Organized crime threat to U.S. economy, national security

Published 1 May 2009

After 9/11, many law enforcement and intelligence agencies turned their attention to the fight against terrorism; a new report from CRS says that evolving organized crime threatens U.S. national security and the economy as it grows increasingly transnational

A new report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) says that evolving organized crime threatens U.S. national security and the economy as it grows increasingly transnational. “Though organized crime has arguably always been transnational, it was not until the 1990s, following the Cold War and the spread of globalization, that the transnational nature of organized crime surged and criminals expanded their operations across increasingly open borders,” the report notes.

Matthew Harwood writes that The FBI has broken down down the top organized crime threats to the United States by ethnicity and geographical location. The FBI considers the top organized crime threat facing the United States from Eurasia, particularly Russian crime groups, which exploded in number after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Other organized crime threats come from Asian, Italian, Balkan, Middle Eastern, and African organizations. All these groups operate across U.S. borders.

Harwood writes that despite the threat posed by organized crime, it has largely fallen off the federal government’s radar since 9/1, when priorities shifted toward counterterrorism. The report notes that the percentage of FBI field agents “utilized” for organized crime cases in 2004 dropped by 35 percent from 2000.

Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey recognized the need for renewed attention in April 2008 when he reconvened the Organized Crime Council after a 15 year hiatus. Three years earlier, the United States ratified the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, considered “the main international tool for combating organized crime,” according to CRS.

The convention helps law enforcement from different countries cooperate and provides for mutual legal assistance between countries where no agreements existed before. The report notes this is critical because open borders and the Internet allow organized criminal organizations the opportunity to threaten the United States from abroad as well as internally. Now as criminals set up shop across borders, so do U.S. law enforcement agencies. CRS reports that U.S. government agencies work with both the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime and INTERPOL, among other institutions, to fight transnational criminal organizations.

The report, however, suggests more must be done in the international fight against organized crime because of the myriad threats it poses to the United States. Summarizing a report from the Organized Crime Council, the CRS lists the ways organized crime could compromise U.S. national security and the economy:

[T]he Council noted that international organized criminals have and may penetrate the energy and other strategic sectors of the economy; provide logistical and other support to terrorists, foreign intelligence services, and governments; smuggle/traffic people and contraband goods into the United States; exploit the United States and international financial system to move illicit funds; use cyberspace to target U.S. victims and infrastructure; manipulate securities exchanges and perpetrate sophisticated frauds; corrupt or seek to corrupt public officials in the United States and abroad; and use violence or the threat of violence as a basis for power.

Due to the recession, organized crime could have an even more destabilizing effect on the economy due to fraud in the already fragile financial and housing markets and lost  tax revenue.

According to CRS, Congress could provide more money and personnel to federal agencies for organized crime. It may also consider expanding the list of crimes that give the U.S. government extraterritorial jurisdiction depending on its diplomatic consequences. Currently, the U.S. extraterritorial jurisdictions are more attuned to counterterrorism than organized crime. Some experts, however, believe fighting organized crime is central to fighting terrorists because both groups need money and may forge strategic alliances to achieve their goals, according to the report. “It has been suggested that organized crime groups may cooperate with terrorists if the business alliance is profitable,” the report says. “Congress,” CRS suggests, “may consider the potential nexus between organized crime and terrorism.

The report also notes there are various bills before the 111th Congress that would aid in the fight against organized crime, including a public corruption bill that would expand the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, as well as several bills aimed at combating money laundering.