Targeting a new type of mobster

Times Staff Writer

Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey offered a stark assessment Wednesday of a rising threat from international organized crime, saying that a new breed of mobsters around the world was infiltrating strategic industries, providing logistical support to terrorists and becoming capable of “creating havoc in our economic infrastructure.”

Launching one of his first new law enforcement initiatives since becoming attorney general last fall, Mukasey said he recently revived a multiagency group first established in the Johnson administration with the goal of identifying the most urgent organized crime threats around the world and developing strategies to combat them.

The Organized Crime Council, composed of senior officials from nine federal law enforcement agencies, had not met since the early 1990s, when it went dormant after a series of high-profile victories in the U.S.

“The challenge we face with the new breed of organized criminals is quite different from the one we faced a generation or two ago,” Mukasey said, addressing the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “They are more sophisticated, they are richer, they have greater influence over government and political institutions worldwide, and they are savvier about using the latest technology, first to perpetrate and then cover up their crimes.


“This new group of organized criminals are far more involved in our everyday lives than many people appreciate,” he said. “They touch all sectors of our economy, dealing in everything from cigarettes to oil; clothing to pharmaceuticals.”

Mukasey said international organized crime groups controlled “significant positions” in global energy and strategic materials and were expanding holdings in the U.S. materials sector.

A strategic plan on fighting organized crime released by the department also said such groups manipulated securities exchanges and laundered billions of dollars through legitimate financial institutions. “They are expanding their holdings in these sectors, which corrupts the normal functioning of markets and may have a destabilizing effect on U.S. geopolitical interests,” Mukasey said.

Prosecutors’ attention to organized crime has been diverted since the Sept. 11 attacks, as the department has shifted money and people to thwarting terrorists.

Although many experts think the opportunities for corruption are so vast that the problem will never be solved, the speech appeared to be an effort by Mukasey to send a signal about U.S. determination.

“Investigators and lawyers and the folks engaged in organized crime are perfectly aware that this [post-9/11] shift in priorities means criminals are less likely to get caught,” said Robert Luskin, a Washington lawyer who works to eradicate organized crime’s influence in the Laborers’ Union in New York.

“It takes concentrated specialized talent, not unlike our anti-terrorist effort,” said John M. Dowd, a Washington lawyer and former organized crime chief in the Justice Department. “I am delighted to see Michael Mukasey revive it. I don’t know why it ebbs and flows. To me, it always has to be a priority.”

Organized crime has a rich and colorful history at the Justice Department, going back to its battles with gangsters in the Prohibition and Depression eras.

As attorney general in the 1960s, Robert F. Kennedy renewed the nation’s attention on the broad threat posed by mobsters. “Strike force” teams helped bring down Mafia bosses and fight organized crime’s influence on the Teamsters union.

That battle continues: In February, U.S. authorities indicted 60 people in federal court in Brooklyn, including top leaders of the notorious Gambino family. The prosecution alleged a web of crimes including murders and extortion schemes with links to the construction industry.

Mukasey cited a number of recent arrests showing how the terrain had changed, including the arrest last month of reputed arms trafficker Victor Bout on suspicion of conspiring to sell weapons to terrorists in Colombia; and the case of reputed Russian organized crime kingpin Semyon Mogilevich, known as “the Brainy Don,” suspected of corrupting the natural gas industry in the former Soviet Union. Mogilevich was arrested in January in Moscow on tax charges. The U.S. indicted him on racketeering charges in 2003, but Russian authorities have refused to extradite him.

Mukasey said organized crime had also become a major engine behind international smuggling and human trafficking. An FBI-led investigation into smuggling operations in Southern California, known as Operation Smoking Dragon, uncovered extensive Asian involvement in sneaking illicit goods into the U.S. in shipping containers labeled as toys and furniture from China, the attorney general said.