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‘Britain’s FBI’ must learn hard lessons from US law enforcement

Most wanted: James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. Massachusetts State Police

October 7 this year will see the launch of the National Crime Agency (NCA). According to a white paper presented to parliament by Theresa May, the NCA will be responsible for co-ordinating the fight against organised crime, which is estimated to cost between £20 and £40 billion a year in Britain.

Predictably the NCA has become the latest agency to be hailed as “Britain’s answer to the FBI” after the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).

But we have to think seriously about the extent to which we want to adopt the model established by America’s famed law enforcement agency.

Public enemies

That the FBI has had some outstanding success is not in doubt. Only last week, one of America’s notorious gangsters, James “Whitey” Bulger was found guilty of 11 murders and on 31 racketeering counts after evading capture for more than two decades. Bulger had achieved national and international fame not just because of his criminal exploits in the city of Boston but because he was part of complex networks of local, state and federal corruption in his role as a top-echelon FBI informant.

Newspaper articles, documentaries, books and the Martin Scorcese film, The Departed, which was in part based on Bulger, ensured that his fame grew while he remained on the run.

Bulger’s chief criminal victims were Italian-American racketeers, notably Gennaro Anguilo and his mafia family. Although he did not testify against them, his role as an informant was an important part of the process by which the FBI and Department of Justice secured the conviction of Anguilo and his associates. It was presented in the press of the mid-1980s as one of the early highlights of the Feds’ “war” on the Mafia. The Mafia was thought at the time to be a centralised organisation, headed by a national commission, and thus one that constituted a national security threat.

In the space of just a few years the leaders of some 22 Mafia families were indicted and most convicted, usually by a combination of electronic surveillance, information obtained through criminal informants like Bulger, and effective use of the Racketeering and Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO). The “war” was presented by the US government as the most successful legal assault on organised crime in history.

At the same time US diplomats were already pushing hard in individual countries and through international organisations, notably the United Nations (UN), to Americanise international law enforcement.

Threat to international security

In the post-Cold War era many local and regional crime groups were lumped together with often completely separate smuggling groups and said to be supercriminal organisations or “veritable crime multinationals”, in the words of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali who told a specially convened UN conference in Naples that - especially since the end of the Cold War - globalisation was also transforming organised crime.

The main aim of the 1994 conference was to work towards the establishment of the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNOTC). The process culminated in 2003 when the convention came into force. Nations, like the UK, which ratified the UNTOC convention commit themselves to the type of American measures deemed to be effective in combating organised crime by the UN, including Article 26 on “measures to enhance cooperation with law enforcement authorities”.

This commits states to take “appropriate measures to encourage persons who participate in or have participated in organised crime groups” to “supply information useful to competent authorities for investigative and evidentiary purposes” and, in effect to get protection or lenient court treatment for this information.

Getting away with murder

Bulger got protection for his various criminal enterprises because he was thought to be useful in providing information on the Mafia. In 1994, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano got lenient treatment from a judge for his part in bringing about the conviction of New York mobster John Gotti. Gravano got a prison sentence that amounted to less than one year despite admitting to 19 murders. He then relocated to Arizona, where he prospered until convicted on various drug trafficking charges.

The Bulger and Gravano cases are tips of the iceberg. It was revealed by USA Today that the FBI allowed informants to break the law more than 5,600 times in a single year and that number does not include probably much larger figures from local and state policing authorities.

There are many more problems associated with US organised crime control techniques that are not discussed or understood by British policy makers and their counterparts throughout the world. There has been minimal informed parliamentary debate about the paradigm shift in British policing represented by NCIS, SOCA and the NCA and involving amongst other dubious tactics, the increased use of criminal informants. If our representatives in parliament or the media ask the home secretary or the prime minister difficult questions on the organised crime issue they are likely to get variations on the following responses: 1) We’ve got international obligations and so there is no alternative 2) These are national security issues and so there is no alternative.

But these are debates we urgently need to have if we don’t want to see our own home-grown gangsters (and their corrupt friends in high places) carrying on their criminal activities as if it is business as usual.

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