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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Boston FBI, old and new, on trial

Whitey Bulger is on trial, and with him, the old Boston FBI.

And just when it looked like it was improving its brand, the new Boston FBI is on trial, too.

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Give it credit for this: The Boston FBI tracked down Bulger in 2011, finally forcing the reputed mobster to account for his alleged crimes after 16 years on the run. Unfortunately, that’s the same year it lost track of Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

And now, poof. Richard DesLauriers, the agent in charge of the Boston office since 2010, is leaving for the private sector. After 26½ years in the FBI, DesLauriers said his move to a corporate security job was in the works for awhile; it has nothing to do with any FBI controversies.

But still, the timing is interesting and raises accountability issues. FBI Director Robert Mueller is also a short-timer, scheduled to leave his post in September. On Thursday, Mueller told a House panel the FBI would “do better” next time when it comes to tracking individuals like Tsarnaev. He also found no fault with how the FBI handled a warning from Russian officials about the bombing suspect.

That hardly closes the book on questions for the FBI, from corruption in the Bulger case to bureaucratic blindness in the Tsarnaev matter.

Because of Bulger, the Boston FBI is viewed as a highly flawed operation, and the mobster’s trial will only remind people of its past deficiencies.

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Bulger desperately wants to turn the FBI into his co-defendant. The trial judge blocked his attorney’s effort to argue that Bulger’s deal with the FBI gave him immunity to commit his alleged crimes. Still, defense lawyer J.W. Carney opened his case by arguing that Bulger was running rackets in Boston with the help of corrupt law enforcement officials.

Bulger wasn’t an informant, declared Carney; he was paying corrupt law enforcement officials for information that protected him.

Either way, the FBI looks terrible, and it can only look worse, as the trial reveals the deals that federal law enforcement cut with Bulger and his murderous cohorts. The gulf between a morally bankrupt FBI operation and local police will also be showcased.

But those were the bad old days. What about now?

DesLauriers has had his successes. As reported by the Globe, he was in charge during the conviction of Tarek Mehanna, a US citizen charged with terrorism, and during the political corruption case involving former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. But the 1990 theft of artwork from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains unsolved.

Today, bureaucratic corruption isn’t the problem; but the persistence of bureaucratic silos may be. The relationship between federal and local law enforcement is better than it was during the Bulger years. But the FBI still doesn’t always play well with others — as fallout from the Marathon bombing suggests.

Right after the April 15 attack, DesLauriers and the Boston FBI were hailed as heroes. His televised briefings gave federal law enforcement a public face and a very professional-sounding voice. The dramatic manhunt that ultimately ended with the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the capture of his brother, Dzhokhar, fascinated the world.

But then the questions started up. In 2011, Russian authorities said they warned the FBI about the possible radicalization of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but agents decided he wasn’t a threat. Who decided and why? On Thursday, Mueller said “a very good agent” interviewed Tsarnaev and his parents. More details would be helpful.

Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis told a congressional panel that the FBI didn’t share information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev that might have helped prevent the bombing attack. DesLauriers disputed that, but didn’t provide much beyond a statement that Tsarnaev’s name was on a watch list of thousands available to Boston police.

After traveling to Russia, US Representative William Keating said the FBI should provide more information about the warnings Russian officials said they sent. Mueller told the House panel that when the FBI sought more information from the Russians, “We got no response.”

The FBI shooting of a man in Florida who is tied to Tamerlan Tsarnaev is also under scrutiny. The FBI accounts have shifted as to who was in the room when the fatal shooting occurred and what prompted it.

Like it or not, the Boston FBI remains on trial.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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