Betrayed by the FBI

Informants who've risked their lives revealing terrorist plots, mob hits and soviet espionage find themselves hung out to dry.

Published December 11, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In terms of job prestige, "snitch" probably ranks somewhere down at the bottom with lawyer and reporter. Think Linda Tripp. But consider, too, Frank Serpico, the honest cop who blew the whistle on corruption in the New York Police Department.

The fact is, one person's snitch is another person's hero. Without the use of informants, the FBI, CIA, cops and prosecutors would be hard-pressed to make cases, especially against targets like organized crime, terrorists and crooked politicians. Nowhere is that more true than at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where the information snitches provide is the mother's milk of successful prosecution.

So you'd think the FBI would be grateful. Not so -- or at least not always so, according to the cases of three high-profile informants made available to Salon. To these bitter three, "FBI" might as well stand for "Federal Bureau of Ingratitude."

The informants range from a man who helped the bureau nail New York mob figures to a Jordanian airline steward who helped the U.S. government capture one of the most wanted terrorists of the 1980s to a woman who worked as a double agent in a Soviet front group in the United States, meeting regularly with Kremlin officials.

Unlike their popular image, none of them were criminals or even suspects -- mokes who "flipped" on their friends to beat a rap themselves. They were ordinary citizens who came forward in the interest of justice. Now, their service done, the FBI has cast them aside.

Take the case of Barbara Makuch. As she wrote to me from an undisclosed location this week, "You need to be clear on one thing in my case. I was not an informant, I was not forced because I was a criminal, I was a patriot who became a double agent against the KGB." As a young housewife in Buffalo in the 1960s, Makuch flocked to the anti-war movement, where most protesters wanted nothing more than peace, love, social justice and maybe a hit of marijuana to a rock 'n' roll beat. But one day a young man told her of his plans to bomb the student union and a local NBC affiliate. Makuch, the German-born child of Holocaust survivors, called the FBI.

Thus began her 22-year undercover sojourn as a double agent in the anti-war movement, shuttling between her KGB handlers in the Kremlin and her FBI controllers here. In Moscow she was under constant surveillance by Soviet operatives. All this for pay that ranged from $40 to "a couple hundred" dollars a month. In 1987, her work led to the indictment and guilty plea of an American clergyman on charges of laundering "peace movement" funds for Moscow.

At the end of the Cold War, the FBI gave Barbara Makuch its Louis E. Peters Memorial Award, its highest civilian decoration. But a wooden plaque is about all she's gotten. Because she was only a confidential source, officially, and not a U.S. government employee, she's received no Social Security, pension or health benefits a regular employee would receive, nor tuition funds that her FBI handler promised for her daughter, she says. A usable risumi that the bureau promised her never materialized. She and her husband, who often traveled with her to the Soviet Union as part of her mission and now suffers from kidney disease, are both unemployed.

"Lots of promises were made," Makuch says, "including not having to worry about my future as long as I did as I was told and testified in the trial. I have sent letters to congressmen and senators. No response at all," she says.

"Twenty-five years ago, when I began my work, no one told me that I would have to look out for myself," she says. "I had no contract except for the one the FBI insisted I sign. I had no attorney or friend to advise me. I was not allowed to speak with anyone regarding my work with the FBI. Now, not only am I unable to find suitable employment, but I also realize that I have been abandoned by the government I served."

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A far worse fate worries Omer Al Ghadi.

Al Ghadi was on the crew of a Royal Jordanian airliner that was hijacked by Middle Eastern terrorists in 1985. No one was killed, although several passengers and crew members were beaten badly and the airliner was blown up on the ground in Beirut. The brains behind the operation, Fawaz Younis, of the Lebanese Amal militia, escaped.

Two years later, in a spectacular counterterrorism coup, Younis was lured to a luxury yacht off Cyprus and captured by U.S. agents. Brought back to the United States for trial, he was convicted in what Time magazine called "the most important test yet of the nation's attempt to apply law and order to international terrorism."

A key witness in the trial was Al Ghadi, who came forward in response to promises by State and Justice departments and the FBI that he would be rewarded and protected by a grateful government. The deal: a reward of $1 million and relocation under a new identity, plus compensation for his house, property, furnishings, car and other possessions in Jordan. The reality: an offer of $75,000 and a ticket into the Witness Security Program, according to Mark Zaid, executive director of the James Madison Project, an intelligence-oriented group that represents Al Ghadi and Makuch.

"He gave up a good job, pension and imminent promotion to the king's private crew," Zaid said. "He had to flee his homeland, where his life and that of his family were in danger; he delayed plans to get married, thinking they could be reunited, but that never happened; he gave up his identity, his freedom, his family and moved to a new environment, new language, new culture."

