Penetrating the Mafia with a Bulls--t Story

So how do you crack open the Mafia and penetrate it in a deep-undercover investigation?

In the words of an ace undercover operator (and former FBI agent), "You need to know your source.”

Joseph D. Pistone, formerly Donnie Brasco of the Bonanno crime family, gave the keynote address before a gathering of senior case management and investigation professionals at Polonious World 2017, some kind of trade show held recently in Australia.

Johnny Depp with Al Pacino in the Donnie Brasco film.

 "You have to know the organization that you’re trying to infiltrate. You have to know your enemy. Because if you don’t know your enemy, you aren’t going to defeat them. By knowing your enemy, it will help you infiltrate and help you stay alive,” Pistone said.

“The Italian mafia is not unlike the police department or the military. You have a boss and a structure of command. The only difference here is if you screw up in the mafia, they kill you.”

Pistone infamously went "deep undercover" to investigate New York's Bonanno crime family in the 1970s. An opportunistic operation, Pistone, using the name Donnie Brasco, had initially sought to penetrate the Colombo crime family. Considered one of the FBI's largest investigations in its history, the Donnie Brasco probe clinched 234 indictments by its end.

During his talk, Pistone offered remarks on how he managed to cultivate strong relationships and burrow deeply into one of New York's Five Families.

“Up until that time we never had anybody that had got close to the Mafia. We had never really penetrated the upper echelon because it is such a closed society. It’s cousins, uncles, fathers, brothers. Everybody knew somebody that was in the Mafia.”

Keynoter Pistone

“I was an FBI agent for 27 years, working undercover 22 of the 27 years. Most of my undercover work was long-term, deep cover. What that means is you leave your residence, you leave your family behind. Once you walk out of the office, you never go back while that case is going on,” he said.

“Once you infiltrate the organization that you've targeted, that is who you become. That is your family. That’s it. You don’t go back to your residence on a daily basis. And that’s long-term. Deep undercover. You leave your badge and gun in the office. The only thing you go out there with is your legend, whatever name you choose to use and whatever profession you choose to use.”

One major flaw in Donnie Brasco's "backstory" was that he was an orphan, a man with no parents, no brothers, no sisters. This should've been viewed by the Bonannos in his orbit as a neon sign proclaiming: This guy is wrong.

Wiseguys are supposed to know enough to trace a potential associate's background.

Brasco, just like decades later a guy named "Jack Falcone," mitigated this potential weakness with the flash and dash of diamonds. Both undercover agents Brasco and Falcone posed as jewel thieves. Did you think that was a coincidence? Brasco, however, didn't comment on that part in his remarks. He talked about the importance of building a good backstory instead.

“You need to know your legend. Most undercovers that get blown are because they pick a legend and they don’t take the time to learn that legend. They don’t take the time to learn about their profession. If I’m a jewel thief, I need to know diamonds and I need to know precious gems. I have to be pretty good at looking at a diamond and know if it has a flaw. So I went to a diamond school and learned about diamonds and precious gems,” he said, explaining he also educated himself on picking locks, tinkering with alarm systems and safes.

“Once you infiltrate and they know what your profession is, they are going to test you on it.”