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A Long Tradition of Blowback

The FBI and Its Lethal Informants

by PETER LEE

Lot of talk about bad guys being FBI assets recently.  Thanks to his lawyers, the Interwebs are a-hum with speculation that the FBI neglected to hoover up Tamerlan Tsarnaev a.k.a. the Elder before the Boston marathon bombing because the Bureau was already in touch with him and trying to turn him as an asset, not because the Russians withheld crucial information.

Yesterday it also transpired that Glenn Miller, the white supremacist linked to the shootings in Overland Park, had allegedly worked with the FBI as an informer.  In CounterPunch, James Ridgeway quotes an aggrieved white supremacist outlet that accused Miller:

“In the 1980′s Glenn Miller was a self-styled KKK leader in North Carolina.  He made contact with The Order, which was famous for armored car heists.  Apparently he convinced The Order to make him part of an “above ground/legal” wing of the group.  He then provided information to the FBI and testified against other members of the “legal” wing that were receiving money obtained from the armored car heists.”

This sort of risky business looks suspiciously like FBI standard procedure.

Reading Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy’s biography of Whitey Bulger, the notorious—and notoriously protected—Boston gangster who parlayed his FBI relationship into legal impunity and a municipal crime empire, one learns that this sort of arrangement spanned generations in the Bureau:

[Boston crime figure Frank] Salemme claims [FBI agent Paul] Rico’s animosity toward the McLaughlin gang stemmed from the McLaughlins’ typically careless and insulting ways—specifically their bawdy claims that Rico and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover were lovers…Rico…got even by helping [rival gang] Winter Hill pick off the Mclaughlin gang, one by one.  He helped Winter Hill set up the 1964 murder of Ronnie Dermody….But Dermody was small change.

It might be worth noting that Dermody, while being small change, was also Rico’s informant.  But in order to ingratiate himself with a higher level gangster, Rico set up the hit by booking a meeting with Dermody, but arranging for the gunman to show up instead…and then let the gunman lie low at his house for a couple days.

And there’s more:

Rico and [his partner Dennis Condon] wanted …”Punch” McLaughlin…in the grave…Rico followed Punch…then told [gangster Steve] Flemmi that Punch was taking the bus…Flemmi fired six times into Punchy’s chest as he was boarding the bus.  The next time Flemmi saw Rico, the FBI agent told him, “Nice shooting”.[Cullen and Murphy Whitey Bulger W.W. Norton & Co., 2013 pp. 78-79]

This was several years before Flemmi became an FBI official informant and his case would presumably subject to some kind of formal supervision.  Before then, apparently, orchestrating gang hits off the books was simply part of the creative, improvisational side of Paul Rico.

After Rico and Condon retired, John Connolly took over as the FBI Boston office go-to guy for handling informants.  He gave Whitey Bulger free rein in return for suspiciously meager tips and suspiciously large handouts, a combination that landed Connolly in federal prison for racketeering and, in 2011, confinement in Florida state prison to serve the rest of a 40-year sentence for second degree murder as an accessory to a Bulger rubout.

In Boston, the justification was always that the FBI was using “good” (or not-as-bad) gangsters to take down worse gangsters—the McClaughlin gang for Rico and Condon, and the New England Mafia for John Connolly.

If this reminds you of something, well it should.  For the edification of readers, here is the Wikipedia entry for Tsarist Russia’s Department for Protecting the Public Security and Order, colloquially known as the Okhrana:

The Okhrana used many seemingly unorthodox methods in the pursuit of its mission to defend the monarchy; indeed, some of the Okhrana’s activities even contributed to the wave of domestic unrest and revolutionary terror that they were intended to quell…The exposure of Yevno Azef (who had organized many assassinations, including that of Plehve) and Dmitri Bogrov (who assassinated Stolypin in 1911) as Okhrana double agents put the agency’s methods under great suspicion…

And, in the category of Nobody Could Have Foreseen:

Just as the Okhrana had once sponsored trade unions to divert activist energy from political causes, so too did the secret police attempt to promote the Bolshevik party, as the Bolsheviks seemed a relatively harmless alternative to more violent revolutionary groups. Indeed, to the Okhrana, Lenin seemed to actively hinder the revolutionary movement by denouncing other revolutionary groups and refusing to cooperate with them. To aid the Bolsheviks at the expense of other revolutionaries, the Okhrana helped Roman Malinovsky, a police spy who had managed to rise within the group and gain Lenin’s trust, in his bid to become a Bolshevik delegate to the Duma. To this end, the Okhrana sequestered Malinovsky’s criminal record and arrested others candidates for the seat.  Malinovsky won the seat and led the Bolshevik delegation in the Fourth Duma until 1914, but even with the information Malinovsky and other informants provided to the Okhrana, the police were unprepared for the rise of Bolshevism in 1917.

Don’t be surprised if the US government is keeping tabs on and, indeed, keeping in touch with bad guys.  And, I suppose, when a bad guy predictably does something bad, don’t be surprised if the US government isn’t particularly eager to reveal everything it actually knew.

It’s a long tradition.

Peter Lee wrote a ground-breaking essay on the exposure of sailors on board the USS Reagan to radioactive fallout from Fukushima in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He edits China Matters.