Naming of Bulger tipster worries FBI observers

AP News
Posted: Oct 12, 2011 7:31 PM
Naming of Bulger tipster worries FBI observers

A newspaper's revelation that the tipster who led the FBI to notorious gangster James "Whitey" Bulger is a former Miss Iceland is raising concerns about her safety and whether the leak might discourage people from coming forward in other high-profile cases.

In a report Sunday, The Boston Globe named Anna Bjornsdottir, who met Bulger and his girlfriend in Santa Monica, Calif., as the person who led the FBI to them.

The 57-year-old Bjornsdottir is a former actress who starred in Noxzema shaving cream commercials in the 1970s and was crowned Miss Iceland in 1974. The Globe reported that she spent months at a time in Santa Monica, where she bonded with Bulger's girlfriend, Catherine Greig, over a stray cat.

The newspaper said she was home in Reykjavik when she saw a report on CNN in June about the FBI's latest publicity campaign to catch Bulger and Greig. It noted in a follow-up story that the tipster's name was already available to Bulger, who authorities say had a history of shooting anyone he knew or even suspected of double-crossing him.

The FBI said Wednesday it didn't respond to the Globe's requests for comment because that would've confirmed or denied the identity of a tipster.

"It is important to note, despite numerous media requests to provide the name of one of the tipsters, at no time has the FBI furnished the name, provided comment, or confirmed the accuracy of any reporting about the tipsters," the FBI said in a statement. "The decision by the news outlet to use an individual's name and photograph was a decision made solely and independently by that news outlet."

The FBI said Globe reporters and editors sought to defend their decision to publish the name of the tipster by claiming that the federal agency did not raise any objections in advance.

"That explanation suggested the FBI was culpable for the publishing of this information," the statement said. "To the contrary, the FBI's silence on these inquiries should not be seen as acquiescence to that editorial decision."

Former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan said he does not believe Bjornsdottir will face retaliation, citing testimony from several former Bulger loyalists who have cooperated with prosecutors in the past decade and not been harmed.

But Sullivan said he does worry the revelation could hurt the FBI's ability to cultivate criminal informants and tipsters who report sightings in high-profile fugitive cases.

"For some folks who are informants or tipsters, the idea of anonymity is critical," Sullivan said. "Some people just wouldn't cooperate at all if they thought for a moment their identity is going to be revealed."

The FBI agreed.

"The FBI takes seriously its responsibility to protect those individuals from harm, and to protect their privacy," the agency said. "To do otherwise would have a chilling effect upon future cooperation by the public."

Bulger, besides heading the notorious Winter Hill Gang and being wanted in connection with 19 murders, was an informant who gave the FBI dirt on the New England Mafia, his gang's main competition.

Some in Boston believed the FBI didn't really want to catch Bulger because the agency had already been embarrassed by his corrupt relationship with former Boston FBI agent John Connolly Jr., who was convicted of racketeering for warning Bulger that he was about to be indicted, prompting him to flee Boston in late 1994.

Jennifer Peter, Globe deputy managing editor for local news, said the Globe felt it was important to publish a complete story about how Bulger was captured because of the skepticism about the FBI's desire to apprehend him.

In comments reported by the rival Boston Herald, Reps. Stephen Lynch, of Massachusetts, and Dan Burton, of Indiana, citing concerns about Bjornsdottir's safety, called on the FBI to find out why her identity wasn't better protected.

The FBI said it does "everything possible" to protect the identities of tipsters.

Former FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick, who was second-in-command of the Boston office and headed organized crime investigations in New England in the 1980s, said the public outing of a tipster could damage the FBI's reputation.

"The FBI automatically is expected to protect confidentiality. It's one of the reasons that they are able to get information," Fitzpatrick said. "Now it becomes suspicious. A suspicion has been created that perhaps the information is not that confidential."

In the Globe's follow-up story, Peter said a reporter had told the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office that the newspaper was considering publishing Bjornsdottir's name and that neither agency raised concerns about her safety.

Peter said it was also clear from their reporter's interviews with neighbors in Santa Monica that Bulger, 82, and Greig, 60, already knew Bjornsdottir was the tipster.

WBUR, National Public Radio's news station in Boston, reported days after Bulger and Greig were captured in Santa Monica that the tipster was from Iceland. The Globe also reported her home country, citing unnamed law enforcement officials.

Peter said neighbors told the Globe that Bjornsdottir was the only person with connections to Iceland who lived in the neighborhood. The editor stressed that the Globe learned Bjornsdottir's identity not from the FBI but by talking to neighbors who saw her interact with Bulger and Greig.

Bjornsdottir's current whereabouts are unclear.

Bulger, charged with participating in 19 murders, has been denied bail and is awaiting trial in a Boston-area jail where federal detainees are held. Greig, charged with harboring a fugitive, is being held without bail at a detention center in Rhode Island. They have pleaded not guilty.