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.

The Globe, the tipster and the FBI (II)

How Whitey Bulger got caught: MyFoxBOSTON.com

Boston Globe reporter Shelley Murphy appeared on WFXT-TV (Channel 25) this morning to talk about her and Maria Cramer’s impressively detailed story about Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig’s life on the run. And it turns out that anchor Kim Carrigan asked her whether she had any concerns that the tipster who turned in Bulger and Greig, Anna Bjornsdottir, might be in danger as a result of the Globe’s having identified her. Here is Murphy’s response:

I can tell you that before we ran the story, we did speak to federal officials. We spoke to the U.S. attorney’s office, we called the FBI, we told them we were thinking of naming her, and it was never suggested to us that there was any issue of danger. And her husband, when he emailed us, said he was concerned about her privacy. So we would not have printed her name if we had been told that her life would be in danger. And I do want to note that there are a lot of witnesses cooperating against Bulger. They’re not in witness protection. There are a lot of people out there and have been for years who cooperated against him.

When I wrote my first item, I had hoped that the Globe would respond in tomorrow’s edition to the question of whether the FBI tried to talk the paper out of naming Bjornsdottir. (Actually, I still hope to see that.) I did not realize that Murphy had already answered the question. Since writing that item, I have learned that (1) Bulger and Greig almost certainly already knew Bjornsdottir’s identity and (2) the FBI had already been given a chance to make any objections known, and apparently chose not to.

The answers to my questions were already out there. That’s a failure of due diligence on my part. I will try to do better.

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.

Yes, the Weather Underground again

Walter Schroeder

Former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers’ reputation, such as it is, rests on his assertion that the radical organization, for all its violent rhetoric and activities, never killed or injured anyone other than three of its own members who died while making a bomb.

In a 2008 interview on the NPR show “Fresh Air,” Ayers told host Terry Gross, “The Weather Underground never killed a police officer, never tried to and never did.” And despite taking responsibility for a series of bombings, he added, “It never targeted people, it never meant to hurt or injure anyone, and thank God it never did hurt or injure anyone.”

Which is why today’s Boston Globe story on the death of William “Lefty” Gilday is such a stunner. Gilday and two radicals from Brandeis University, Susan Saxe and Katherine Ann Power, murdered Boston police officer Walter Schroeder in the course of committing a bank robbery. Reporter David Abel writes of an interview he conducted with Gilday last June, when he was dying of Parkinson’s disease:

Still, he had a lucid memory of the morning of Sept. 23, 1970, when he helped a radical group from the Weather Underground rob a Brighton branch of the State Street Bank and Trust Co.

“I wish we never would have gone to the bank that day,” he said of the group’s failed effort to finance their movement against the Vietnam War.

Now, there are people who have long believed the Weather Underground was involved in Schroeder’s death, but there has never been any evidence beyond a few hints here and there. Same with the killing of a police officer in San Francisco, which remains an unsolved crime. Two years ago I got dragged into this controversy when my old pal Michael Graham mocked a semi-sympathetic commentary about Ayers that I wrote for the Guardian, and noted that an FBI website had linked the Weather Underground to the Schroeder killing.

In fact, it was an error — the FBI had never believed any such thing, and after I contacted the agency, the reference was removed. An agency spokesman went so far as to say that a couple of references in a 1975 Senate report claiming that Saxe and Power were involved in the Weather Underground did not appear to match what the FBI believed. You can read all about that here. After double-checking this morning, I verified that today was the first time the Globe has ever reported the Weather Underground was involved in Schroeder’s death, despite numerous references to Gilday, Saxe and Power’s involvement in violent radicalism.

Given that, for Gilday to assert that he was involved in the Weather Underground after all these years is a huge development. I sent Abel and email this morning and asked how it came about. Here’s his response:

The reference to the Weather Underground came directly from Lefty, during our interview, in addition to other memories from the era, such as how he stole Abby Hoffman’s books. He didn’t dwell on it, and I didn’t press him on the question of whether he was really a member of the Weather Underground, as I had not known that that was something anyone had questioned. He told me that he decided to join a few other folks who he considered “revolutionaries” and they got him connected to the folks in the Weather Underground.

I’d say Abel has got hold of a hell of a story, and I look forward to his following it up. Unfortunately, Gilday does not mention the Weather Underground in the video that accompanies Abel’s story. But perhaps he does in some outtakes that could be posted. And yes, of course, tying Gilday directly to the Weather Underground will likely prove impossible. It’s not like the WU had a hierarchy, dues and membership cards.

Needless to say, the only people in this story who any of us should care about are Officer Schroeder and his family, including his nine children. Here is an online tribute set up in his memory.

Salon gets it wrong on Barnicle and Whitey

Mike Barnicle

It was a sensational accusation, and it appeared to be backed up with the man’s own words. On Thursday, Salon posted a piece claiming that Mike Barnicle wrote a column in the Boston Globe in 1991 defending the notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger against charges that he’d made a $14 million lottery winner an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The article, by Steve Kornacki, has gotten wide distribution, and is seemingly irrefutable. And Barnicle’s track record of plagiarism, fabrication and toadying to the old Irish-American political order in Boston make him an easy target. (Note: Kornacki has written a retraction. See below.)

But this particular allegation isn’t true. I looked it up.

What’s given the Salon piece such legs is that Barnicle’s column, published on Aug. 1, 1991, is not on the open Web — rather, it’s in the Globe’s paid archives. (You can find it here. It’s $4.95 unless you’re a Globe customer.) What made me want to look it up were the excerpts Kornacki quoted, which struck me as florid and over-the-top even for a hack like Barnicle. I’m not going to requote what Kornacki found — you can do that yourself. But I do want to quote some of the stuff that Kornacki left out. Here’s a lengthy section in which Barnicle writes about the organized-crime wars in which Bulger was involved:

The myth took root decades ago after Jimmy returned home from away games in Atlanta, Alcatraz and Leavenworth, where he earned his federal letter sweater. Then, Southie was sort of dominated by nickel and dime hoodlums claiming to be part of the Mullen Gang. This was the only gang in America that took its name from a street sign. They were supposed to be bad but, bottom line, they were stupid and Whitey is not.

