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Informants May Get a Pass on Murder

Former FBI agents say violent crimes can be ignored because they are seen as a necessary evil of criminal investigation.

March 16, 2003|Jeff Donn | Associated Press Writer

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 an aberration.

But Associated Press interviews with nine former agents -- men with a combined 190 years of experience in more than 25 bureau offices from Los Angeles to Washington -- indicate that 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 that 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 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 investigation.

"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 them. If anything, I'd want them to become more active."

Gary Penrith, who retired in 1992 after a career that included serving as 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 being provided 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."

William G. Hundley, a longtime U.S. Justice Department lawyer who retired as head of its organized crime section in 1968, said such understandings have sometimes allowed informants "to get away with murder, so to speak."

The bureau, concerned that the release of any information about the informant program could put informants in danger, keeps even the number of informants secret. Former agents say there are thousands.

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 contents.

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 criminals 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 the mid-'90s.

Previously, these cases had been reported as isolated incidents, but in 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 another's?"

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. Top-echelon informants -- those well placed to provide valuable information in major mob investigations -- "generally would be savable" even if they killed, he said.

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