Russian gangsters and nuclear material Copyright 1998 Nando.net Copyright 1998 Scripps Howard WASHINGTON (March 2, 1998 00:54 a.m. EST http://www.nando.net) -- Despite the black market in Russian military hardware, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh does not believe that Russian organized crime groups pose a threat to the national security of the United States. Experts on foreign affairs and nuclear disarmament, however, said that Russian mobsters quite possibly could steal and then sell nuclear material that ends up in a terrorist's bomb on the East Coast. Even Freeh himself, last October, said the "possibility and the threat" of nuclear weaponry from the former Soviet Union falling into the hands of criminals or terrorists is "extremely high." But during a November trip to Russia, Freeh held a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart, Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov. Freeh downplayed the threat posed by Russian mobsters, suggesting they were not comparable to the Sicilian Mafia and stating that he was not aware of any documented links between organized crime groups and the trafficking of radioactive materials. Freeh's remarks earned him a skeptical headline in the Moscow Times, an English language newspaper: "FBI Boss: No 'Mafia' in Russia." The words reflected the cynicism of Moscovites who have seen gangland-style shootouts between criminal organizations. In December, Freeh reiterated his estimation of Russian mobsters. "They do not, as a criminal entity, pose any threat to the national security of the United States," he said at a news briefing. Robert Gallucci, a senior state department official under both Republican and Democratic administrations, described Freeh's comments as "nonsense." "One of the greatest threats to international security and our own national security comes from the enormous quantities of fissile (nuclear) material that exists primarily in Russia," said Gallucci, former assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs and now dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He said the radioactive elements removed from dismantled nuclear weapons and from nuclear power plant waste in Russia amount to large stashes of "bomb fuel" in a country where physical security is compromised, where people in the military and research establishment are not paid well and where organized crime operates aggressively and pays handsomely. Russian mobsters would find a ready market for any stolen radioactive materials in Iraq, Iran and Libya, all of which are shopping for nuclear weapon components and maintain ties to terrorist groups, Gallucci said. "It would be foolish not to view the organized crime element in this equation as an important factoid," he said. A report issued last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and chaired by former FBI Director William H. Webster warned that "the potential criminal diversion and trafficking of nuclear materials must be viewed as a direct challenge to U.S. national security." Former Ambassador Jack F. Matlock Jr. said the national security threat from the Russian mob is "indirect," similar to the threat presented by most organized crime that operates in the United States. "One thing that makes the Russian organized crime different is ... the fact that they may gain access to weapons of mass destruction there more easily than here," said Matlock, who served as U.S. envoy to the Soviet Union during the Reagan administration. Amy Knight, author of "Spies Without Cloaks: the KGB's Successors," said observers inside and outside Russia believe the state security services charged with safeguarding nuclear materials may be aiding criminal organizations. "Everybody is out to make a buck," said Knight, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. Russian police already have cracked organized crime rings that were stealing and selling non-nuclear military hardware, said Dr. Vladimir Brovkin, of the United Research Centers on Organized Crime in Eurasia at American University. "There's no smoking gun yet ... of (smuggled) nuclear stuff. That doesn't mean it didn't happen," said Brovkin. What makes Freeh's recent comments even more puzzling are how they compare with his Oct. 1 testimony before a congressional committee. Freeh was asked about the possibility of "international criminal elements" smuggling nuclear material out of Russia. "We have not seen any hard evidence of suitcase-sized nuclear devices either unaccounted for or falling into the hands of criminals or terrorists," Freeh said. "However, the possibility and the threat of that is extremely high and something which occupies much attention, not just from the criminal law enforcement point of view but from the national security point of view. If you can buy, as we saw two years ago, 2.7 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium in Munich or Prague, the same channels of access for those materials could quickly or easily lead to a full -- a fully operational device." During that same testimony, Freeh talked about how the Russian mob had grown larger and more sophisticated than any organized crime the United States has seen, how the mobsters had established links to South American drug cartels and were aided by former KGB agents. In his Moscow visit and his December briefing, Freeh provided a less menacing assessment, saying Russian organized crime groups presented a "very serious crime problem" for the United States but differed significantly with the Italian Mafia. "The organized crime groups in Russia are not similar, in fact are very dissimilar from the Mafia groups in Sicily," Freeh said. "The hierarchy in the Sicilian structure -- there's no such hierarchy in the Russian groups. They're much more loosely affiliated. They have different structures as well as different fields of activity." The Moscow Times suggested that Freeh toned down his remarks during his visit there as a show of confidence that Russian authorities can rein in their spiraling crime rate. His press conference was followed by FBI officials presenting a half-dozen plaques to high-level Russian law enforcement officers for their help in solving a variety of cases. Jacob Kipp, a Russian expert at the University of Kansas, said that Freeh's job requires him to maintain relationships with Russian law enforcement organs. As for dismissing the Russian mob as a national security threat, Freeh likely is abiding by an older, more traditional definition of national security in which threats come exclusively from other nations, not rogue outfits such as terrorists, said Kipp. They're criminals. Freeh "is a law enforcement officer," Kipp said. "And we should remember that." By MARK JOHNSON, Media General News Service. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
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