Washington — Romanticized by the movies and overshadowed by domestic and world events in recent years, organized crime once again is being scrutinized by federal investigators.
Along with "white collar" crime and foreign counterintelligence, organized crime is a top priority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI Director William H. Webster says. A Senate subcommittee, which broke ground in the 1960s with its investigations of organized crime, is set for a fresh look at it. The probe will examine:
* The use of violence to sustain criminal operations. "There is little doubt ," Mr. Webster says, that detailing the violence of organized crime "will do much to remind us all that real-life organized crime is not the romantic illustration too often shown in popular entertainment forums." Instead, Mr. Webster says, organized crime is "enormous, structured, and deadly serious."
* The takeover of legitimate businesses by criminals. Investigators say money channeled from illegal operations is being used to give criminals an unfair advantage when they enter legitimate businesses.
* The effect of crime on the economy. Subcommittee chairman Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia estimates that $121 billion to $168 billion in unreported, untaxed income is taken out of the economy each year by organized crime. In southern Florida where illegal drug traffic is flourishing, criminal activity contributes mightily to inflation.
In the past, much of what the public has thought about organized crime has been formed through the work of the FBI and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. Former Sen. John McClellan and former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy rose to prominence working with this subcommittee during investigations in the '60s.
Seventeen years ago, a convicted murderer named Joseph Valachi told the subcommittee about the workings of a crime syndicate he called "La Cosa Nostra." The Valachi testimony caused a sensation. It was the "biggest intelligence breakthrough" up to that time in combating organized crime and racketeering, former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said.
That series of hearings resulted in new federal wire-tapping authority, legislation to grant immunity to federal witnesses, and tougher laws against racketeering -- as well as an improved knoledge of criminal practices to help police and the FBI.
During Watergate, however, the Nixon administration abused tax laws, which had been a useful tool in prosecuting gangsters, by using them for political purposes. Similarly, the Nixon White House conducted much of its business in a cloak of secrecy. Following Mr. Nixon's resignation, Congress reformed tax laws to prevent use of returns in anything other than a tax case and broadened the Freedom of Information Act.
But in the process, some congressmen and crime experts now say, reformers hampered law-enforcement action against organized crime. The Tax Reform Act of 1976 now is under study to determine whether the FBI should be allowed access to suspicious tax returns in an effort to trace the flow of money within a criminal organization. And some -- including Mr. Webster -- are calling for a change in the Freedom of Information Act of 1975, to protect police informers from exposure when requests for records are made by criminals. Mr. Webster has suggested convicted felons be barred from making such requests.
"The pendulum may have swung too far," says Prof. G. Robert Blakey, director of the Cornell Institute on Organized Crime and a member of Senator McClellan's staff in the 1960s. "These hearings should try to find some balance. A sane society should care about both privacy and law enforcement."
Other possible legal tools that could emerge from the new investigations, according to Senator Nunn: a federal murder-for-hire statute; additional protection for federal officials such as judges and prosecutors; a provision allowing trial judges to reduce the sentences of federal prisoners who decide to cooperate with the government; additional sentences for federal crimes involving violence; and stiffer, uniform bail and sentencing requirements.
In the field, Mr. Webster says, the FBI is concentrating on five areas of organized crime: labor racketeering, illegal infiltration of legitimate business , public corruption, extortion in credit transactions, and gambling. "Abscam," "Unirac," and "Miporn" were programs aimed at these criminal activities.
Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice, Assistant Attorney General Philip B. Heymann says, has assigned 140 trial attorneys to 26 "strike forces" working against organized crime. Mr. Heymann predicts that in the near future these strike forces will be able "to convict the top leadership of four of the most important criminal organizations in this country."
To achieve this goal, Mr. Heymann says, investigators will need to focus on the "paper trails" of illicit money, much of it laundered by offshore banks, that lead to the top command of criminal organizations, and will have to make use of "immunized" informers from criminal organizations.