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

The Globe, the tipster and the FBI (IV)

The FBI’s statement criticizing the Boston Globe for claiming the agency had acquiesced in the paper’s decision to name Whitey Bulger tipster Anna Bjornsdottir has breathed at least one day of new life into a story that seemed to be fading away. I’m not going to rehash everything, but here are a few observations for your consideration.

Dueling Michael Sullivans. When the Boston Herald first reported on Monday that the Globe may have endangered Bjornsdottir and harmed the FBI’s anonymous tipster program, it quoted former U.S. attorney Sullivan as saying, “They can’t guarantee her 100 percent safety going forward. It’s unnecessary publicity and unnecessary harassment.” Herald reporter Joe Dwinell uses that quote again in today’s follow-up.

Yet Sullivan appears to have had at least a partial change of heart, according to a story today by Denise Lavoie of the Associated Press. She writes:

Former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan said he does not believe Bjornsdottir will face retaliation, citing testimony from several former Bulger loyalists who have cooperated with prosecutors in the past decade and not been harmed.

But Sullivan said he does worry the revelation could hurt the FBI’s ability to cultivate criminal informants and tipsters who report sightings in high-profile fugitive cases.

“For some folks who are informants or tipsters, the idea of anonymity is critical,” Sullivan said. “Some people just wouldn’t cooperate at all if they thought for a moment their identity is going to be revealed.”

I leave it to you to decide whether a news organization should be worried about reporting news that could harm the FBI’s internal operations, but that is clearly a far lower concern than Bjornsdottir’s safety.

And by the way, the Globe’s Travis Andersen covers the FBI statement here.

Dueling Herald columnists. Joe Fitzgerald today uses the FBI statement to go after the Globe big-time, calling the paper’s naming of Bjornsdottir “a chilling decision,” and writing: “Somewhere this morning, there’s a wannabe wiseguy hoping to move up, to ingratiate himself with the big boys, mulling the tipster’s whereabouts and thinking dark thoughts of career advancement.”

Yesterday, though, Peter Gelzinis, who spent years covering the Bulger saga while courageously continuing to live in Bulger’s South Boston neighborhood, was fairly dismissive of concerns about Bjornsdottir’s safety, writing: “If the Icelandic tipster had anything to fear after diming Whitey Bulger out to the FBI, then John Martorano and Kevin Weeks and Teresa Stanley, to name just a few, would already be dead.”

Gelzinis also makes the important point, as have others, that once law-enforcement officials revealed last June the tipster was from Iceland, it was only a matter of time before her name became known — a development that would suit the FBI’s purposes. Gelzinis wrote:

Having squandered their credibility for years in this city, the G-Men knew that unmasking the “phantom tipster” from Iceland would immediately remove the latest cloud of suspicion and skepticism hanging over the Boston office.

The FBI’s agenda. As guest columnist Juliette Kayyem, a terrorism expert, observes in today’s Globe, it was, in fact, federal authorities who outed Bjornsdottir last June, shortly after Bulger and Catherine Greig were arrested. The story that the tipster was from Iceland was first reported by David Boeri of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), another longtime veteran of the Bulger wars.

Bulger and Greig had befriended Bjornsdottir during their years in Santa Monica, Calif. Once they learned of the Icelandic connection, they instantly knew who the tipster was. Kayyem writes:

Of course, that fact alone — the neighbor from Iceland — makes the whole debate over revealing her name somewhat irrelevant. Bjornsdottir was effectively identified as soon as law enforcement sources described her that way to WBUR’s David Boeri. Did anyone think there were two? Bjornsdottir’s identification was part of a very compelling narrative, controlled and then revealed by sources in the law enforcement world, about how the mythic Bulger was finally captured.

I think it’s likely that some observers would have expressed outrage at the time if so many hadn’t been caught up in speculation that federal authorities were lying about the Iceland connection. It just seemed too perfectly weird given the FBI’s long history of criminal dealings with Bulger and his gang. Now it turns out that it was true — or at least partly true. It’s still hard to know.

Which is what Boston University journalism professor Fred Bayles gets at in an interview with the Herald’s Jessica Heslam today. Yesterday’s FBI statement says the Globe was wrong to interpret the agency’s silence as a sign that it did not believe Bjornsdottir’s safety would be endangered if she were named. Heslam writes:

[Bayles] said, “The FBI has been known to leak information when it suited them. The FBI has been known to manipulate the media in terms of its own investigations.” Bayles said he remains skeptical that the public will know the full scope of the Globe’s dealings with FBI agents in this matter. “It’s something that probably we’ll never get to the bottom of, as to whether or not the FBI did know about it and either said nothing or said ‘OK,’ and now they’re coming back to cover their asses.”

Will this story now begin to fade away, or is there more to come? Well, we haven’t heard from Bjornsdottir yet, so my guess is there’s still another shoe or two to drop.

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  1. BP Myers

    I was sort of agnostic about the whole thing, but after reading today’s Globe explanation, where they gratuitously mentioned her name FOUR MORE TIMES in addition to (again) where she lives, it seems almost as if they’re hoping to extend the story to Iceland.

    Speaking of piling on, you mention her name THIRTEEN TIMES in this blog post alone, nine times on your own without quoting someone else.

    You’ll no doubt be way up there in the Google ranking when wannabe thugs go looking for her. So congratulations on that.

  2. Jenny Joseph

    @BPMyers—good point! You’re saying you don’t want to rehash the story but at this point with the number of times you’re mentioning this person, you’re obviously getting a kick out of this.

    No matter what, some details were better left untold. How did this information help the public in any way?

  3. Hylen Smurr

    Surely “terrorism expert” should always be in quotes, even in this case where it might actually apply.

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