One of the FBI’s most active agents against organized crime, William F. Roemer, Jr., wrote four books about his experience as an FBI agent chasing after the Chicago Mafia. Shortly after he joined the FBI, the Apalchin meeting took place. The FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had to admit that the Mafia existed in the US, although he made sure his agents called it the LCN. With a wink, a blink and a knowing nod from FBI Headquarters, Roemer and other agents started to break into buildings owned by mob figures and others to plant listening devices (bugs). This was done without securing anyone’s permission other than its own. No judges were involved to review the reasons and to issue warrants.
Director Hoover made sure these agents who were committing these criminal acts knew that if any were caught, the FBI would wash its hands of them. It would deny they were authorized to do it. The FBI not only authorized the crimes but then planned to engage in a cover up of its actions. To catch the Mafia, the FBI decided the way to do it was to become criminals itself.
The results of Roemer’s bugs and of FBI planted bugs in other locations the FBI gained huge amounts of highly important and incriminating evidence. However, because it was seized illegally, none of the evidence could be used in court. It could be used for other purposes such as intelligence purposes in identifying other Mafia members, as leads for investigative purposes, and to give it knowledge as to who was killing whom.
Even though there was no way to get around the illegality of the break ins, to justify the secret interceptions J. Edgar kept in his pocket a vaguely worded letter by a former Attorney General Tom Clark. The letter dated July 7, 1946, was prepared by Hoover and forwarded to President Truman. It was supposedly asking for a continuation of the 1940 authorization give by FDR for warrantless electronic surveillance as the country approached WWII, but it left out a sentence limiting this to aliens. J. Edgar used this to justify the FBI conducting secret interceptions of anyone it wished. Director Hoover having beguiled Clark never brought the matter up again with any subsequent Attorney General.
That all came to a screaming halt when LBJ learned of the FBI’s actions in doing warrantless electric surveillance. Feeling the heat because one of his buddies may have been implicated in some unsavory acts he acted. On July 11, 1965, LBJ’s AG told the FBI it couldn’t do their bugs anymore without warrants. Roemer in his book Man Against the Mob called it a fatal day and the worst day of his life. He said, “As I have said before we had three primary avenues of investigations — electronic bugs, informants and physical surveillance. Mr. Hoover did not allow undercover work by his agents due to his belief that u.c. tended to corrupt agents. So in 1965 we in Chicago had no informant of any value to replace the information we got from our bugs.”
Roemer was used to doing things the wrong way. If he wanted to know what anyone was doing he broke into the person’s house or business and planted a bug. Now he couldn’t do that. He and others FBI agents felt defeated and betrayed by LBJ. Something had to be done.
The FBI decided the next best thing to planting a bug was planting a person who would do what the bug did. The information would not be as as accurate as a bug — it was processed through a filter, the informant; nor would it be as fresh coming to the FBI at a somewhat later time. Even so, the FBI felt it had no choice even though it knew to plant a person in a significant location such as the office of a Mafia leader it would have to be a person the Mafia leader trusted.
So secretly and without guidelines to its agents Director Hoover spread the word that it was all right to have top Mafia or other top organized crime figures as informants. The Top Echelon informant replaced the illegal bug. The big difference was the illegal bug didn’t commit crimes whereas the Top Echelon Informant was continually engaged in extorting and killing people.
The term Top Echelon Informant first came out in December 1964 according to Deadly Alliance by Ralph Ranalli. It was initially defined in the FBI’s Manual of Instructions as “Members of the underworld and those who closely associate with them, [including] Madams, prostitutes, pimps, fences, con men, hijackers, robbers, burglars, hoodlums and gangsters and those persons associated with such persons.” This hardly seemed a like a Top Echelon group but in late 1964 the FBI had its bugs for the top guys and figured for the type of criminals mentioned it could start using them to corroborate the bug information.
After the FBI could non longer to the warrantless electronic surveillance, the definition changed. By 1971 Top Echelon meant high level Mafia figures or those associated with them.
It didn’t have to be that way. LBJ’s prohibition on warrantless bugs did not mean electronic surveillance was no longer authorized. It simple meant you had to take another step before invading a citizen’s privacy. You had to show probable cause to a judge to get that permission a basic requirement of the Fourth Amendment.
Informants are lazy cop tools. Unfortunately, the FBI took a shine to them and decided that there was some glamor in dealing with informants, especially the real criminal types. So it pushed and praised the agents who were able to recruit them. This made the cops in the FBI who wanted to do the grunt work by making cases the hard way through surveillance, thought, research and analysis somewhat of outcasts. A mindset developed that you could not go after a Mafia or other top organized crime figure without a Top Echelon Informant. That was false but it was the easy way out even though the FBI agent became the enabler of the criminal.
There seems to be universal agreement that Top Echelon Informants are criminals engaging in criminal activities. The FBI’s enters into an agreement with them that it will protect them in exchange for information. FBI agent John Connolly now spending the rest of his life in a Florida jail said his job was to protect Whitey Bulger and Stevie Flemmi even though he knew they were murderers. It was reported that a Mafia leader Mark Rossetti suspected of several murders with a life long record of serious felony convictions who was sentenced in July 2012 was also an FBI informant for many years. Boston Globe reporter Milton J. Valencia reported that an intercepted call revealed his FBI handler told him, “my job is to keep you anonymous and keep you safe.”
The Boston Globe in a
hard hitting pillow tossing editorial on November 3, 2011 noted the abuse by FBI agents “developing relationships with unsavory characters and then standing by while their informants commit serious crimes” rather than saying, “FBI agents are partnering with murderers to insure their activities continue.” It suggested Congress may want to do something about it. That’s a joke. Congress is the FBI’s lap dog. More on that in a bit.