WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh announced Monday that he will disband the Justice Department's 14 federal organized-crime strike forces and merge them into U.S. attorneys offices, putting him on a collision course with several senators who contend that the move could cripple the government's anti-mob efforts.
Thornburgh said that eliminating the specialized interagency units, including one in Los Angeles, will sharpen the attack on the Mafia and enable the government to better counter emerging organized crime elements.
The decision was expected. Thornburgh has been a critic of the strike forces since serving as U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, Pa., 15 years ago. But it was disclosed on the eve of hearings by a House Judiciary subcommittee on the strike force status and came as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) urged Thornburgh to examine each strike force individually, arguing that eliminating them "to assuage U.S. attorneys' egos would be a triumph of ideology over common sense."
Confident of Majority
Thornburgh said, however, that he expects to implement the plan no later than Oct. 1, the beginning of the government's fiscal year, adding that he is "confident the vast majority" of the members of Congress will support his position.
Thornburgh's plan calls for:
--Establishing organized crime strike force units within 23 U.S. attorneys' offices, including the 14 located where separate strike forces now operate. All but 20 of the 125 strike force prosecutors would be reassigned to the U.S. attorneys' units.
--Transferring about 20 veteran strike force lawyers to the organized crime and racketeering section in the Justice Department's criminal division where they would identify and prosecute significant criminal organizations and be sent to help with key cases elsewhere.
--Create an organized crime council to oversee the government's drive against organized crime, with members from the department's criminal division and federal investigative agencies involved in the fight, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms bureau of the Treasury Department.
Kennedy, in a statement, expressed "serious reservations" about Thornburgh's plan, citing "unparalleled successes" of the strike forces for more than 20 years.
In April, Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Kennedy and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), all veteran members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Nunn, chairman of the Government Affairs permanent investigations subcommittee, urged the attorney general to hold off on his decision until Congress has time to consider the matter.
Kennedy and Nunn, in an article Monday in the New York Times, said that U.S. attorneys oppose the Washington-directed strike forces because they "resent their lack of control over organized crime cases on their home turf."
Contrasted with U.S. attorneys who "serve too briefly to develop the expertise and maintain the continuity required for complex organized crime investigations," strike forces "take a long view" and "are more easily insulated from the political pressures that influence the selection and activities of local U.S. attorneys," Kennedy and Nunn wrote.
Thornburgh, however, said that his proposed structure would strengthen efforts against Mafia families and enhance those "against new organized crime elements, such as those in the Asian communities and among gangs such as the Crips and Bloods and the Jamaican posses." Kennedy, Nunn and other critics of the plan had urged Thornburgh to wait until drug chief William J. Bennett completes a study in a few months of law enforcement resources, as required by the 1988 omnibus drug law.
But David Runkel, Thornburgh's chief spokesman, said the attorney general's decision was a departmental decision. "The attorney general created them," he said, referring to the establishing of the first strike force in 1967. "It's an internal management decision."