When I was in high school, a certain former president moved to town, along with his ambitious wife, eager to establish herself as a bona fide—if recent—New York transplant. Select excursions into the quiet downtown, a few lunches at the local diner, and a visit or two to the public schools followed their arrival. Increased security became commonplace, but I was still surprised one day to see burly men in jackets emblazoned with “FBI” prowling the school grounds. Surely they should use more stealth?
I remembered this recently while following the capture of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious Boston gangster, and the onset of his trial for 19 murders last week. Bulger, who had been on the FBI’s most-wanted list for years, was found in late June with the assistance of a tip generated as a “direct result” (according to the Boston FBI’s post-capture press conference) of a 30-second commercial/PSA aired in 14 cities where Bulger and his longtime girlfriend, Catharine Grieg, had been spotted. Approximately 350 time slots during shows like “Ellen” and the “The View” that might appeal to Greig’s demographic were occupied by the FBI commercial. Grieg was known to make frequent visits to dentists and beauty salons, and so she was probably seen a more visible target than Bulger. The quantity of tips that the commercial produced exceeded the FBI’s expectations, FBI Special Agent Gregory Comcowich told The Boston Globe, with one of them leading the authorities to a $1,000-a-month Santa Monica–area apartment where the two fugitives were eventually apprehended.
Something about this struck me as odd. I’ve never given much thought to the mechanisms of crime-solving (beyond watching far too many “Law & Order” re-runs). But this hunt and capture still seemed a bit too easy, the methods too mainstream. Shouldn’t the pursuit have led the agents to back channels and secret leads rather than daytime talk shows?
Apparently, this particular effort wasn’t all that unusual. “For one hundred years, the FBI has known that combining the reach and power of the media, with alert citizens is a successful formula for catching fugitives,” said Special Agent Richard DesLauriers at the Boston press conference announcing Bulger’s arrest. Indeed, well before last June, the Boston office had been working the p.r. angle, taking out an ad in Plastic Surgery News in May 2010 in order to try to find a plastic surgeon who might have treated Grieg’s first-generation breast implants, which, several years down the line, were probably getting leaky.
More broadly, the FBI actually has a whole office—the aptly named Office of Public Affairs (OPA)—devoted, in part, to media-related outreach. As a representative of the office told me, the office knows “that the eyes and the ears of the public can be a force multiplier,” and it’s happy to do anything that makes fugitives more conspicuous—for example: four podcasts a week and close collaborations with programs like “America’s Most Wanted” and similar Spanish-language shows. Because of the expense involved, the OPA does not make PSAs like the one used to capture Bulger and Grieg very often, but, as the representative told me, it’s something that the office has the capability to do. The OPA even organizes seminars for groups like the Writers Guild of America—“FBI’s 101s”—to give creative types a better handle on the real work being done.
The Bulger-Grieg PSA was produced by the FBI Boston field office, which, when I called, was more than happy to parlay my e-mail questions about FBI methods and aesthetics up the ladder—Who did they cast for the voice-overs? How did they cast their voice-overs? But, minutes after I hit send, I got a call. They were no longer discussing the Bulger-Grieg hunt and capture. The U.S. Attorney General of Massachusetts had put a stop to it. And that was that. Guess it’s back to “Law & Order.”
Chlöe Schama is the assistant managing editor of The New Republic.