So often is organized crime made the stuff of spectacle and show business that perhaps the president should be forgiven for exploiting the subject too. Still, his new commission on organized crime, appointed with great fanfare, will miss an important opportunity if it follows his style and strategy.
The president seems to have set the stage --by announcing that the commission's first action will be to seek subpoena power--for a rerun of the 1950s Kefauver hearings. If the commission takes this cue, we may anticipate another extravaganza--a series of public hearings held around the country, featuring rumored mob kingpins and capos invoking the Fifth Amendment, and hooded informants describing the evils of the underworld.
The hearings held by Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee served their time well, making Americans aware for the first time of organized crime's threat, goading the federal government into action and generating support for new legislation that gave government tools to combat it.
Times have changed, however, since Kefauver exposed the mob's modus operandi. The word "organized" as applied to crime has a different meaning. The drug trade has spawned a new species of organizations, some even more venal than the old families. The problem now is not so much lack of public awareness as the public's apathy and acquiescence. The legal tools for combating organized crime are in place, but the resources are lacking.
The government by now has a wealth of information--reports, tips, leads, rumor along with hard data--that has never been critically assessed and analyzed. Much of it is catalogued idiosyncratically by local offices and agents, sometimes jealously guarded by investigators seeking to protect the confidential identities of their sources.
The task that this new commission should undertake--a task much-needed now--is to marshal the information at hand and develop a coherent and comprehensive analysis of organized crime nationwide. Addressing a number of specific questions will be critical to determining where and how the government's investigative resources should be allocated:
What dangers are posed by newly organized crime? The new networks and conglomerates, organized principally to import and distribute drugs from abroad, rival the long- established families for profits and violence. They are subject to less internal discipline and control; their chiefs and chains of command are volatile and ever-changing.
Even more vicious are the new groups of enforcers--the motorcycle gangs, for example--who now do much of the mob's dirty work. We know too little of this new species of organized crime, its extent, internal relationships and dangers.
How extensive is organized crime's infiltration of legitimate business? The public does not appreciate the magnitude of profits from illicit activities--reliable estimates simply don't exist--that the mob funnels into apparently above-board businesses for purpose of concealment and further gain. To some extent, public acquiescence enables this to occur, just as it is a prerequisite for the survival of illegal gambling and other illegitimate mob activities.
What are the best uses of different investigative techniques? An array of devices has been applied--sometimes with stunning success--in combination with undercover agents or informants. Investigations such as Brilab and Pendorf demonstrate that we do know how to use such devices to penetrate the mob's upper tiers. Lessons learned from these successes ought to be assessed and disseminated.
How should the law enforcement effort be structured? At the federal level, a variety of agencies with overlapping jurisdictions have coexisted, cooperated and conflicted with each other at different times. Few believe the present structure is satisfactory, but bureaucratic inertia and rivalry have blocked reform efforts. The commission has the stature and credibility needed to break the stalemate, and to advise state and local governments on similar reorganization.
The commission seems particularly well suited to address these questions by virtue of its members' diverse experience and backgrounds.
It is ill equipped, however, to investigate specific criminal action or to make cases against particular individuals. Even with subpoena power, it will lack the necessary resources and legal authority. The publicity it generates may jeopardize ongoing probes as well as future prosecutions.
If the commission were to address the questions suggested here--systematically scrutinizing and assembling data, and separating fact from fancy in investigators' minds and files--it would have quite enough to do without embarking on star-studded, spectacular public hearings around the country. It would also make quite an important and long-lasting contribution to combating organized crime.