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Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in Mafia.

Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia.

For the American Mafia, these are hard times. Until recently, insight into the Mafia was limited to the scraps that investigators, journalists, and scholars occasionally excavated. Now, mainly through electronic eavesdropping by the FBI and the memoirs of Mafioso turncoats, relatives, and girlfriends, a number of illuminating portraits have emerged. The latest comes not from a Mafia traitor but from an infiltrator, FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone. Through incredible guile and unquestionable courage, Pistone manipulated his way deeper into the outer ring of several Mafia families than any previous law-enforcement agent.

Pistone's observations demystify the myths concocted by novelists and moviemakers about a benevolent, roguish side to the Mafia. As witnessed by Pistone, daily life for the rank-and-file mobster is as dreary as toiling on an assembly line. Most of their time is devoted to endless scheming for a share of someone else's illicit plunder and bickering over advancement.

During his half-century reign, J. Edgar Hoover delighted in infiltrating leftist groups but banned undercover work against the Mafia, allowing its corruptions to flourish. He apparently overrated the mob, viewing it as impregnable, and feared that undercover projects might backfire and tarnish the bureau's reputation for invincibility. In the mid-1970s, after Hoover's death, the FBI and the Justice Department finally launched offensives against the Mafia. The FBI and federal prosecutors discovered that through RICO--the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act--the mob could be wounded if not destroyed. The federal crackdown resulted in the first significant splintering of Omerta, the code of silence. A weaker generation of Mafiosi, faced with long sentences for racketeering or drug trafficking, proved vulnerable to providing information in exchange for a new life under the Witness Protection Program.

Unlike the Hoover era, when the FBI favored agents with predominantly middle-class, white-collar backgrounds, the bureau began recruiting some street-oriented types. Pistone, with a blue-collar upbringing in Paterson, New Jersey, was one of the limited new breed. He infiltrated the Mafia by masquerading as a jewel thief.

The original plan called for Pistone, using the fictitious name of Donnie Brasco, to work undercover for six months. Instead, he burrowed so deeply into a Bonnano crew in Brooklyn that the operation lasted five years. A key reason for Pistone's success was the crew captain's belief that Donnie Brasco was a potential big earner. It took a pittance of FBI cash and the opening of a bar in Florida, which the crew hoped to use for gambling and loansharking, to trap supposedly suspicious Mafia leaders.

Obviously an exotic bird in the FBI aviary, Pistone had the cultural background, sensitivity, and toughness to pose as a Mafioso candidate. Although not overtly critical of the FBI, Pistone hints that the bureau's periodic bungling and indecisiveness hampered him and may have even endangered his life.

Pistone was in his late thirties when the undercover operation began. The long separation from his wife and three teenage daughters generated unending difficulties and unhappiness, but the FBI made virtually no attempt to lighten his family's plight. After completing his testimony in cases connected to his undercover project, Pistone resigned. Inside the Mafia, Pistone was assured that a resourceful man with his brains, talent, and tenacity could go far. But Pistone, the ideal undercover agent, apparently saw no future for himself in the FBI bureaucracy.
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Author:Raab, Selwyn
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Jun 1, 1988
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