- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

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 a continuing investigation that already has sent one agent to prison for obstruction of justice FBI officials in Washington portrayed it as an aberration.
But interviews by the Associated Press 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 not clear; current FBI agents and administrators are secretive about the bureau's work with informants. However, a senior FBI official indicated that agents in the field may not always follow bureau rules designed to prevent serious crimes by informants.
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 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."
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 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 are believed to have killed at least 52 persons between the 1960s and the mid-1990s. 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 another's?"
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 informants.
The bureau's rules for handling informants specifically ban what Connolly did. The rules, in effect for the past 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 supply information.

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