watching CNN when she spotted a story about a new FBI television ad campaign focusing on Greig and quickly called authorities.

On the same day, the Herald published this: “Meanwhile, media outlets reported yesterday that a woman in Iceland with ties to Santa Monica, Calif., was the tipster that reported seeing the couple.” (I can’t reconstruct the time line, but I assume the Herald refers to “yesterday” because the Globe published its story online the day before.)

Between June 25 and this week, the Herald published several articles and columns mocking the claim that the tipster was from Iceland, chalking it up to yet another instance of the FBI lying about the Bulger case. If folks at the Herald had considered the possibility that it was true (and I’ll admit that I thought it might be a lie), then they would have realized that someone in authority had indeed outed Bjornsdottir to the only person who might be interested in doing her harm.

In that respect, Lynch’s and Burton’s calls for an investigation into who leaked the Icelandic connection may be right on target. And the Herald’s outrage is three and a half months overdue.

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  1. Al Fiantaca

    Does the FBI have a policy regarding tipsters such as this one, or does it depend on how notorious the criminal is as to whether any cares who blew the whistle?

    As for Anna Bjornsdottir, the notoriety of Whitey Bulger and his place at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted List made everything around the case of great interest to the media. I think, had she not been an attractive former model and actress (notice the mention of her commercials and roles), they might have only mentioned her name in passing, without all the back story, including photos in CA & Iceland, and that would have been the end of it. She apparently made an effort to ignore media efforts to get at her for more story, hoping not to engage them, but they only took that as a challenge. Likely, once “Beat the Press” discusses it on Friday, her part in the story will go away, unless she gets pulled into a Lynch/Burton investigation on Capitol Hill.

  2. Mike Benedict

    @Al: I suspect we are seeing much a greater media frenzy in Boston because of the local ties. My own very non-scientific review of outlets outside the Boston area show relative disinterest in the Bulger story since the initial arrest.

  3. C.E. Stead

    I haven’t followed this closely, but maybe you know, Dan.

    My recollection is that the woman was described as being IN Iceland at the time of the arrest. My reaction was that maybe she had met Bulger/Grieg when they were in Europe.

    FROM Iceland is more identifying, especially if they are talking to people in Santa Monica.

    Was the original mention on WBUR ‘IN’ or ‘FROM’?

    • Dan Kennedy

      C.E.: I have not been able to find the original WBUR story, but here’s what the Globe reported on June 25: “Also, a law enforcement official said yesterday that the tip that led authorities to Bulger came from a woman from Iceland who had crossed paths with the fugitives in Santa Monica. She was watching CNN when she spotted a story about a new FBI television ad campaign focusing on Greig and quickly called authorities.” I assume that parallels what WBUR had. I’d say that pretty much gives away the whole ballgame.

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