When Whitey Bulger was arrested in Santa Monica, California, this summer, it may have seemed that a new day had dawned for the local FBI and for the Justice Department. With the old man back, however, and facing trial no time soon, the air is stale with evidence that, as Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
>> READ: "Whitey Bulger and the Feds: The final act" by Harvey Silverglate <<
Public reaction to Bulger's arrest has been as skeptical and cynical as it was to the FBI's insistent declaration over the years that it really was intent on finding him. There is a state of civil disbelief that they caught him in the manner they suggest, and widespread belief the bureau knew where he was all along.
For the local US attorney and the local FBI, who weren't here for acts one and two of the Bulger saga, this must be bitter indeed. At the one and only press conference about Bulger, the day after his arrest, they showed no signs of triumph or relief, and not once did the FBI proclaim its customary boast that "the bureau always gets its man."
The presence of the families of Bulger's victims at his first appearance in a Boston courtroom underscored the government's culpability in his reign of terror.
First, there was the decades-long protection of Bulger and his partner Stephen Flemmi as informants. Then there was the careening corruption — agents on the take, receiving gifts and money, one of them even living in the home of one of the Bulger mob — and collaboration and conspiracy in murders and other crimes. When outside law enforcement and a couple of hard-charging federal prosecutors pushed for indictment, the FBI maneuvered to thwart the effort. Finally came the back-door tip to Bulger to skip town, just ahead of indictments, followed by a search for the fugitive that was unenthusiastic, incompetent, or deliberately ineffective.
Still trying to keep control, the Justice Department made a decision to claim that the guy behind the wheel of the car wreck was Bulger's FBI handler John Connolly and Connolly alone. A special outside prosecutor, John Durham, capped the oil blowout of damage by prosecuting Connolly, who was convicted in 2002. Durham made himself seem even-handed by going after and winning the convictions of a Boston cop and then, in 2003, a retired state cop, as if the Boston Police and the Massachusetts State Police had been as culpable as the feds. Durham conducted an investigation of other possible law-enforcement-related crimes, closed it without prosecuting anyone else in the FBI, and never filed a report.
"Everyone go home," you could hear the Justice Department and FBI saying. "It's all over."
And it was . . . until Whitey came back. Sadly, new people in charge of the institutions responsible for the wreckage are showing the old instincts of the FBI and Justice Department to contain the scandal and avoid accountability at all costs.
Public skepticism continues because there has never been a full accounting of what happened in this city, inside the Justice Department, and especially within the Boston office of the FBI. The legitimacy of our institutions suffers. The way to restore it would be through a tireless, muckraking effort to uncover the worst of the worst and bring the truth, at long last, to light.