Battling U.S. Organized Crime: A Test of Time and Bureaucracy

Mark A.R. Kleiman, lecturer in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, headed the Office of Policy and Management Analysis of the Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice, 1981-83, and served on the National Organized Crime Planning Council, 1979-82

Like the proverbial bad penny, the idea of abolishing the Organized Crime Strike Forces comes around again, this time under the formidable sponsorship of the U.S. attorney general. For citizens interested in fighting the Mafia and similarly well-insulated criminal organizations, this is entirely bad news.

Students of bureaucratic politics and public management, however, can learn something from all this about the precarious conditions of public agencies. Unless we can keep bureaucracies from eating their most promising children, there is little hope for long term improvement in the way the public's business is done.

The 14 strike forces are the field offices of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the Justice Department's criminal division. The 140 strike force prosecutors take orders from Washington, through a hierarchy of career mob-fighters. By contrast, 2,500 prosecutors in the 93 U.S. attorneys' offices serve at the pleasure of the 93 U.S. attorneys. They, in turn, are Justice Department employees in principle, presidential appointees in form, but in fact are chosen by the senator or senators of the President's party from their respective states.

Between the conviction of Al Capone on income-tax charges in the 1930s and the formation of the strike forces in the late 1960s, the record of organized crime enforcement at the federal level was one of almost unbroken failure. The mob grew and remained economically significant in business, ranging from trucking and construction to meat and milk; it was politically powerful from New York to Nevada, from Chicago to Louisiana, virtually untouched by investigation and prosecution.

Failure had relatively little to do with corrupt influence on the U.S. attorneys' offices. The process by which U.S. attorneys are chosen did, and does, lead to some fairly raw politics, but, on average, the offices have been good organizations and the U.S. attorneys themselves persons of courage and integrity.

In recent years, the U.S. attorneys' offices have generally become even better. On a resume-to-resume basis--law schools attended, law review editorships, judicial clerkships--some of the larger U.S. attorneys' offices now compare quite favorably with the strike forces.

But the offices lacked, and still lack, the one indispensable ingredient of success in organized-crime cases: patience. A Mafia "family" is a criminal organization carefully designed to keep its members out of prison. Overcoming that design, and its history of success, requires legal innovation and skill, but most of all the application of enormous resources over very long periods: The Angiulo case resulted in convictions for the entire Mafia leadership of the Boston family; five prosecutors worked full-time for six years after the investigation was complete and the incriminating conversations recorded on tape.

But U.S. attorneys serve for a few years, frequently with an eye on elective office. Thus a good organized crime case in a U.S. attorney's office would tend to outlast the attorney, creating a strong temptation to shift resources into less time-consuming activities. Short-term managers and long-term projects are a bad match.

Worse, investigators--most of all the FBI--know all of this; they know that today's assistant U.S. attorney might well be tomorrow's defense lawyer. This reinforces a professional caution about sharing details of investigations--particularly details that might compromise the confidentiality of informants--with their prosecutorial counterparts. Yet the two most important tools of organized-crime investigation--wiretaps and grand juries--require the closest possible cooperation between agents and prosecutors.

The strike forces were designed to embody the patience and single-mindedness essential to fight organized-crime. Strike force managers don't have to consider the competing demands of other cases against less well-armored defendants. The difference between short-term political appointment and career service means that the strike forces can and do plan for the long haul; so can the FBI when it works with them.

Strike force attorneys have the characteristics that go with membership in elite units: pride, dedication and clannishness--caring far more about their standing with colleagues than about what anyone else thinks of them and powerfully aware of their internal myths and private histories.

But the strike forces are not an elite of privilege. Looked at from the outside, the career doesn't seem all that attractive. Hours are long, promotions slow and courtroom appearances rare.

The strike forces have managed to substitute unit pride for pay and privilege, fostering sustained superior performance in a difficult environment. That pride is justified for the results have been no less than spectacular.

Virtually every Mafia family has seen its leadership convicted, some more than once. Mob political power is at a low ebb; its economic control over trucking, the docks and construction is substantially weakened and its internal morale--based on the "code of silence"--has shattered as leaders scramble to be among the informers rather than the informed-on. The crime family, boasts one veteran FBI agent, "is like the Communist Party in the 1960s; if three of 'em meet, one of 'em's ours."

Then why does Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh want to break up a winning team? For one thing, dissolving the strike forces would please the U.S. attorneys, ever jealous of their prerogatives as the chief federal law enforcement officers in their districts. U.S. attorneys (including Thornburgh when he was U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh) tend to view the strike forces as both a threat and an affront, competing for resources and cases while representing an implication that U.S. attorneys can't handle organized crime work, or can't handle it well.

There might be less friction if strike force attorneys were a little more discreet about suggesting they are the best prosecutors, working in the best organization, doing the most important job. efe

Pique aside, two arguments are made for folding the strike forces into the U.S. attorneys' offices.

One is that U.S. attorneys can do the job just as well, citing the Southern District of New York, where the strike force was merged into the U.S. attorney's office in the 1970s. But the Southern District--largest and most career-oriented office of them all--is hardly typical. No more typical than Boston, where a comic-opera U.S. attorney had to resign, after apparently trying to frame his predecessor on a marijuana-possession charge.

The other argument is that the strike forces have done their work; now that the Mafia is under control we can return to business as usual. But it's a little early to sing Te Deum in the war on the mob. So far, there has always been a willing successor to each mob chieftain imprisoned or slain by his peers. Patience is still the magic word.

Once the Mafia has been abolished as a significant force in American economic and political life, there will be other criminal organizations to be battled with single-mindedness over a long-time horizon. They are arising from some of the new immigrant communities, from the aging of youth gangs, from outlaw motorcycle groups and, perhaps most of all, from the drug trade. Strike forces will not lack worthy targets.

The Justice Department--the federal government as a whole--has no surplus of excellent organizations. We need to learn how to grow more of them, not recklessly uproot the few we have.

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