Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks Announcing Federal Initiatives Against Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime

October 14, 1982

Thank you very much, Bill, and thank all of you ladies and gentlemen.

I'm always a little self-conscious when I carry this bundle of papers up here, but I assure you it isn't going to be as long as the papers make it look. The printing is very big. [Laughter] But, you know, I know the importance of brevity in a speech. I was campaigning, and someone came up to me after the speech. And he was looking kind of accusingly at me, and he says, "You've got a nice tan." And I said, "Well, I've been doing a lot of outdoor rallies." "Well," he says, "you talk too long." [Laughter]

I'm delighted to be here, but I want to say at the outset that I didn't come today just to give a pep talk or exchange niceties. Those of you engaged in law enforcement have struggled long and hard in what must often have seemed like a losing war against the menace of crime. I'm grateful to you for that, and so are the American people. But besides being grateful, I have some good news for you—a major initiative that I believe can mark a turning point in the battle against crime.

As all of you know, crime today is an American epidemic. It takes the lives of over 20,000 Americans a year, touches nearly a third of America's homes, and results in about $8.8 billion a year in financial losses. I've resisted figuring out and doing what is sometimes typical in remarks of this kind, and that is to tell you how many people are going to be murdered while I'm talking to you.

But these statistics suggest that our criminal justice system has broken down, that it just isn't working, and many Americans are losing faith in it. Nine out of ten Americans believe that the courts in their home areas aren't tough enough on criminals, and the cold statistics do demonstrate the failure of our criminal justice system to adequately pursue, prosecute, and punish criminals. In New York City, for example, less than 1 percent of reported felonies end in a prison term for the offender.

The perception is growing that the crime problem stems from the emergence of a new privileged class in America, a class of repeat offenders and career criminals who think they have a right to victimize their fellow citizens with virtual impunity. They're openly contemptuous of our way of justice. They don't believe they'll be caught, and if they are caught, they're confident that once their cases enter our legal system, the charges will be dropped, postponed, plea-bargained away, or lost in a maze of legal technicalities that make a mockery of our legitimate and honorable concern with civil liberties.

Once again the research shows that this common perception has a strong basis in fact. Just take one limited part of the crime picture. Transit police in New York estimate that only 500 habitual offenders were responsible for nearly half of the crimes committed in their subways last year. This rise in crime, this growth of a hardened criminal class, has partly been the result of misplaced government priorities and a misguided social philosophy.

At the root of this philosophy lies utopian presumptions about human nature that see man as primarily a creature of his material environment. By changing this environment through expensive social programs, this philosophy holds that government can permanently change man and usher in an era of prosperity and virtue. In much the same way, individual wrongdoing is seen as the result of poor socioeconomic conditions or an underprivileged background. This philosophy suggests in short that there is crime or wrongdoing, and that society, not the individual, is to blame.

But what has also become abundantly clear in the last few years is that a new political consensus among the American people utterly rejects this point of view. The increase in citizen involvement of the crime problem and the tough new State statutes directed at repeat offenders make it clear that the American people are reasserting certain enduring truths—the belief that right and wrong do matter, that individuals are responsible for their actions, that evil is frequently a conscious choice, and that retribution must be swift and sure for those who decide to make a career of preying on the innocent.

This administration, even as we're struggling with our economic and international problems, has also been attempting to deal with the threat of crime and to speak for this new consensus.

As you know, one of the most critical duties that we faced upon taking office was controlling the influx of illegal drugs into this country. The South Florida Task Force, which we established under the leadership of Vice President George Bush, has, in the opinion of virtually all knowledgeable observers, been highly successful in slowing the illegal flow of drugs into the United States. I'll return to the subject of illegal drug trade in a moment, but let me say now that what was happening in south Florida is an example of the increasing sophistication and power of organized criminal enterprises and the grave danger that they pose to our nation.

