The Emergence Of The FBI’s Top Echelon Informant Program

J. Edgar Hoover In Desperation Misses The Target.

A curious thought occurred to me.  If it’s true, for me it undermines the whole Government case against FBI Agent John Connolly. It cracks completely the carapace of corruption concerning him.  It undermines what we’ve been told about others. It makes the sentence of Catherine Greig a mockery of justice reminiscent of Soviet Justice, long cruel sentences for minor offenses. It puts to shame the idea the Billy Bulger was somehow ill-considered in his actions. It is so evident, so much staring me in the face, a five alarm fire in the next door apartment, and I missed it.

I’ll talk about it tomorrow. Today I have to set the background. I know it’s so un-American to delay a person’s gratification but without an understanding of the background its significance pales somewhat.

FBI Agent John Connolly said that he was put into the business of dealing with murderers. We know that. So were and are all the other FBI agents that were urged to recruit and work with Top Echelon (TE) Informants. It was a mark of high achievement for an FBI agent to have one; Connolly had listed around ten. Two of them enrolled in his stable according to FBI files were James “Whitey” Bulger and Steven Flemmi.

The TE program came about after the middle of the 1960s. J. Edgar Hoover in his waning years with his slowly failing facilities as he moved into his eight decade was pressured by his gangster fighting agents to give them a tool to replace the one they just lost in their fight against the Mafia.

Around the very late Fifties under pressure from the Apalachin arrests by Sergeant Edgar Croswell of the New York State Police Hoover switched gears and targeted the Mafia. It was a good morale move. Prior to that time the FBI job had become somewhat dull. One agent, famous for his action against the mob in Chicago, tells how he was about quit the FBI because he was so bored. Then with the shift, agents like him, interested in action, adventure, suspense and Mafia doings were invigorated.

Word came down from the Seat of Government (SOG), that what the old-time agents called J.Edgar Hoover, a name suggesting he ran the country, to set up units to take down the Mafia. Not having concentrated on that crime group, the agents found they had little to go on. The plan developed in conjunction with headquarters was kept in the secret files of SOG. The FBI would break the law to get the law breakers.

From various offices throughout the country FBI agents began breaking into buildings to place electronic listening devices (bugs) into gangsters offices. They then began to secretly listen to and recording their conversations. As time passed the FBI knew as much about the Mafia as the Mafia knew about itself, if not more.

Things went well until some agents decided one of LBJ’s close associates was involved in some heavy hijinks. LBJ had survived the Bobby Baker Affair  and the later the Jenkins Scandal just before his election.   Worried that further scandals would be the death knell of his Administration, rather that the idea of jumping more deeply into the Vietnam conflict, LBJ in June 1965 ordered that all the FBI bugs be taken out

The Chicago agent said when he heard this it was the worst day of his life. J. Edgar had all these aggressive agents who were enjoying the highs of fighting the Mafia heading back to their desks to do background checks. Morale crumbled. The fight against the Mafia had come a cropper just as success seemed assured.

Desperate times require desperate measures and desperate measures are usually ill considered. Thus the TE program. If the FBI could no longer use an electronic bug in a Mafia location to provide information on its intentions then why not substituted a person for a bug? Get someone high up in the Mafia to provide the information the bug had been giving. Give him a promise preferring part of the pie to an empty plate.

What then to promise? How does the FBI induce a person up to his neck in crime whose livelihood is crime and who must continue criminal collaborations to be effective to partner with it?  It has to give him protection and keep him safe from other investigations. Little else would move a malignant man not under criminal charges to agree to be managed.

The FBI missed the mark in its panicky creation of the program. The analogy between a bug and a TE failed for several reasons. Bugs were passive, TEs active; Bugs asked for nothing: TEs everything; Bugs gave information straight from the bosses mouth; TEs filtered it back.

