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Editorial: Bulger-FBI tale cannot be told often enough

Whitey Bulger, by many accounts a ruthless gangster, and Bill Christie, the Concord lawyer who helped expose the FBI’s corrupt ties with him, both say they want the same outcome from Bulger’s trial: justice. May they get it, both for the sake of Bulger’s alleged victims and public confidence in the nation’s preeminent law enforcement agency.

Bulger’s trial begins in Boston today with jury selection and may continue into the fall. It is certain to be a spectacle, featuring a parade of sleazy witnesses whose collective testimony, prosecutors hope, will be consistent and convincing enough to convict Bulger of the 32 counts he faces. These range from murder (19 times over) to money-laundering and extortion.

Bulger, who is 83, hid for 16 years rather than face the charges, but he now says he welcomes his months in court.

“Want to refute lies (and) try to get my name cleared,” Bulger wrote last year from jail, according to the Boston Globe.

That’s going to take some doing. According to the Globe, the key witnesses against Bulger include his longtime partner, Stevie “The Rifleman” Flemmi, who has already pleaded guilty to participating in 10 murders with Bulger; John Morris, a former FBI supervisor who has pleaded guilty to taking bribes from Bulger and Flemmi and tipping them to confidential information; John Martorano, a gunman for hire who has admitted to 20 murders; and Kevin Weeks, a muscleman who says he buried several of the bodies Bulger left behind.

According to Whitey Bulger, a new book by longtime Globe reporters Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, Bulger is especially sensitive about the perception that he was an FBI informant, preferring instead to present himself as an “analyst.”

The FBI’s entanglement with the gangster, which lasted into the 1990s, has already been well aired, in part through civil litigation brought on behalf of the families of two of Bulger’s alleged victims by Christie and Steve Gordon, his Concord colleague. But this story cannot be told often enough.

The action brought by Christie and Gordon led to the release of reams of FBI documents. Among other things, they revealed 157 reports detailing criminal behavior by Bulger and Flemmi – yet despite this, the FBI failed to investigate them. Instead, the evidence suggests, the FBI actively protected Bulger and Flemmi from investigations by other agencies.

Why? Because the FBI had long before made a deal with Bulger, a rising thug in South Boston. In exchange for his help in targeting the Mafia – at the time, the FBI’s chief national priority – FBI agents would not go after Bulger for his own transgressions.

In time, what began as a strategic choice by FBI agents decayed into something seamier: steak dinners in their homes as they socialized with gangsters, gifts of Christmas alcohol, and bribes sufficient to finance a high lifestyle for Bulger’s chief handler, agent John Connolly, who would leave his government paychecks uncashed in his desk.

Bulger’s lawyers may go so far as to argue that the government, in essence, granted him immunity in pursuit of a greater good. Today’s FBI has different priorities and, presumably, higher standards. But what did happen must never happen again, and the airing of the agency’s complicity in Bulger’s criminal past will help ensure that it does not.

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