When I spoke in New Orleans last year to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, I made the point then, as Bill has told you—and I don't think that I should repeat it now—but we do draw distinctions between violent crime, sophisticated crime, or between crimes like drugpushing and crimes like bribery. The truth is, crime doesn't come in categories. It's part of a pattern. If one sector prospers in the community of crime, so ultimately do all the others.

As I said then, the street criminal, the drugpusher, the mobster, the corrupt policeman, public official, they form their own criminal subculture. They contribute to and they prosper in a climate of lawlessness. They need each other. They use each other. They protect each other. And that brings us to the major and sweeping effort that I'm announcing this morning.

For many years, we have tolerated in America, not just in the illegal and highly dangerous drug traffic but in many other areas, a syndicate of organized criminals whose power is now reaching unparalleled heights. The personal suffering they cause to our society in human and fiscal terms, the climate of lawlessness that its very existence fosters, has made this network of professional criminals a costly and tragic part of our history.

Today, the power of organized crime reaches into every segment of our society. It is estimated that the syndicate has millions of dollars of assets in legitimate businesses. It controls corrupt union locals. It runs burglary rings. It fences for stolen goods, holds a virtual monopoly on the heroin trade. It thrives on illegal gambling, pornography, gun-running, ear theft, arson, and a host of other illegal activities.

The existence of this nationwide criminal network and its willingness—and too often, its success—in corrupting and gaining protection from those in high places is an affront to every law-abiding American and an encouragement to every street punk or two-bit criminal who hopes some day to make it into the big time.

The reasons for the mob's success are clear. Its tactics and techniques are well known. Organization and discipline, vows of secrecy and loyalty, insulation of its leaders from direct criminal involvement, bribery and corruption of law enforcement and public officials, violence and threats against those who would testify or resist this criminal conspiracy—all have contributed to the protective curtain of silence that surrounds its activities.

Through the years a few dedicated Americans have broken the curtain surrounding this menace and successfully rooted it out. Their names are familiar-Prosecutor Thomas Dewey and Judge William Seabury, Federal Agent Eliot Ness, and Senators Kefauver and McClellan, Attorneys General Brownell and Kennedy, investigative reporter Don Bolles. Important and increasingly effective investigations and prosecutions have also been achieved by the FBI and the Justice Department strike forces. But too often the efforts against the mob made by a few dedicated policemen, prosecutors, reporters, or public officials have resulted in only temporary gains. The time has come to make these gains permanent. The time has come to cripple the power of the mob in America.

A few months ago Attorney General William French Smith and his staff, in collaboration with the Treasury Department, put together final plans for a national strategy to expose, prosecute, and ultimately cripple organized crime in America. And I want to announce this program today. It is one that outlines a national strategy that I believe will bring us very close to removing a stain from American history that has lasted nearly a hundred years.

This program is very detailed, but let me now outline just a few of its major facets.

First, in view of the success of the South Florida Task Force, and because of increasing organized crime involvement in drug abuse, we will establish 12 additional task forces in key areas in the United States. These task forces, under the direction of the Attorney General, will work closely with State and local law enforcement officials. Following the south Florida example, they'll utilize the resources of the Federal Government, including the FBI, the DEA, the IRS, the ATF, Immigration and Naturalization Service, United States Marshals Services, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Coast Guard. In addition, in some regions Department of Defense tracking and pursuit capability will be made available.

I believe that these task forces will allow us to mount an intensive and coordinated campaign against international and domestic drug trafficking and other organized criminal enterprises.

Second, no weapon against organized crime has proved more effective or more important to law enforcement than the investigations carried on by the Kefauver committee and the McClellan committee in the 1950's or the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which, as many of you may remember, heard testimony from Federal informant Joseph Vallachi in the 1960's. Although several other commissions on crime have been appointed since then, none has had the time and the resources to fully investigate the syndicate and lay out a national strategy for its elimination. Accordingly, I am announcing the creation of a panel of 15 distinguished Americans from diverse backgrounds and professions with practical experience in criminal justice and combating organized crime.

