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Trib exclusive: 'Donnie Brasco' offers insights on the evolution of undercover work

| Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, 9:39 a.m.
FBI agent Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, with Bonanno Crime Family capo, Sonny Black in New York, NY.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation
FBI agent Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, with Bonanno Crime Family capo, Sonny Black in New York, NY.

The internet has made undercover work more difficult than it was in the 1970s, but things really haven't changed that much, retired FBI Special Agent Joe Pistone told the Tribune-Review in an exclusive interview.

“How you infiltrate, how you ingratiate yourself, that hasn't changed,” he said. “It's just you have to be a little more careful with your ‘legend.'”

The legend is the back story an agent creates to support his or her assumed identity.

Using the name “Donnie Brasco,” Pistone claimed to have grown up in a Pittsburgh orphanage that had burned down when he actually grew up in Erie and Paterson, N.J.

With no online yearbook or high school sports pictures to contradict him, he successfully used that identity from 1976 to 1981 to gather evidence that led to more than 200 indictments and dismantled several American Mafia families.

Information he gathered also led to other investigations, including the Pizza Connection case that dismantled a large-scale heroin and cocaine ring operated by the Sicilian Mafia.

He posed as a jewel thief who had operated in California and Miami. When Mafia members questioned his identity, they called Miami to have someone they knew check his claim to have worked with a low-level criminal who, unknown to them, had become a police informant.

There was no Google or image searches or social media trail.

“It's harder today, but it can be done…,” Pistone said last week during a visit to St. Vincent College in Unity. “The art of undercover has not changed.”

One of his key pieces of advice predates the Internet by more than 2,500 years.

“If you don't know your enemy, you're not going to defeat your enemy,” he said paraphrasing the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu.

The value to prosecutors of undercover work is also unchanged, he said.

“If you do go to court, you'd rather have a law enforcement officer on the witness stand than an informant,” he said.

Pistone now works as a consultant, holding organized crime schools and undercover schools for U.S. police departments and foreign governments. Part of his work is to help them evaluate officers for undercover work.

“You look for people who don't get nervous, can carry on a good conversation,” he said.

Modern undercover investigations are as likely to involve drug cartels or terrorism groups as they are organized crime.

Drug cartels and organized crime have the similar goal of making money, so infiltrating them follows a similar pattern, he said.

“Terrorism is a different animal than criminal undercover,” Pistone said. On the other hand, “if you have something to offer the terrorists, you can infiltrate them.”

That's really the key to infiltrating any group, he said.

“You have to be the provider for whatever they think they need to carry out their activities,” Pistone said.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218, bbowling@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TribBrian.

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