Executive Obstruction

Executive Obstruction

The Bush administration's insistence on secrecy in the Whitey Bulger case raises some unsettling questions.


"This is not a monarchy…. We've got a dictatorial President and a Justice Department that does not want Congress involved…. Your guy's acting like he's king."

That stentorian denunciation of the Administration came last week not from a Democrat but from conservative Republican Congressman Dan Burton. The reason for such strong language from Burton, once the relentless pursuer of Clinton and Gore: President Bush had for the first time in his presidency invoked executive privilege. Was it to protect the Al Qaeda investigation at a delicate moment? No: That executive order kept Burton's Government Reform Committee from seeing Justice Department memos detailing the sickening thirty-five year partnership between Boston criminals and senior FBI agents.

The war in Afghanistan may be entering its mop-up phase, but as that assertion of executive privilege suggests, the Bush Administration's information lockdown is widening. To understand how far this White House will go in its mania for secrecy, forget for five minutes about Kabul and Osama bin Laden. Look instead at the working-class precincts of South Boston and its local Osama, a mobster named Whitey Bulger, whose weapons of mass destruction included drugs and hit squads, and whose patron was not Mullah Omar but a senior agent in the Boston FBI field office named James Connolly. From the 1960s through 1995, it is well established through court hearings and newspaper stories, Connolly and other agents and federal prosecutors all protected Bulger and his South Boston mujahedeen as they went about drug-running and murder, in return for information about Bulger's rivals.

For sheer sordidness nothing in FBI history, not even Robert Hansson's sellout to Russia, matches the body-count in the Boston scandal. Senior partner Bulger, now on the lam, stands charged in nineteen separate killings. Four innocent men went to prison for life based on perjured testimony by the hit man who actually did the job–and FBI agents, who had that hit man on their payroll as an informant, knew it. Two of the innocent men died in prison, and two, Joseph Salvati and Peter Limone, were only released after thirty and thirty-three years respectively, as the hideous details of this railroad job finally emerged last year. Two generations of kids on the streets of South Boston and other neighborhoods were hooked on drugs run by Bulger's government-protected Winter Hill Gang. As South Boston-raised chronicler and activist Michael Patrick MacDonald puts it in his vivid, unsparing memoir All Souls (Beacon), "The FBI had sponsored the parade of caskets that passed through the streets of Southie."

What interest does the Bush Administration possibly find in protecting this case from Burton and his committee? The committee had hoped to learn how far up the chain of command knowlege of the Boston scandal went, and how Whitey Bulger escaped prosecution for so long. A reasonable question. But in a letter to Burton, Bush argued that releasing internal Justice Department memos would "inhibit the candor" of prosecutors, and Bush charged that Burton "threatens to politicize the criminal justice process." Fellow Republican Burton would have none of it: "Everyone is in agreement you guys are making a big mistake," he told Justice Department attorneys, threatening to "take this thing to court" in the form of contempt charges against the President.

Could pressure be coming from the FBI? That seems doubtful: Today's FBI would like nothing better than to restore its fouled reputation in Boston, and the new leaders of the local field office have been fastidious in their cooperation with a special task force established in 1999.

Bush's South Boston cover-up only makes sense as part of the Administration's broader effort to expand executive branch secrecy across the board, to lock Congress–and the public–out of the information loop. It's not about "national interest" but insulating the executive branch from scrunity. This first assertion of executive privilege is intimately connected to the parade of secrecy orders–secret tribunals, sealed historical papers, closed-door immigration hearings–emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the Ashcroft Justice Department.

As Bush's executive order makes clear, to the Bush Administration, secrecy is a fundamental mode of governance. And as Congressman Burton's harsh words suggest, it's an approach with few fans on either side of the aisle on Capitol Hill. Democrat William Delahunt of Quincy, Massachusetts–whose constituents include the survivors of some of Bulger's murder victims–predicts that Congress "will not give carte blanche to executive agencies to make their own rules…particularly when those agencies have a history of abusing the formidible powers entrusted to them." It's only a matter of time before the Administration's addiction to secrecy ends up in a constitutional confrontation over the proper power of Congress to investigate and ask questions.

In Boston, yellow tape still occasionally gets hung around the harbor front whenever police or work crews unearth still more bodies of Whitey Bulger's victims. Bush's executive obstruction of Congressional inquiry into how they ended up in the muck and sand illustrates perfectly why a culture of secrecy in the long run undermines the public interest. "As much as I'd hated Whitey for what was happening to his neighborhood," writes South Boston's Michael Patrick MacDonald, "it was nothing compared to the rage I felt when I realized that agents of the US government had turned a blind eye while we were slaughtered."

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