"The Good Guys: How We Turned the FBI 'Round and Finally Broke the Mob," by Judes Bonavolonta and Brian Duffy. Simon & Schuster. 384 pages. $24 Virtue virtuoso William Bennett may not have noticed yet, but among the family values in decline is omerta, the Mafia's legendary lips-sealed-or-you-die code of silence. Garrulous gangsters have been ratting out each other regularly, trading testimony for reduced time or the Witness Protection Program, putting organized crime generally, and New York's five Cosa Nostra families particularly, into historic disarray.
This colorful first-person account, by former FBI Special Agent Jules Bonavolonta, tells how it happened.
Bugs and taps were the FBI's basic tools against the mob, not new weapons, but deployed in revolutionary ways. Mr. Bonavolonta credits former FBI Assistant Director Neil Welch with developing the blanket surveillance techniques, and gaining enough freedom from Bureau headquarters to use them. Agents listened in at the most secret mob sitdowns, and even had a bug under "Sonny Red" Indelicato's bed, put there by an agent who, when caught under the bed, successfully claimed to be an exterminator. It was a uproarious scene, and this breezy book has lots of them.
Once mobsters realized the FBI had them on tape plotting crimes, venerable omerta was quickly replaced by a more modern concept, Let's Make a Deal, and even stone killers like Sammy "The Bull" Gravano rushed to become federal witnesses before partners in crime (John Gotti, in the case of The Bull) could set them up as defendants.
The first thing you notice about the good guys is they all talk like the bad guys, F-words unrelenting and undeleted, so this is not a book to give your mother. They also have lousy grammar ("Where me and Lou came in was a few nights later"), which may be authentic, but gets tiresome. And, as the title suggests, this anecdote-packed narrative paints a generally black-and-white picture, uncluttered by nuance or analysis.
Still, it contains at least one headline, an important observation, and an unintentional warning. The headline: UNDERCOVER FBI AGENT WAS LA COSA NOSTRA MOBSTER SIX YEARS, ENDING DOUBLE LIFE ONLY WHEN ORDERED TO MAKE MOB "HIT."
The observation: Improbable as it seems, Mr. Bonavolonta credibly argues that the Vietnam War was directly responsible for the FBI's success against the mob. How? FBI agents fresh from futile Vietnam combat had no appetite for another losing battle directed by bureaucrats in Washington. Their answer: Field agents regularly circumvented FBI headquarters, and Mr. Bonavolonta himself, assigned to headquarters, simply blew off FBI rules that limited his authority to approve instant cash for informants by simply deep-sixing the paperwork.
That disclosure leads to the warning, which is that FBI agents who break their own rules to get the mob might do the same against other, less clear-cut targets. On Ruby Ridge, for example, the bad guys sighted by agents through their sniper scopes turned out to include a woman and her baby.
In the end, though, "The Good Guys" serves up what the title promises, a gritty, agent's-eye view of a major federal law enforcement success. Mr. Bonavolonta clearly detests the Cosa Nostra mobsters who had tried to shake down his father, a tailor in Newark, years before, and his angry passion gives this account unusual energy.
David W. Marston co-authored "Inside Hoover's FBI," with Neil Welch. He was the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1976-1979, and from 1973-1976, legislative counsel to Sen. Richard. S. Schweiker.