The purpose of this commission, which will last for 3 years, will be to undertake a region-by-region analysis of organized crime's influence, to analyze and debate the data it gathers, and to hold public hearings on the findings. Not only will the work of this commission lead to important legislative recommendations, it will also heighten public awareness and knowledge about the threat of organized crime and mobilize citizen support for its eradication.

Third, this administration will launch a project similar to the Fifty States Project now underway in the area of women's rights. It will enlist the Nation's Governors in bringing about needed criminal justice reforms. For example, without effective enforcement of local and State statutes against various kinds of racketeering, like illegal gambling, this vital source of revenue for organized crime will never be fully dried up.

This Governors' project will attempt to bring to the attention of the States the importance of such initiatives and will serve as a sounding board for the Governors' concerns.

Fourth, all the diverse agencies and law enforcement bureaus of the Federal Government will be brought together in a comprehensive attack on drug trafficking and organized crime under a Cabinet-level committee chaired by the Attorney General and a working group chaired by the Associate Attorney General. Their job will be to review interagency and intergovernmental cooperation in the struggle against organized crime and, when necessary, bring problems in these areas to my attention.

And fifth, we're establishing, through Departments of Justice and Treasury, a national center for State and local law enforcement training at the Federal facility in Glynco, Georgia. This center, which will complement the already excellent training programs run by the FBI and DEA, will assist and train local law enforcement agents and officials in combating new kinds of syndicated crime, such as arson, bombing, bribery, computer theft, contract fraud, and bid-rigging, as well as drug smuggling.

Sixth, this administration will open a new legislative offensive that is aimed to win approval of reforms in criminal statutes dealing with bail, sentencing, criminal forfeiture, the exclusionary rule, and labor racketeering, that are essential in the fight against organized crime.

Seventh, I will ask that the Attorney General be required to submit a yearly report to the people, through the President and the Congress, on the status of the fight against organized crime and organized criminal groups dealing in drugs. This requirement, although simple and inexpensive, will establish a formal mechanism through which the Justice Department will take a yearly inventory of its efforts in this area and report to the American people on its progress.

And eighth, millions of dollars will be allocated for prison and jail facilities so that the mistake of releasing dangerous criminals because of overcrowded prisons will not be repeated.

I believe this program will prove to be a highly effective attack on drug trafficking and the even larger problem of organized crime. In fact, its first year will probably cost less than what is spent in one day on illegal drugs in this country or what is spent in one week by many Federal programs. But let this much be clear: Our commitment to this program is unshakable. We intend to do what is necessary to end the drug menace and cripple organized crime.

We live at a turning point—one of those critical eras in history when time and circumstances unite with the sound instincts of good and decent people to make a crucial difference in the lives of future generations. We can and will make a difference.

This is the justification for the offensive on organized criminal enterprises that I've outlined today. It comes down in the end to a simple question we must ask ourselves: What kind of people are we if we continue to tolerate in our midst an invisible, lawless empire? Can we honestly say that America is a land with justice for all if we do not now exert every effort to eliminate this confederation of professional criminals, this dark, evil enemy within?

You know the answer to that question. The American people want the mob and its associates brought to justice and their power broken—not out of a sense of vengeance, but out of a sense of justice; not just from an obligation to punish the guilty but from an even stronger obligation to protect the innocent; not simply for the sake of legalities but for the sake of the law that is the protection of liberty.

"Justice," James Madison wrote in "The Federalist Papers," "is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has [been] and ever will be [pursued until it be] 1 obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." For the sake of our children, for the sake of all the magnificent accomplishments of the American past, today I ask for your support and the support of our people in this effort to fight the drug menace, to eradicate the cancers of organized crime and public corruption, to make our streets and houses safe again, and to return America to the days of respect for the law and the rights of the innocent.

Thank you very much.

1 White House corrections.

Note: The President spoke at 10:47 a.m. in the Great Hall at the Department of Justice. He was introduced by Attorney General William French Smith.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks Announcing Federal Initiatives Against Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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