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15 thoughts on “The Emergence Of The FBI’s Top Echelon Informant Program

    1. I look forward to seeing how you develop the argument that the TE program was ill-considered, if that’s where you are going. But what would be the alternative? Intelligence collection has many tools, but it seems to me “human intelligence”, i.e. informants, is one of the most valuable. Of course there are costs and benefits that need to be evaluated and understood. The benefit is information, the cost is the risk of disinformation. Deciphering truth from fiction in interrogation is difficult, but not at all impossible. It’s a challenge faced by litigators, intelligence operatives, and in fact, in most areas of life. Guantanamo, for example, was a highly successful intelligence operation. Interrogation was not easy, but when you read the thousands of documents that were declassified by the Pentagon in March 2006 (the summaries of evidence and detainee testimony from Combatant Status Tribunal Review and Administrative Review Board hearings), you begin to gain a deep strategic understanding of the enemy: the travel routes, the recruitment network, the training camps, the guesthouse network, the facilitators, the charity fronts, the financiers, the radicalization centers like the Dimmaj Institute in Yemen or Finsbury Park mosque in the UK, etc. This information was difficult to obtain, one reason being that many jihadists rounded up were trained in counter-interrogation techniques. One of the first things Khalid Shiek Mohammed said when Deuce Martinez began to talking to him after he was captured was: “where’s my lawyer?” But more to the point, there was as much disinformation as information in these interrogations, and a smart, capable interrogator must learn to distinguish between the two: by asking good questions, followup questions, cross-checking with other sources of information, assessing probabilities, etc. I’m not arguing for torture, but there is a case to be made the EITs were helpful in identifying the courier who led us to Bin Laden. Former FBI agent Ali Soufan has been vocal in his criticisms of EITs and in a recent NYT article (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/opinion/sunday/torture-lies-and-hollywood.html?_r=0) argued that “After Mr. Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, he actually played down the importance of the courier who ultimately led us to Bin Laden.” But what he fails to say is that the very fact of “playing down the importance of the courier” would actually raise suspicions on the part of a good interrogator that the courier is important. Now again, this is not about waterboarding (that’s a whole other debate), but about the nature of distinguishing between fact and fiction. But since we’re on the topic of interrogation in the War on Terror, it was human intelligence that led us to capture many of the major operatives behind 9/11 (KSM, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi Binalshib, Mustafa al Hawsawi, etc.).

      So I’m am eagerly awaiting your next post.

      1. Jon,

        What is the remedy for those whom have been incorrectly identified by the government to be POOFed? Their lives are made into a Kafaesque nightmare, because of mistake, or corruption? Where do they seek justice, when the injustice of power is their destruction?

        1. Jean:

          Not sure if you’re referring to Connolly or the Gitmo detainees. I don’t have an answer in regards to Connolly. He was convicted and is serving his sentence. As for me, I have not come to my own conclusion as yet whether he deserves his sentence, as this whole FBI-Boston mob issue is one of constant ongoing research for me (a new passion, you might say), although I will say that I find quite compelling the point often made on this blog that Connolly never pulled a trigger or was even in the same location when Callahan and Wheeler were killed and is nevertheless serving a de facto life sentence.

          As for Gitmo, the “remedies” are: first, the Combatant Status Tribunal hearings in which a determination was made whether a detainee was an enemy combatant; second, the administrative review board hearings in which determinations were made about whether a detainee should ultimately be releases; third, military commissions that have served as a Gitmo substitute for the court system in the U.S.

          I certainly expect all the lawyers to pound away at the supposed “injustice” of military commissions or the CSRT/ARB hearings or Gitmo in general.

          First, I will say the decisions made by the Bush administration and conditions of detention during the Bush years were not always perfect (although I do not believe they were a lawless bunch of thugs; in fact, Jack Goldsmith, who wrote one of the best critiques of their terror policies, writes that never have lawyers had so much influence). But there was good progress over the years in establishing procedures for review of combatant status and threat status of detainees, and remarkable progress in the conditions of the facilities and of life under detention. Everyone who visits agrees that the conditions of detention are in accord with the Geneva conditions.

