FBI's most favored felons
By Andy Solomon, 8/19/2001
Deadly Alliance: The FBI's Secret Partnership with the Mob
By Ralph Ranalli
HarperTorch, 416 pp
illustrated, paper. $6.99
Our childhood Western movies prescribed a simple ethical code: Good guys wear white hats and throw clean right crosses to the jaw. Only black-hatted bad guys resort to knees to the groin and thumbs to the eye.
But in the real world of crime fighting, whose veil Globe (and former Herald) reporter Ralph Ranalli strips away, everyone's knees are flying, and the lightest hat is dark gray.
Ranalli scoured reams of court transcripts and FBI documents, interviewing scores of law officers at all levels, to pry open the history and unsettling practices of the FBI's Top Echelon Informant Program. ''Deadly Alliance'' provides a riveting contribution to all investigative reporters' true mission: digging up what the public has a right to know.
Ranalli's first chapter tests the reader's commitment. To hook us with immediate immersion in violence and deceit, he opens with the May 11, 1982, murder of Brian Halloran, a thug linked to Boston's Winter Hill Gang, but who was then trying to give the FBI damning evidence against top crime figures James ''Whitey'' Bulger and Stephen ''The Rifleman'' Flemmi.
Names fly at us as blindingly as in a Russian novel, and only those who are deeply versed in Boston's criminal history will keep them straight. The second chapter, however, provides the historical background against which the swirling names and flying bullets slow down and grow clear.
We begin to see the individuals who represent the key pieces of the puzzle. In this larger picture, the FBI considered Halloran small potatoes, but the men he would testify against, Bulger and Flemmi, were invaluable. Long since recruited as informants, Bulger and Flemmi might help bring down New England's Patriarca crime family. Therefore, Ranalli explains, protecting them, ignoring felonies they committed while informants, and even discouraging Halloran from testifying against them became the policy of their FBI handlers.
Chief among these liaisons were FBI special agent John Connolly, the Boston office's chief recruiter of informants, and Organized Crime Squad supervisor John Morris. Connolly, later arrested on racketeering charges, and Morris, who testified for the government after receiving immunity from prosecution, allegedly slipped their informants top-secret information they withheld even from local, state, and fellow federal law officers.
The more clearly Ranalli paints this program, the uglier it becomes. He claims, ''High-level informants committed larceny, extortion, assault, and scores of murders - all while being protected and even abetted by FBI agents who treated them ... like close friends.'' The need for secrecy, even within the FBI itself, crippled ''any effective supervision of the program up the chain of command.''
To enumerate the shady abuses Ranalli documents, from Boston to New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., would dizzy the arithmetic of memory. He describes morally kaleidoscopic scenes of law officers betraying one agency to serve another, playing spy and counterspy between organized crime and semi-organized law enforcement, tipping off murderers and blocking attempts at crime solving. He evokes a feeling oddly reminiscent of Vietnam: Which side is everyone on in this nightmarish war, and where in this morass can we find moral high ground?
Ranalli offers some superb descriptive writing, as in introducing ''the undisputed Wild Thing of the gang war, Joseph `The Animal' Barboza. Absolutely fearless, Barboza stomped through the underworld like a silverback gorilla.'' He's at his most illuminating, though, in his too-infrequent historical overview passages.
When he eases back from Boston to a national perspective, we learn the identity of the creator of this flawed informant program. Far from originating with local agents like Connolly, it was kicked off by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself. Though not the first, Ranalli is among the more readable writers to describe Hoover's rise from the Justice Department mailroom to head of ''arguably the most powerful law enforcement agency in the world.''
To do that, Hoover needed laws that broadened his powers, a free hand, and ample money. That meant finding not just enemies but the right enemies. To warrant a free hand, he aimed at ''subversives,'' excellent targets for using any means necessary. To build statistics, Hoover went after crime, but disorganized crime, the lone wolves like 1930s bandits John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, ones he could pick off at modest cost.
Organized crime was expensive in man-hours and money, so Hoover adopted the ostrich approach: It doesn't really exist. Agents themselves admit that even by the mid-1950s ''the FBI was stunningly ignorant about the Mafia.'' But after the bumbled 1957 Appalachin, N.Y., summit and 1963 testimony of Joe Valachi, the first Mob canary to sing a complete song, Hoover had to concede the Mafia's existence and needed to play a speedy game of catch-up. His self-righteousness the size of Fenway Park, Hoover looked for criminals willing to play ball. The result was the estimated 400-informant program Ranalli unmasks here.
It is no criticism to say Ranalli occasionally sheds his reportorial objectivity, calling the program ''sordid'' and ''morally bankrupt.'' Inside any good reporter lurks a human being with a value system. The abuses he reveals are legion, and he had enormous cooperation from honorable FBI agents in uncovering them.
Less clear is whether Ranalli fully concedes that good guys can't always win solely with rights to the jaw. That's why we cheer for Dirty Harry. As Ranalli admits, the FBI had to tolerate some criminal activity by its spies or they couldn't remain credible in an underworld where merely being out on bail makes fellow criminals suspicious.
Mobsters seek wealth and power in order to stay alive and out of jail. Crime fighters want bad guys off the street. Lawyers don't pursue justice but winning. Someone must champion integrity and principle. That's where reporters like Ranalli come in.
The central question he raises, worth always keeping before us: Just where will we draw a line in tactics and ethics that, when crossed, means the good guys have gone over to the other side?
Andy Solomon teaches journalism at the University of Tampa.
This story ran on page D5 of the Boston Globe on 8/19/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.