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FBI Director Webster tightens ring around white-collar crime

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 5, 1984


Inside the big Diebold walk-in safe the air is dank with the memory of gangsters. Special Agent Oatess Archey rummages amid the M-16s and boxes of ammunition for a moment, then hauls out a black, oblong carrying case. It looks as if it might contain a trumpet, or a particularly complete set of socket wrenches. Mr. Archey opens it with care.

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''I just had to show you this,'' he says.

Inside is a Thompson submachine gun, circa 1921. Archey picks up the snub-nosed gun and hands it to me. The weapon is surprisingly heavy, yet in this small room its menace seems diminished. It is as if we are visiting a prisoner in jail.

''This is a bit of history,'' Archey says. ''It was used in the St. Valentine's Day massacre. Eventually we're going to put it on display.''

At the FBI's massive Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters, relics of the past are everywhere. The public tour begins with John Dillinger's straw hat and La Corona cigar; it ends with a fiery demonstration of a Thompson, even though agents haven't used the ''Tommy gun'' for more than 10 years.

But beneath this veneer of G-man-era nostalgia lies a law enforcement agency whose personality has greatly changed since the days of J. Edgar Hoover. Once unwilling to chase more than bank robbers or kidnappers, the FBI is today moving after hard-to-catch Mafiosi and white-collar criminals.

''We're focusing on whole groups,'' said FBI Director William H. Webster in an interview. ''We're reaching up into the upper echelons of criminal enterprises. We're not stopping with street busts.''

Last year, for instance, 113 members or associates of La Cosa Nostra organized-crime families were convicted after FBI arrests. In Kansas City, ''Operation Strawman'' resulted in five mob leaders being found guilty of skimming profits from a Las Vegas casino. In New York, an assault on the five leading Mafia families has netted such figures as James Episcopia, a captain in the Bonanno mob.

Almost 100 members of organized crime's minor leagues - nontraditional mobs such as the Outlaws motorcycle gang - were also locked up last year as a result of FBI efforts.

''The bureau's gotten more arrests, more convictions, that go higher up than in the past,'' says a congressional crime expert. ''Before, you took off a few people at the bottom. Now you get a few in the middle, one or two at the top. Does it make a difference? I don't know. Is organized crime still operating? Yes.''

Director Webster admits that the FBI hasn't dismantled any mob family. But La Cosa Nostra, he says, is far less venturesome than it used to be.

''It's a mistake to say we can wipe out crime,'' he says. ''You've got to keep the pressure on all the time, make the response prompt, and assure as much as possible that crime will be punished.''

It is Webster himself, law enforcement experts say, who deserves much of the credit for the ''new'' FBI.

A former federal judge in St. Louis, Webster is approaching his sixth anniversary as the top cop in the United States. He prefers the honorific ''Judge'' to that of ''Director,'' and indeed there is a judicial air about him. He weighs words carefully, appears somewhat grave, and altogether seems ready to don a black robe at moment's notice.

''Webster is really a classy guy,'' says James Fyfe, a criminal-justice professor at American University.

If there is a catch phrase that characterizes his law enforcement priorities, it is ''criminal enterprise.'' In the past, says Webster, federal crimes were usually committed by free-lancers, such as John Dillinger, who acted independently. Today, the FBI director says, major criminals are more likely to be members of illegal, businesslike enterprises. Call it the dark side of entrepreneurism.

''It takes a major operation to be a major drug cartel,'' Webster points out. ''It involves arrangement for acquisition in foreign countries, transshipment to the US, lines of distribution around the country, and vehicles for laundering funds.''