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

Tag: Anna Bjornsdottir

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.

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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