"Justice was served for the hijacker and the American passengers," Al Ghadi said in a prepared statement, "but justice was not served for me. I was told the case I testified for was the first and most important of its kind against international terrorism. I want to settle this matter so that I can at least get on with my life and make something for myself and my family."

Today Al Ghadi "lives in constant anxiety and fear," Zaid says.

The fear in Steve Weinstein's voice is palpable. He always calls you, you can't call him. Weinstein, a key informant for the FBI in New York over the past seven years, is now on the run -- from the mob. He's an ex-snitch with no protection.

"You know why I'm still alive?" he asks during a call one day last week. "Because it's hard for them to track me that way. I don't work with a Social Security number anywhere. I don't stay in the same place. I don't do any set routine. I have no ties or links to anyone, and I just keep moving around."

Weinstein sounds scared, and perhaps with good reason. Since 1991, when he discovered that the Long Island car dealership where he worked was connected to organized crime, Weinstein has been talking to the FBI. For seven years he was a professional snitch -- though never, he insists, taking a dime for his trouble.

"I told them, I don't want your money, I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do." Over the years he ratted out crooked state police, union bosses, politicians, murderous motorcycle gangs and members of the Gambino and Lucchese crime families, resulting in a dozen indictments.

And a price on his head, he says. So when things got sticky in a mob case a few years ago, Weinstein asked the FBI for one thing: a new life in the Witness Security Program. Sure, they said, no problem. When it was time to collect, however, the deal was off. So Weinstein began to run. In the past year and a half, he says, there have been three attempts on his life. One day in Virginia last year, mobsters were going door to door looking for him.

All because of the FBI's broken record of promises, he says. And it's a record he can document, because Steve Weinstein learned a number of tricks from the FBI. One of them was to wear a wire.

He taped his handlers. The dozens of tapes Weinstein made are now in the hands of congressional investigators, and Salon.

Here's a sample:

"I have no control over money up there," one of Weinstein's FBI handlers tells him in April 1996. "All I can tell you is, George [an FBI supervisor] made a promise to you, he made a promise to me, and one of those promises was we would put you somewhere. And we would've stayed with that promise, except the dog thing changes the promise."

"The dog thing" refers to Weinstein's two canines, including an aged German shepherd who'd watched over him for many an anxious night. The FBI had suddenly decided it couldn't resettle Weinstein with his dogs -- although the controversial, multimillion-dollar Witness Security Program is replete with examples of lavish entertaining of mob informants. The agent suggests that Weinstein give the dogs away or "put them down."

No way, Weinstein said. "That wasn't the original deal," Weinstein argues back. "You agreed to it, and you know that ... I'm being jerked around." He complains the mob is looking for him day and night. He can't sleep.

"I can't go out and work, for obvious reasons. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to live like this? I can't even see my kid. At the end of the day you go home and see your kids. I can't -- I live with this 24 hours a day."

He spends his nights peeking out from behind the curtains, waiting for the assassins, he tells his handler. "I'm gonna wind up having a heart attack," he adds, now desperate. "Or I'm gonna go off the deep end and the first person who looks at me the wrong way I'm gonna shoot."

The FBI man, nervous, tries to soothe him. "Ah c'mon. I don't want to hear that crap. Don't be telling me this."

Late last year, the FBI stopped taking Weinstein's telephone calls. But he found a sympathetic ear in an assistant federal prosecutor in New York. [Salon has withheld the names of the people on the tapes because of the sensitivity of their assignments.]

"My whole life is destroyed because of the FBI," Weinstein tells her. "There were three murder attempts on my life already, do you know that? They attempted to abduct me out of a car ..."

The prosecutor murmurs soothing sounds. She says she knew about Weinstein's good work for the FBI. "Jeff [an FBI agent] thinks you're the greatest, you should know ... Why don't you just come and talk to us, we'll get a cup of coffee and talk it over."

That was the last contact Weinstein had with federal officials. He's also now represented by the James Madison Project.

The FBI, which recently raised its award for information in international terrorism cases to $5 million, does not comment on its informants. The policy of the U.S. Marshal's Service, which runs the Witness Security Program, is to "neither confirm not deny" the existence or identity of anyone under its protection.

But an FBI agent commented caustically on the government's track record with some informants years ago. "We promise [informants] the moon in the beginning," FBI Special Agent Frank Scafidi said to Time in 1994. "But when they come through for us, there's not much there.

"If the government doesn't hold up its end of the bargain," he said, "people are not going to come forward."

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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