          Second, that said, the basic distinction I would draw in discussion of Gitmo is between evidence and intelligence.

          The Gitmo lobby would have us prosecute detainees under normal procedures of US criminal law, or even if they concede that criminal law is too restrictive and so some version of “extra-criminal” law must apply, there must nevertheless be some procedure for prosecution under the auspices of US constitutional law. In a word, detainees should have access to lawyers and their cases tried before the courts.

          This is how terrorism cases were handled in the world prior to 9/11. Hence, Shiekh Omar al Rahman and Ramzi Yousef (1993 WTC bombing) and others now sit in federal prisons after being convicted in US courts. As a side note, their prosecution and conviction in a court of law are not ignored in Al Qaeda propaganda and thus recruitment, despite the claims that closing Gitmo and prosecuting detainees in the US courts would “restore our image” and remove a propaganda and recruitment tool from the hands of Al Qaeda leaders. Whether in Gitmo or in federal prisons, detainees are still imprisoned by the infidels.

          Side note aside, the point I wish to make is that, in a state of war, the normal procedures of law break down. You can’t conduct a dispassionate, slow, and steady process of discovery and write up memorandums and motions and basically move through the courts as you would in a normal criminal case. Why? One, for the obvious reason that war is chaotic and thus such procedures are impractical, but two, and more importantly, because doing so was counterproductive and undermined our efforts to understand the enemy and prevent attacks in the sudden “war on terror” in which we found ourselves.

          You might understandably ask, what is this “war on terror”? My view is that the phrase is rhetorical but nonetheless identifies a concrete enemy. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, countless threats were coming into the purview of US intelligence, and they were coming from an enemy we did not understand. The pressure under which officials in the Bush administration worked every day was to understand the enemy and prevent attacks. The war on terror was a war on those who would wage the next attacks. Hence, the need for intelligence.

          Ultimately, we could come to understand that the enemy is a network of jihadists unified and emboldened by ideology and strengthened by operative expertise and financial backing. The network was many years in the making and formed from a hardened cadre of jihad-inspired Islamists bent on restoring the caliphate and breaking down Western societies. Not all “terrorists” are alike, of course, so you can distinguish the elite from the cannon fodder, and write stories about why any given jihadist comes to the jihad. But by and large, if you study the history and organization of al Qaeda and its hydra of terrorist groups (Taliban, the alphabet soup of Pakistani groups like the LET and LeJ and HUJI and HUM and SSP and TTP and more, South Asian and Central Asian groups like IMU, ETIP, etc.) you see that there is an extensive network of individuals indoctrinated by the works of thinkers like Sayyid Qtub and organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, financially backed by innumerable organizations falling under the MB umbrella, and recruited and trained by a network of operatives who had built up their expertise in the devising of plots over several decades.

          How did we come to understand this enemy? Some of it we already knew. But many of the details and nodes of the network came from the interrogation and de-briefing of detainees at Guantanamo. I challenge you to read through all the documents from the CSRT and ARB hearings that were declassified by DoD and currently sit nicely organized at http://projects.nytimes.com/guantanamo. If you spend a few months studying these documents, you can begin to see how valuable was the intelligence gained from these detainees. Forget for a moment about evaluating the allegations of any given detainee (which is not to underestimate their import), and focus on information that shows up consistently across detainees – such as radical clerics and mosques (Shiek Muqbil al Wadi in Yemen, or Finsbury Park mosque in London), recruiters and facilitators, travel routes, financial networks, guesthouses, and training camps. These are the nodes of the network that had developed over many years and into which indoctrinated jihadists fell on their way to carrying out any particular plot.

          We needed this information, and we needed it fast. And we got it from detainees. Now, what about individual detainees who might be innocent? Contrary to mythologizing by the left, we did not just pick up random guys with bounty payments and such. 70,000 people were picked up in the months following the bombing of Tora Bora, 10,000 were intensely screened, and 780 or so ended up in Gitmo. So yes, there were procedures in place to evaluate people picked up. Lots of people were involved – lawyers, intelligence officials, etc. And so it was that almost 800 guys ended up at Gitmo. Not all of them were guilty, but most of them were. Guilty of what? That’s a loaded question and is another conversation, but for now let’s say guilty of “hostilities” against the US. As for those “not guilty”, they’ve been release.

