"Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and a Devil's Deal," by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill. Public Affairs. 369 pages. $26.
Long ago, as I began my career with the U.S. Justice Department's Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, a veteran FBI agent explained to me the First Commandment in the war against the mob. "A confidential informant is like fire. Properly controlled, both can be useful. Uncontrolled, they will cause disaster."
As I read "Black Mass," my mentor's wise advice came back to me with ringing clarity. In this estimable volume, Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill explore law enforcement's chronic indwelling infection: the slippery alliance between investigators and underworld informants. In doing so, the authors document a jaw-dropping, true life tale of how two thugs corrupted the FBI.
In the mid-1970s, John Connolly was a young, ambitious FBI agent who devised a hugely flawed plan to eliminate the Boston family of La Cosa Nostra. A South Boston native, Connolly cut a deal with one of his childhood heros, Whitey Bulger, a vicious Irish mobster. The deal? The FBI would use information from Bulger to go after the Italian Mafia. This cost Bulger nothing and allowed him to direct the FBI against his competition.
While Connolly's plan was approved by his superiors, no one seemed to notice the cow pie in the blender: since there were no controls on Whitey, it was inevitable that he would gain the advantage over the FBI. So, lacking the supervision of responsible adults, Connolly was given the go-ahead to work with Bulger.
Using information from Bulger and his hitman associate, Steve "The Rifleman" Flemmi, the FBI took down the Italians amid banner headlines. Meanwhile, the state police and the DEA investigated Bulger and Flemmi for extortion, drug dealing and assorted felonies.
To protect their informants and encourage their cooperation, Connolly and his supervisor, FBI Agent John Morris, tipped Bulger and Flemmi to the other agencies' wiretaps and investigations. With these obstructions of justice, Connolly and Morris delivered themselves into the hands of their informants who could, if caught, trade the agents for leniency. To cement his hold over the agents, Bulger (with Connolly as a sometime middleman) gave $7,000 cash to Morris. For this chump change, Bulger got to add bribery to his arsenal of threats against the agents.
Protected by the FBI, Bulger and Flemmi ran roughshod over anyone who got in their way. Honest citizens who sought the FBI's protection were scared off by Connolly. The FBI debriefed one potential witness for weeks before he was jettisoned as supposedly unreliable. Shortly thereafter, he was murdered.
With much to lose if it admitted the horrible truth, the federal establishment obdurately ignored the mounting evidence that the inmates were running the asylum and continued to back Connolly and Morris. Finally, after years of denial, the dam has burst and indictments abound.
"Black Mass" is a disturbing account of corruption, blind ambition and official complicity in dark deeds. It is must reading for all who are concerned about the role of police power in a free society. But beware. If you -- like me -- harbor any sentimental notions about an incorruptible FBI, you will find this to be at once an excruciating and infuriating read.
Lloyd George Parry was a federal Strike Force prosecutor from 1972 to 1978. He practices law in Philadelphia.