Jack Nicholson’s best line in The Departed happens near the end of the film. His mob boss character Frank Costello is confronted by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan. Costigan’s a Boston cop who has been double-crossing Costello the whole time, only to discover his mentor has been snitching too.
“Of course I talk to the FBI!” the old man blurts out with a knowing laugh.
Costello was modelled on Boston underworld legend Whitey Bulger, an FBI informant who spent 16 years on the run after being tipped off by his federal handler. In 2018, inmates killed Bulger almost immediately after entering federal prison at the age of 89, his tongue slit as belated punishment for snitching. Bulger and his Massachusetts politician brother are the subject of a Discovery+ documentary premiering this week.
The FBI’s protection of local crime bosses didn’t end with the ethnic mob wars of Bulger’s day. A recurring storyline on HBO’s The Wire was the feds’ willingness to squash Baltimore drug war prosecutions in service of their post-9/11 goal of fighting terrorism.
Gangsters have always had access to government protection if they knew enough to whet investigators’ appetites. The extent to which the FBI allowed and even sponsored criminal mayhem in exchange for such cooperation still hasn’t been reckoned with. If the FBI went along with Bulger’s crimes, what else could it be up for?
How about an insurrection?
A Revolver News report on June 14th shed light on this possibility about the January 6th U.S. Capitol riot. It noted the “unusual volume of unindicted co-conspirators” – as many as 20 – and “a still more unusual feature that the statements and actions of the unindicted co-conspirators in many cases seemed far more egregious and aggressive than those of the persons actually indicted.”
In other words, the would-be informants were documented facilitating the crimes rather than merely observing them.
These unindicted co-conspirators are shown in court filings to have been in militia leadership roles on January 6th. They performed such duties as arranging hotel rooms and transportation, issuing commands over two-way radio, and directing their followers into the Capitol complex.
As Revolver’s analysis concludes, it’s difficult to imagine these people were anything other than FBI informants given the government’s efforts to spare them prosecution amidst an aggressive campaign to round up everybody else who stormed the Capitol that day.
Before January 6th, the most infamous rightwing criminal plot had been to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the state’s government. But the Revolver story points to the feds’ infiltration of that operation, too. Five out of the 14 people involved in the planning and attempting were undercover FBI operatives.
The depth of the government’s involvement in the political plot is potential cause for entrapment and beyond. How much of the January 6th melee can be attributed to the work of the FBI’s people? Were they prepared for an outcome that crossed the line from sting operation to full-blown crime? How could federal agents have been unaware of what their work would lead to?
There’s some 14,000 hours of embargoed video of the Capitol riot. Key questions like who let people into the building won’t be known until the relevant footage is released. While Democrats in Congress focused on rioters’ alleged spontaneous incitement by Donald Trump, those on the scene saw evidence of a premeditated plot.
Now, it appears likely the FBI played a role in it.
The Capitol violence gave pretext for the removal of Trump from social media and the government’s newfound obsession with domestic terrorism – today’s version of the post-9/11 crusade.
It may have also been the FBI’s finishing touch against Trump. The opening salvo was an equally extraordinary move by its former director in the middle of the 2016 campaign.
James Comey in July 2016 announced to surprise that he wasn’t recommending criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her misuse of classified government emails. The announcement came a week after his boss Attorney General Loretta Lynch had been caught (by a local news reporter who just died) meeting with Bill Clinton on the tarmac of the Phoenix airport.
Critics saw Comey’s unusual legal circumvention in the email case as a tactic to cover for Lynch’s run-in with Clinton, something he’d later admit. But that wasn’t the half of it.
In March 2016, Comey received intelligence that rocked his world. A document hacked by the U.S. from a stack of Russian intelligence referred to an American email. In the email, the chair of the Democratic National Committee claimed to an aide of George Soros that Loretta Lynch assured the Clinton campaign she’d shield Clinton from being prosecuted as a result of the FBI’s email probe.
There was apparently a government conspiracy to protect the Democratic presidential nominee from legal jeopardy. Only Comey’s FBI and the Russians knew about it.
After Trump fired Comey in May 2017, he and some former colleagues split over the validity of this intelligence. Comey, in closed-door testimony before Congress, maintained its authenticity.
In his book, he alluded to it cryptically as “a development still unknown to the American public to this day” that would have to remain classified for decades. But FBI background sources discredited the intelligence as “junk” and said Comey also understood it to be fake. The media dutifully laid off from follow-up reporting.
The row over the intelligence did not affect the FBI’s stance on protecting Clinton. For example, the FBI never interviewed the people named in the email communication. Instead of asking Lynch whether she interfered in their investigation of Clinton, agents gave the attorney general the favor of a “defensive briefing” to help prepare her for the day the Russians dropped the document.
Meanwhile, they spent the rest of 2016 investigating the Trump campaign, save for a brief look into newly discovered Hillary emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. This last exercise may have been no more than Comey’s passive-aggressive way of showing his disgust with the Obama-Clinton crowd.
Comey was easily the most eccentric FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover, but the Bureau remains plagued with leadership problems. Corporate litigator Christopher Wray is now in charge, nominated by Trump at the recommendation of his former client Chris Christie. Wray has pledged numerous times before congressional Democrats to maintain a manhunt against lethal white supremacists; he looks easily unaware of the irony that his agents have been running the few that exist.
It was one thing for Boston field agents to leverage a neighborhood thug they grew up with. Quite another for Comey and company to do the bidding of the Democratic Party. Somewhere along the line the FBI expanded the recklessness of exploiting Whitey Bulger to Washington politics. We are worse off for it.