          In the chaos of war, it wasn’t so easy to come up with a clean and simply set of procedures for determining what to do with the men they believed to be the “worst of the worst”. One thing was clear – keep them out of US courts. They weren’t US citizens, and the point was to gather intelligence, not prosecute criminals. I’m not a lawyer, but I believe detention until the end of a state of war has always been the norm under the laws of war. So nothing really new here. Moreover, early on there was an intention to eventually deal with detainees in military commissions rather than US courts, which again is not all that outside the norm. This is how Roosevelt dealt with Nazi saboteurs who landed on US shores in June 1942, and all those bastions of the left like the NYT times in that time defended him, in fact urged him on. This brings us to another point.

          All the while, conditions at Gitmo are impeccable, and procedures have evolved for determining the conditions under which detainees may be “cleared for release”, which btw, does not necessarily indicate a determination of innocence.

          I understand the concerns about indefinite detention, and that the experience of detainees going through CSRT and ARB hearings and waiting around for decisions about their status can seem Kafkaesque, and that complex political forces (which includes a strong voice by their lawyers and sympathetic elements in the media; the Bush administration, after all, lost the public relations battle) can frustrate the process. But rest assured there are many venues set up to evaluate the “innocence” of Gitmo detainees while balancing the national securities of the U.S.

          Sorry for the long post. I spent a few years studying Gitmo and it’s a passion of mine.

          1. Jon:
            The influence of lawyers looking to please their boss is never a good thing. I don’t know any lawyer worth his salt who can’ come up with a justification for anything, even torture as John Woo did. I’ve told this before that the best lesson I learned as a young lawyer is the law is what a judge says it is. In other words, you can think you are 100% right and have all the correct precedents but if the judge doesn’t agree with you, then the law in that case will be what she decides even if it trumps 200 years of precedent.
            I differ with your suggestion that of the 800 people sent to Gitmo the majority were guilty. I think the federal judges reviewing the habeas complaints found that for over 80^ evidence was not sufficient to hold them.
            I surprised that you say “[c]ontrary to mythologizing by the left” What makes human rights and civil rights a left/right issue. You pass off torture as if that is something the “left” made up; water boarding was torture until others suggested it was enhanced interrogation testimony, a term that never existed before 9/11. When a country invents new terms to cover its sins it is not a left/right issue; it is a matter of right/wrong.
            I’m bothered by your suggestion, ” Not all of them were guilty, but most of them were. Guilty of what? That’s a loaded question and is another conversation, but for now let’s say guilty of “hostilities” against the US. As for those “not guilty”, they’ve been release.” First the last I heard the Weegers were still there; and I heard there are innocent Somalis there. But the worst part of that statement is the implicit admission that many of these people weren’t terrorists but engaged in “hostilities” against the US. Since when it that a crime to be locked up without a trial for year after year.
            The sad fact is that they shuld have been brought into the US courts and had they been those who were guilty would have been tried and executed by now, if that punishment was warranted, and those not guilty released.
            Prior to 9/11 we found our courts sufficient to handle these terrorists like the blind Shiek and other radicals who weren’t US citizens. The fog of war occurs on the battlefield, not in the many years afterwards. Yes, of course prisoners can be held during the pendency of war, but using that as a basis for suggesting there is nothing new here when we’re engaged in a war that has lasted over 11 years and has no end in sight is sort of silly. Are you suggesting an Afghan who resisted American forces who invaded his country when captured can be held forever? That’s how long we are going to have the war on terror.
            I don’t think the analogy of what FDR did against the five or six Nazi’s during WWII who landed on our shore during a time when the Germans had occupied all of Europe and advancing on both Britain and Moscow with what is going on now is valid. WWII we were fighting for our lives We were a country of about 130 million people with 16 million men in the armed forces, over 12% of the population. Today in a country of 313 million we have less than 1 and a half million in the armed service, or less than a 1/2% of our population. In WWII every person in America direly felt the war; today only those in the service or their families are affected. No one else has sacrificed.
            I’d suggest the analysis of the War on Terror or the incidents in the Whitey Bulger saga are best done without the overtones of a left/right debate. There are certain freedoms America stands for. It is not wrong or unAmerican to suggest we abide by our traditions.

