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    FBI Chief: Russian Mafias Pose Growing Threat to U.S.

    By Douglas Farah
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Thursday, October 2, 1997; Page A18

    FBI Director Louis J. Freeh warned yesterday that Russian organized crime networks pose a menace to U.S. national security and asserted that there is now greater danger of a nuclear attack by some outlaw group than there was by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

    Testifying before the House Committee on International Relations, Freeh said that about 30 Russian crime syndicates operate in the United States, trafficking in drugs, prostitution, fraud schemes and other illicit activities. While Freeh and others have warned previously of the power of such crime networks in Russia, this was one of the first public acknowledgments that the groups have taken root in the United States.

    "The size of this problem is really immense," and it requires immediate attention, Freeh said. "We have identified organized crime organizations not just from Russia and Eastern Europe, but from Asia, from Africa, from many other parts of the world, which are beginning to operate very effectively and very dangerously in the United States."

    Freeh said also that U.S. law enforcement agencies take "very seriously" the possibility that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of Russian criminal gangs and added, "We have to take drastic steps to prevent and detect that."

    Asked if he believes the United States is under a greater threat "from nuclear detonation now than at the height of the Cold War," Freeh answered: "If you describe that detonation as a criminal or terrorist or rogue operation, I think the answer would be yes. The controls that were in place for many of these weapons and structures [during the Cold War] don't apply to a terrorist, or organized criminal, or an opportunist who could get access to them."

    Freeh said the Russian syndicates conduct the most sophisticated criminal operations ever seen in the United States, based on their access to expertise in computer technology, encryption techniques and money-laundering facilities that process hundreds of millions of dollars.

    Part of that expertise, Freeh said, is provided by "former KGB officers working directly with some of those organized crime groups, and that poses an additional level of threat and sophistication."

    At the same hearing, a senior Italian police official outlined growing ties between the traditional Sicilian Mafia and Russian organized crime groups whose influence is spreading throughout Europe. Giovanni de Gennaro, Italy's deputy director for public security, said the Russian groups, acting in concert with the Mafia, are buying massive amounts of real estate in Italy and pouring millions of dollars into Italian banks.

    The testimony came on the heels of a report on the international threat posed by Russian organized crime issued by Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. The study warned that, if left unchecked, crime networks will turn Russia into a "criminal-syndicalist state" -- a nation controlled by a troika of gangsters, corrupt government officials and crooked businessmen who accumulate vast amounts of wealth "by promoting and exploiting corruption and the vulnerabilities inherent in a society in transition."

    The two-year study found that Russia's wealth has been "plundered since the Soviet Union imploded, and tens of billions of dollars have been moved to safe havens in offshore banking centers."

    "Russian organized crime constitutes a direct threat to the national security interests of the United States by fostering instability in a nuclear power," the report said. "Russian organized crime groups hold the uniquely dangerous opportunity to procure and traffic in nuclear materials."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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