He aligned himself with a larger outfit, many of whose members were of Mediterranean extraction and thus easily tricked by glib Irish wit. His associates loved to talk with their mouths full of linguine and clam sauce and, in between twirling noodles onto spoons, they talked themselves into jail or the trunks of Lincoln Town cars.

Some Irish were wounded, too. Among them was a Bulger acquaintance, Buddy Roache, the police commissioner’s brother, who got shot in the spine and must now rely on a wheelchair for movement. Then, there was the commissioner’s former brother-in-law, Mickey Dwyer, who got in a fight with the late Donald Killeen, one of Whitey’s executive vice presidents before they changed the title to executed vice president. Donny bit Mickey’s nose off in a fight but, out of friendship, called a cab after the beef and had the nose sent to the hospital. The cabbie got a tip, but the surgical procedure failed and to this day Mickey sounds like a cold front out of Canada.

There was Billy O’Sullivan of Savin Hill, who did not know enough to stay within his own zip code. Billy had more hits to his credit than Elvis but he got greedy. They found his car in Charlestown with Billy’s shoes alongside the spare tire. And that’s all they ever found.

Louie Litoff was another part-time member of Jimmy Bulger’s cabinet, a bookmaker with a hundred different jogging outfits. On his last run around the block, Louie stepped on Red Assad’s foot outside the Waltham Street Cafe. It’s the little things that are important and soon Louie had a new nickname and a new address. He went out being called, “Bowling Ball Head” due to the three bullet holes in the back of his skull, and he now gets his mail at Mt. Calvary Cemetery.

Believe me, it’s not all ice cream and sweet dreams for Jimmy Bulger. Someone is always after his behind or his job. He’s always the object of some hostile takeover.

This is pure satire — really bad satire, as only Barnicle could write it. But you can clearly see that Barnicle was acknowledging Bulger’s involvement in murder and mayhem. Does Kornacki really think Barnicle would condone such actions?

Now, there is no question that Barnicle was and is close to Bill Bulger, the former Massachusetts Senate president, and has been an unconscionable apologist for former FBI agent John Connolly, now serving a prison term for his corrupt dealings with Bulger. In fact, here’s an excerpt of an article I wrote for the Boston Phoenix in 1998, a week before the Globe got rid of Barnicle for fabrication and plagiarism:

[W]hen it comes to the other Bulger, Whitey, Barnicle crosses the line from irresponsibility into journalistic corruption. Barnicle has consistently, and against all reason, defended the deal FBI agent John Connolly made with Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi, letting them sell drugs, terrorize their enemies, and even kill in return for intelligence on La Cosa Nostra.

Barnicle’s August 4 effort … was quintessential Barnicle. He went after John Martorano, a killer who’s decided to cooperate with the FBI in its quest to track down the elusive Bulger. Barnicle quoted Eddie Walsh, “an honest cop,” as saying Martorano “killed an awful lot of black people,” including three women at a Roxbury club in the 1960s. “If he gets immunity,” Walsh, who’s now retired, told Barnicle, “they ought to put the judge in jail.”

The column caused an immediate uproar, because sources inside the Globe — not to mention Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis — questioned how there could have been an unsolved triple murder that no one could remember. As it turned out, the murder had occurred, though Barnicle had some of the genders wrong (it was two men and one woman). But as Gelzinis reported in a devastating column on August 6, Barnicle failed to mention that “honest cop” Walsh is one of Connolly’s closest friends. And that Connolly had shared with Walsh information that could have saved the life of a bookie who was prepared to rat out Bulger, had Walsh chosen to do anything with said information. Leaving out such facts is not just bias on Barnicle’s part; it’s gross malpractice, and it’s inexplicable that the same Globe that could produce a Pulitzer-caliber Spotlight series on the FBI’s Bulger connection could at the same time tolerate such sleaze.

I suppose that, to some extent, satire is in the eye of the beholder. Any writer who attempts satire will be misunderstood by some of his readers. And yes, feel free to be offended that Barnicle, in the column cited by Salon, attempted to write a humorous piece about Whitey Bulger’s crimes and life of violence.

But don’t believe that Barnicle defended Whitey Bulger on that day. It’s just not true.

Update: If you follow the link to Kornacki’s piece now, you’ll see that he’s written a very gracious and thorough retraction. He’s a stand-up guy, and I’ll try to remember his example the next time I screw something up.

Finally, interesting news about Whitey Bulger

Whitey Bulger

I have a confession: the Whitey Bulger story has always bored me. No, not heart of it — the murders, the corrupt dealings with the FBI, the bad brother/good brother dynamic between Whitey and former Massachusetts Senate president Bill Bulger. That’s all incredibly compelling. But the years of incremental stories on various attempts to arrest him have left me cold.

Earlier this week, I barely glanced at the headlines over the FBI’s latest ruse — commercials on daytime televisions shows aimed at women who might recognize Bulger’s girlfriend, Catherine Greig. Someone who has followed the case much more closely than I dismissed it, saying it was pretty clear to him that Bulger was dead.

Well, he wasn’t, and the ads worked. Pretty amazing. As a few people have commented on Twitter, first Osama bin Laden, now Whitey Bulger.

Rather than directing you to specific news stories from today’s papers, I suggest you keep visiting the Boston.com and Boston Herald home pages, where the story is being continuously updated.