      2. Jon:
        The alternative to the TE program is not having such a program. I’ve preached that even though informants are necessary good hard police work with modern day tools can easily substitute for them. If you must use informants, then you do it on a narrow basis unlike the TE program which gives them carte blanche. Why isn’t everyone revolted by an FBI agent in 2011 telling a top hoodlum who is a Mafia guy suspected of a half dozen murders that “my job is to keep you safe.” That’s not an FBI agents job. The FBI says it is investigating why that happened. It has taken two years and it still continues.
        I’ve used informants but never protected them. I might give them a deal on a case to get the information but it was one thing for one thing. The logic that is used that it is necessary to have informants therefore you must have a TE program does not follow.
        Here’s where I think you may not be correct.

        Before I go there let me say as the rest of your post, you are arguing about torture. Water boarding is torture. Many persons we captured died under brutal interrogation in hidden prison sites. They died because they were tortured. Our CIA purposefully destroyed the tapes of the interrogation tapes it had made because they would have shown exactly what these enemies suffered at our hand which was revolting. I don’t like the euphemism game where methods used by others were called torture and when used by us are enhanced interrogation techniques. A rose is a rose by any other name. The end doesn’t justify the means.

        We had certain standards as Americans that in our panic we threw out the window. It will always be a blot on our nation even if the outcome of torture was beneficial to our safety, which many have suggested is not the case. You have to give the FBI this, it did not engage in torture. It was the CIA and military.
        Of course you see the result of going the torture route, our president now has developed a hit list. A secret list of people drawn up by a Star Chamber of men deemed to be terrorists who are marked for murder. There is no due process involved. There is no need the person be on a battlefield. Any person, any place considered an enemy can be executed according to the decisions of this Star Chamber.

        You know much about the Guantanamo situation. Do you know that over 80% of those prisoners who were held for years and years who had their cases reviewed by a federal court the judge find there was not sufficient evidence to establish they were terrorists. Do you know the much publicized Abu Zubaydah who was waterboarded 83 times the Government now admits was not a member of Al Qaeda and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Had Obama’s Star Chamber been in operation earlier, these men including Zubaydah who weren’t terrorist would have been executed. I suggest the use of torture (where people died and no one was held accountable) is the first step in our countries descent into an eventual wide spread deprivation of normal civil rights.

        Now back to your TE question. The correct analogy is not the information that is gained from informants but the manner in which that program operated. Suppose the CIA has a TE program. They’d recruit someone like Mullah Omar to work for them They would tell him if he cooperated in turning over what Al Qaeda operatives were doing in his country and Pakistan, the CIA would protect Omar’s Taliban group in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Does that make sense to empower Omar just to get some others.

        The TE program’s evilness is it makes the FBI a partner with the top level criminals. It’s not that it get information from them; it offers in exchange for the information the right to conduct their evil works unmolested. It prevents some people from being victimized while insuring others are. It picks and chooses who will live and who will die.

        1. I am in total agreement with this response. Many innocent citizens, like me, have been wrongfully placed on these so called lists without their knowledge, or remedies to defend themselves. This should not be sanctioned to continue. Where are the checks and balances?

          1. Jean:
            I’ve been preaching all along that the FBI is a secret police force that has not checks and balances on it. No one dares take it on.

