FRAMINGHAM, Mass. -- Rick Holmes column
Because waging war is the strongest action any government can take, politicians love to declare war on things. That accomplishes two ends: It generates popular support for their policies, since no one wants to undermine a war effort, and it creates an atmosphere of emergency that can be used to justify all kinds of actions that might otherwise be disallowed.
In the early 1960s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared war on the mafia, then known also as La Cosa Nostra, and he chose the Boston mob as his first target. On his orders, agents put an illegal wiretap on the phone used by mob boss Raymond Patriarca in his North End office. Then they began turning mobsters into allies.
Hoover called it his ``Top Echelon Criminal Informant Program,'' and it rested on a familiar assumption: To catch bad guys, you've got to deal with bad guys. Pretty soon, FBI agents in Boston were cozying up with the likes of Joseph ``the Animal'' Barboza and, later, a serial killer named James ``Whitey'' Bulger.
Barboza was a star, the first informant put into the brand-new federal witness protection program. FBI agents took care of him, which included keeping his secrets. The whole operation was kept secret from local law enforcement. Secrecy is critical when you're fighting a war -- or when you're breaking the law.
So the FBI agents didn't say anything when their wiretaps recorded Barboza and his pal, Vincent Flemmi, asking Patriarca for permission to kill Teddy Deegan. After Deegan turned up dead, the FBI knew exactly who did it and how. But they went along with Barboza's plan to pin the murder Barboza directed on four innocent men.
For decades, the deception continued. Three of the men escaped the death penalty only because the Supreme Court threw out the law on which they had been sentenced. Two of the men died in prison, including Louis Greco, who was in Miami when Teddy Deegan was killed.
The jury believed Barboza, who had rehearsed his lies for the FBI. His testimony was the only evidence pointing at the defendants. At a mob party after the four were convicted, FBI agent Paul Rico celebrated the conviction of ``four pigeons'' for the murder he knew his pal ``the Animal'' had committed.
Vindication came this week for the two surviving pigeons, Joseph Salvati and Peter Limone. Their sentences already having been commuted, federal Judge Nancy Gertner issued a blistering decision finding the FBI guilty of malicious prosecution. Under her order -- likely to be appealed -- the government will have to pay $101.7 million to Salvati, Limone, their families and the estates of the men who didn't live out their sentences.
J. Edgar Hoover is long dead, but the feds are still waging war. George W. Bush's war on terror shares some similarities with Hoover's war on the mafia.
First there are the wiretaps. Just this week, the current FBI director, Robert Mueller, contradicted the congressional testimony of his boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, about a still-secret wiretapping program.
Gonzales said there were no disagreements between the White House and the Justice Department over the NSA wiretap program and that the late-night visit he and the White House chief of staff made to the hospital where then-AG John Ashcroft was recovering from surgery involved disagreement over some other program. Mueller, who also visited the hospital that night and who, according to testimony, was ready to join his colleagues in resigning should the program go forward as planned by the White House, said the NSA program was exactly what the disagreement was about.
We don't know who's telling the truth, though almost no one this side of the oval office seems to believe Gonzales.
We also don't know what part of the eavesdropping program Ashcroft and Mueller objected to, and whether it's back in place now that Gonzales has Ashcroft's job.
The war on terror also relies on informants like Barboza, people Dick Cheney described as ``unsavory characters'' the U.S. must use to crack terrorist organizations.
But unsavory characters have their own agendas. Barboza and Bulger used their FBI connections to escape prosecution and to put their competitors behind bars.
Unsavory characters recruited into the war on terror fed American intelligence agencies lies about Iraqi weapons programs. Their victims may include people as innocent as Salvati, Limone and the gang, people locked up at Guantanamo and secret CIA prisons, still awaiting their chance at vindication in a federal court.
When you wrestle with pigs, you get dirty, ``realists'' like Hoover and Cheney would argue. But the cost of such behavior goes well beyond the collateral damage to people like Salvati, Limone or some anonymous Afghan locked up indefinitely at Guantanamo for some crime he can't even identify.
Judge Gertner turned to a 1928 opinion by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to make this point: ``Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher,'' he wrote. ``For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.
``To declare that in the administration of the criminal law the end justifies the means -- to declare that the Government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal -- would bring terrible retribution.''
Rick Holmes is opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.