For decades, in
cities from coast to coast, FBI agents recruited killers and crime
bosses as informants and then looked the other way as they continued
to commit violent crimes.
When the practice first came to light in Boston – unleashing an
ongoing investigation that has already sent one agent to prison for
obstruction of justice – FBI officials in Washington portrayed it as
But AP interviews with nine former FBI agents – men with a
combined 190 years of experience in more than 25 bureau offices from
Texas to Chicago and from Los Angeles to Washington – indicate the
practice was widespread during their years of service between the
late 1950s and the 1990s.
The former agents, and two federal law enforcement officials who
have worked closely with the bureau, said the practice sometimes
emboldened informants, leading them to believe they could get away
with almost anything.
The degree to which the practice continues today is unclear;
current FBI agents and administrators are secretive about the
bureau's work with informants. However, a senior FBI official
indicated that bureau rules designed to prevent serious crimes by
informants may not always be followed by agents in the field.
The nine former FBI agents spoke – on the record – not to
criticize the practice of overlooking violent crimes by informants,
but rather to defend it as a necessary evil of criminal
"The bureau has to encourage these guys to be themselves and do
what they do," said Joseph O'Brien, a former FBI informant
coordinator in New York City who retired in 1991. "If they stop just
because they are working with the FBI, somebody's going to question
Gary Penrith, who retired in 1992 after a career that included
serving as the bureau's deputy assistant director of intelligence,
added: "Every one of the good ones are outlaws."
The former agents said it makes sense to overlook an informant's
involvement in robberies or beatings if the information he is
providing helps solve or prevent worse crimes. But sometimes, they
added, even murders were ignored.
Several said they would never protect known killers, but others
said it was defensible in some circumstances.
"You have to weigh the odds of whether killing one or two people
is better than killing a whole planeload," said Wesley Swearingen,
whose service as an agent from 1959 to 1977 included tours in Los
Angeles and Chicago.
For example, he said, agents ignored the murder of a small-time
mobster by an FBI informant in Chicago in the 1960s because "the
information that the FBI was getting was more important. Somebody in
the mob is going to kill that person anyway."
The former agents interviewed were generally more forthcoming
about their FBI experiences than the bureau might like. Four have
written books that sometimes diverge from the official line, and
O'Brien resigned from the agency in a dispute over his book's
However, the former agents remained faithful to the bureau's
policy of protecting informant identities, declining to name even
those who had committed murder.
An AP review of court cases and published accounts identified 11
informants who are known to have killed while working with the
agency or to have been shielded by their bureau handlers from
prosecution for murders committed before they were recruited.
Those 11 including three mobsters involved in the Boston scandal,
are believed to have killed at least 52 people between the 1960s and
Previously, these cases had been reported as isolated incidents,
but in the light of the interviews with former agents, they appear
to be a part of a wider pattern.
Clifford Zimmerman, a Northwestern University law professor who
studies informant practices, says it is immoral, and perhaps
illegal, for agents to shrug off violent crimes.
"They're doing their own little cost-benefit analysis and really
not taking into account, in my opinion, the damage to society that
these people are causing," he said. "Is a federal official entitled
to make that decision – that one person's life is more valuable than
Sometimes it amounts to that, former agents acknowledge.
"What it comes down to is: Who's got the best information," said
Robert Fitzpatrick, assistant director of the Boston field office
when he retired in 1986. Informants who provided valuable
information in major mob investigations "generally would be savable"
even if they killed, he said.
Several former agents expressed sympathy for John Connolly, the
former Boston agent sentenced in September to 10 years in prison for
his role in protecting two organized crime kingpins, James "Whitey"
Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi. The two are now accused in
18 murders, including 11 committed while they were serving as FBI
The bureau's rules for handling informants specifically ban what
Connolly did. The rules, in effect for the last 26 years, forbid
informants from participating in violent crimes. Officially,
informants are allowed only nonviolent crimes, and these only when
authorized as necessary to keep the informants in a position to
Connolly is by no means the only agent who has bent or broken
these rules, the retired agents said.
"I'd be the first to tell you that agents who were doing this
(handling informants) every day pushed the envelope," said Dennis
O'Callaghan, a former chief of the organized crime unit who retired
from the bureau in 1991.
Joseph R. Lewis, currently a deputy assistant FBI director in
charge of criminal investigations and intelligence, said he is
"fairly confident" that most field agents follow the rules. However,
he added in a recent interview at FBI headquarters, "it probably
happens" that some agents shut their eyes to unauthorized crimes
committed by valued informants.
Informants can be difficult to control, Lewis said. "The good
ones are con artists, and they're going to try to get something over
Consider the case of Gregory Scarpa Sr. In the 1990s, while
informing on the mob for the FBI, he also participated in gang
warfare for control of New York City's Colombo crime family, killing
as many as 13 rivals.
Senior FBI officials knew that Scarpa was suspected of murder but
let him keep working as an informant, Lindley DeVecchio, Scarpa's
bureau handler, later testified in court.
Scarpa subsequently admitted to a role in three of the killings
and pleaded guilty to murder in 1993. In prison, he died of AIDS
contracted from a blood transfusion.
Murder provided Scarpa with a great cover for his work with the
FBI, said Alan S. Futerfas, a lawyer who defended some of the
mobsters he informed on. "People thought there was no way in the
world that the FBI would let this guy run around killing people."
Most of those Scarpa had informed on were his gangland enemies.
Informants commonly inform to eliminate rivals or settle grudges,
the retired agents said. Just as the FBI uses them, they use the
FBI, former agents said.
"Do agents know they're not telling them everything? Absolutely!"
said O'Callaghan, the former head of the bureau's organized crime
unit. He called it a "don't ask, don't tell situation."
Agents avoid asking – and if possible avoid hearing – anything
that would incriminate their informants in violent crimes, several
"You don't really want to know," O'Brien said, because if you
don't know, you aren't breaking the rules.
William Turner, who worked in five field offices before retiring
from the FBI in 1961, said he "kind of intimated" to his informants
that they should keep their unauthorized crimes to themselves.
Occasionally, an informant might hint that he is planning a
violent crime, hoping for an indication that the bureau will protect
him from prosecution, the former agents said. "I wouldn't listen to
it," said Joseph L. Schott, a former agent in New Jersey and Texas.
The retired agents defended these evasions as necessary to keep
information flowing, but they expressed concern about the human cost
when informants conclude they can break the law with impunity.
Valuable informants "know if they are cooperating with us,
they're not necessarily going to be targeted for prosecution," said
Joe Griffin, a former administrator in the bureau's organized crime
Turner added: "If I intimated to an informant that I didn't want
to know about his own personal activity, for obvious reasons, that
might be interpreted as a license to kill."
Lewis insisted that top bureau officials will not tolerate
That's why field agents don't always tell Washington about them,
Penrith said. "Do they always bring that to a supervisor? Hell, no,
they don't," he said. And when he was supervising agents, he said,
"I don't go and ask."
EDITOR'S NOTE – Jeff Donn is the AP's Boston-based Northeast