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Juliette Kayyem

The price of privacy

By Juliette Kayyem
Globe Columnist / October 13, 2011

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WHAT’S IN a name? When it’s an FBI source, quite a lot. This paper, its competitors, readers, and a lot of media critics are now arguing over the Globe’s decision to report the name of the tipster who led the FBI to fugitive James “Whitey’’ Bulger. Her name is Anna Bjornsdottir, the woman identified in earlier media reports as the neighbor from Iceland.

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.

A legal system that relies on tipsters to help solve major crimes is essentially offering them a two-part deal. To ensure that no one will seek retribution against its tipsters, the government vows to protect them with its entire arsenal. In some cases, the government will go so far as to provide a new location, police protection, or even a new identity.

In this case, Bjornsdottir’s safety was never an issue, apparently not to her or to the government. Bulger no longer has a gang to extract revenge. His legacy is the trail of misery he left behind him, and the terrible damage his collaboration did to the very agency - the FBI - that now has put him in custody.

The second bargain the government makes with its tipsters involves their reputations.

The government knows it takes courage for a tipster to come forward, risk his or her privacy, enter the frenzy of the criminal justice system, and, yes, confront the media maelstrom that might follow. The government makes a calculation that the fear of disclosure and disruption is a burden for which a tipster can be compensated. The risk-to-benefit ratio can be reduced to a number. In this case, it was $2 million.

Having already determined that its tipster in the Bulger case was safe, government officials then had a chance to determine how much her privacy was worth to them - because it’s they who will have to persuade future tipsters to come forward, and to compensate them. It’s hard to see how the government’s interest could be advanced by allowing the tipster’s identity to become public. The government would pay the price, one way or the other, in future cases.

But for some reason - perhaps the strange symbiotic relationship between law enforcement and the Bulger legacy, or the fun of having the evil Whitey meet his match in an Icelandic beauty queen - someone in the FBI bureaucracy apparently got careless. Whether or not the FBI was the source for the initial report by WBUR or for the many subsequent confirmations of the neighbor from Iceland, the agency failed to control the information.

Revealing two little facts - Iceland and neighbor - narrowed the list of potential tipsters to one. Surely, Whitey and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, would figure it out. Surely, a news agency could track her down.

There’s no doubt that Bjornsdottir knew there was a risk that her identity might slip out. The bounty she received was supposed to be an advance on the inconvenience that might ensue if the government were no longer be able to protect her privacy.

What she probably didn’t anticipate was that she was signing away her privacy at that moment. She was too good a part of the Bulger story, a narrative that continues to surround an old and washed-up criminal who has an undeniable hold on a city.

The neighbor from Iceland was the perfect end to a story line that has totally captivated a region and its law enforcement bureaucracy. Her privacy was sacrificed for a good yarn well before we knew her name.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.