2006 wasn’t a very good year for the Bulger Task Force. But then again, none of them have been very good years . . . unless you consider them from the vantage point of the agents involved. Task force members have traveled the world to A-list destinations (including England, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Thailand, Brazil, and a place in Uruguay called “the St. Tropez of South America”) to check out Bulger look-alikes. (At the Great Wall of China, one agent on the Bulger squad posed for a photograph with a wanted poster of Whitey, as was noted in a publication for retired FBI agents: “Dave has been to 18 countries in the chase for Whitey . . . as he admits, not bad for a kid from Hyde Park.”)
At the beginning of the New Year, in what’s become as much a local tradition as The Nutcracker and Christmas at the Pops, January 5 marks another sort of Boston pageant, though one as cold as the bleak midwinter. For on this Twelfth Night, while the Christian world marks the coming of the Magi, Boston marks the going of James “Whitey” Bulger, the serial-killing Scrooge, who became a fugitive on Twelfth Night 12 years ago after receiving a tip to screw from his long-time FBI-handler John Connolly.You’ll see the three wise men on camels in front yards all across Greater Boston, but you’ll see wise guy Whitey only on wanted posters — a situation that continues to pose a public-relations disaster for the local FBI. As “the founder of the feast,” Bulger was made a top-echelon secret informant decades ago. The bureau then protected him and his associate Steven “the Rifleman” Flemmi from the State Police, the DEA, and the Boston cops while Bulger had the bureau’s own agents working for him.
“Christmas is for cops and kids,” Whitey used to say as he packaged money and gifts for agents, recalls Bulger associate Kevin Weeks. In the same spirit of giving, Weeks told me, Bulger had six FBI agents “he used to claim he could call on any time, and they would be willing to hop in the car with a machine gun and go on a hit with him.”
If the FBI had tracked down the fugitive Bulger in 1995, hauled him back to Boston, fumigated the bureau with a full and open accounting of every agent who’d ever helped him, then put his head on a spike atop the building, the bureau might now be clear of stain and public suspicion. Instead, the FBI has spent anniversary after anniversary in the spotlight, enduring and the perennial question: does the FBI really want to catch Bulger?
The only possible consolation to be found in that query is its implied faith in the FBI’s competence. To the agents involved in the case, it must be strangely comforting that the people who wonder if the bureau is protecting Whitey Bulger still outnumber those who insist the FBI couldn’t find a rock on the coast of Maine.
In the early years, and then again on the 10th anniversary of the day Bulger booked, the bureau tried to make the Yuletide gay by rolling out claims of progress in pursuing a man they hadn’t come close to catching. These days, under the protective cover of the US Attorney’s office, which insists on clearing all press inquiries, the bureau maintains the silence of someone nursing a hangover.