    2. Jean:
      My use of the word Mafia is very narrow. It is an Italian group of men carrying on a tradition that came from Sicily. If you get a look at list of the guys who attended the Apalachin meeting, that’s the Mafia. When I talk about it today its those guys and the Italians who are following in their steps. They may have outside the Italians who are not members such as Flemmi and Martorano who cooperated with it; or even a small number of people who are from other ethnic groups who are considered associate members.
      International organized crime is too broad a term for the Mafia since it includes too many other groups.

      1. Matt – If the TE Program was designed to target only Italians, and not organized crime then it was doomed to fail from the “git go”. Clearly nature and organized criminals abhor a vacuum , and the Irish in Boston, Russian Mafia in New York , sometimes known as the “water mafia”, among other nationals, and, jihadists have filled the void that the Italians left. Surely, the US Government was not that narrow minded? And, there is credible evidence that the TE Program is ongoing today? Who is the stated target now? Clearly some of us on the old POOF list don’t belong. Where does one go to get delisted?

        I do agree that most likely any FBI TE Program handler was in a special place in “The Program”, and at this time we the victims do not have enough facts to make and informed conclusion, and most likely will never will unless Judge Casper lets Whitey take the stand, and only then, if he has hard evidence to share with the jury.

        1. Jean:
          Too bad you weren’t there to tell J. Edgar that his plan was ill advised.

          The TE program is alive and well. I’m not sure they have any good targets anymore. Remember the old style organized crime gangs are going the way of the televisions with tubes. The gangsters always go to where they can make the most money with the least risk. At one time that was in gaming because everyone playing was a willing participant. Now with all the state lotteries the gangsters have had to find another way to make easy money. Most have moved over into the banks.

          For all you know because the FBI was protecting a TE that’s why you got the royal run around. We can’t know who is affected by the TE program because the FBI will never disclose it. We just go to hope the next person we talk to is not a TE trying to set us up to get a good deal for himself.

  1. Dear Jon,
    When one considers the role of “enhanced interrogation techniques” or even regular interrogation techniques, you raise an important point about the balance between costs and the benefits — the risks and the rewards. Are the countless false confessions a price worth paying for the prize of one true one? Recall cases such as the Central Park Five (http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/centralparkfive/) or the Norfolk Four (http://www.norfolkfour.com/). Soufan has talked at length about this, as you point out. This is an important point about how interrogation is never foolproof; and just as it may produce false confessions, it may also produce false accusations against others. A key point here has been that John Connolly refused to give in, and for that he was punished as was Catherine Grieg. And now those lines of justice remain blurred. Thank you for raising these larger issues about how the Bulger issues pertain to general law enforcement practices. Sincerely, Jay

  2. Hoover was not above “breaking the law to get the lawbreakers” right from the jump, as evidenced by his actions as a rapidly-advancing young Bureau of Investigation chief for the Department of Justice. His first big case was the trial and deportation of Emma Goldman, in 1920, during the days of the Red Scare. Hoover showed no regard for the Constitution, as he dubiously used selective parts of the then twenty-year old testimony of Leon Czogoloz (assassin of President McKinley) to “prove” a link between Goldman and him, further establishing her culpability and undesirability. I, in no way, advocate or sympathize with any of the known or suspected activities of Emma Goldman. Because like Col. Tom Foley said..”if the law-enforcers are breaking the law, then the whole system collapses.” For over 50 years,Hoover had no compunction about trampling the rights of friend and foe alike, famously “opening a file” on anyone who crossed him, and alot of people who didn’t(to be used later, if needed.) In a world where, to him, it was the Govt. vs. The People, he was able to amass dirt against both sides, thus positioning himself as puppetmaster for life, even to the point of manipulating sitting Presidents. He absolutely played dirty right from the beginning, and probably mandated what developed into the culture that we have seen between agents and TE’s from Barboza and the Flemmis to Whitey and even still to this day, with Rossetti. They know no boundaries as long as it fits their agenda to “Don’t Embarrass The Family.” Matt,I don’t buy the rogue-agent theory anymore.

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