Claire Sterling

Our Thieves’ World, Part II

VTR Date: June 16, 1994

Author Claire Sterling discusses organized crime.


GUEST: Claire Sterling
VTR: 6/16/1994

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND I began our previous program with today’s guest about what seems now to have become a global network of organized crime, by reading a few sentences from her recent Simon & Schuster book entitled Thieves’ World. In it she wrote: “Modern criminal power has surpassed the government attempts to contain it. International organized crime is too big. Nobody knows how to deal with it. Perhaps it can’t be dealt with as long as the world is divided into nearly 200 sovereign states. While the big crime syndicates simply go where the money is, sovereign states cannot do anything simply. If they go down to dismal defeat in the war against crime it will be largely because they are hampered by all the baggage of statecraft: Patriotism, politics, accountable governments, human rights, legal strictures, international conventions, bureaucracy, diplomacy, whereas the big criminal syndicates have no national allegiances, no laws of their own, no frontiers”. Well, the author of Thieves’ World is my old friend, Claire Sterling, whose perceptive writing and reporting from abroad has has for decades now been leaps and bounds ahead of what so many other journalists have reported, or even have been willing to see concerning crime and terrorism around the world. So let me begin today by asking her more about this increasingly real threat to us all. Claire, in the break between the last program and this one you pointed to a list that the Mafia, whether it be in Columbia or in Italy or in the United States or in the former Soviet Union is up to. Read it.

STERLING: I want to make it clear that this list applies to all the big syndicates of the world who operate interchangeably between the United States and Europe and Asia. Therefore, this is a universal problem and we’re being hit with it because they’re colonizing us more than any other part of the world. This list includes: Alien smuggling, bank fraud, burglaring, counterfeiting, bank card fraud, drug trafficking, extortion, fencing, fraudulent documents, gas tax fraud, insurance fraud, illegal gambling, infiltration of legitimate business, murder, prostitution, racketeering, robbery. And that’s a partial, partial list. It’s what they all do.

HEFFNER: There’s not much left. And you know, Claire, I was interested…we were talking about banks and their role in this and I am sure that the question in our viewers’ minds is what is the role of banks and what is the role of politics and politicians…particularly in this country?

STERLING: Well, let’s face it. There are a lot of things that I can’t prove. That’s why I don’t say them in this book, or I haven’t said them in the past. Especially after looking at what I’ve been looking at across the board in the last 3 or 4 years. The banking system is shot through with people within the system who, let’s put it this way…it’s almost impossible to draw a line about where innocent money stops and illicit money handling begins. And it’s practically impossible to detect. I think the banking system has a lot to account for in this regard, and I think there is probably no country in the world, I can’t imagine any country in the world, where we don’t have some kind of…where the criminal syndicates don’t have some kind of access to the political establishment in some form, on some level sufficient to give them some protection or cover, or at least to assure a negligent eye, an indifference, a lack of resolution to pursue them, as hard as it’s in our power to do.

HEFFNER: Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks and he said “Because that’s where the money is”.

STERLING: (Laughter) Exactly.

HEFFNER: And I guess that’s the nature of the relationship between the Mafia and…

STERLING: Yes. And of course, money’s the answer. I mean if there is any answer to dealing with this incredible problem of these enormous, powerful, wealthy organized crime groups who now work together, or at least don’t fight each other. The only way to get at them is to get at their money. This is now accepted as a perceived truth. But getting at the money is the problem. As I write in the book, the solution is the problem, getting at the money. And getting at the money requires first of all invasion of privacy. It requires a willingness of citizens to allow governments to poke around in bank accounts, to ask for records, to keep money across frontiers. It requires countries to…for example, France will not let American tax authorities to investigate tax fraud in France even if it involves American citizens because its own laws are very strict in protecting the privacy, the financial privacy of citizens where tax questions are concerned, or illicit movement of private capital is concerned. One of the huge contradictions in the hypocritical set of laws that are being passed all over the world, presumably to control money laundering is that the distinction is always being made between money being laundered from the drug traffic or from very serious criminal undertakings such as the kind I mentioned…but the most serious of these, not all of them by any means…and other forms of illicit capital, tax dodging or simply moving money in and out of a country without obeying the law. And since this distinction is established…it is practically impossible even for the best meaning banker to supply the kind of information that the government is supposed to be looking for.

HEFFNER: You know, Claire, a thought runs through my mind. We have done many programs together. We’re old friends. Funny kind of question. You may say a crazy kind of question. Go back to your earlier years. You were radical in your political orientation. Have you ever thought that if the radicalism of our youth prevailed, that we would not be in this kind of crime fix today?

STERLING: I have thought that for a long time because that radicalism, the kind I…I was a member of the Young Communist League in my day when I was in college…that kind of radicalism, or Trotskyism, or whatever form it was taking in those days. If it succeeded…to what seems to have been the phenomenal calamity of the century as the solutions were found…

HEFFNER: No, no, no, wait, I understand that. I understand. I’m now saying that…I’m now asking the question that…whether the triumph, ultimately, of a free enterprise system has prepared the way, paved the way for a free enterprising crime?

STERLING: Oh, yes!

HEFFNER: …that we’re talking about and would it have been otherwise?

STERLING: I don’t know if it would have been otherwise, because I’m afraid that this vein runs through all systems. Nevertheless the spirit of free enterprise, which is winning, which has won all over the world, has in a way turned me back in time to a kind of a radicalism, because what I see, for example, happening in ex-Communist countries, in Russian and Eastern Europe, is an imposition of the crudest kind of capitalism and the most extraordinary interpretation of what free enterprise means. There is an interpretation that there are absolutely no limitations on what people can do to make money.

HEFFNER: Well, now, isn’t that connected to what you have been discussing about the mafia?

STERLING: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I remember arriving in St. Petersburg a couple of years ago and I was met at the airport by someone who said “You know, you must be careful not to take a taxi here because you know, you could be robbed and stripped naked down to your wedding ring, because it’s the Taxi Mafia. But we can’t touch the Taxi Mafia because that’s private enterprise. And this view…this sudden accession to this free market, private enterprise, obviously has greatly contributed to the incredible phenomenon of the Russian Mafia as it is today. But there are other factors as well. There was a very strong mafia in Russian under a very tightly controlled Communist state, from which the present mafia is a natural offspring. That mafia serviced the…establishment of the Communist state by providing the kind of goods that could not be produced by the economy, importing some. In fact, I have come across very high level types in the Sicilian Mafia who for years were providing, through the United States, through a series of companies here, a regular flow of the kind of consumer goods that they wanted in Moscow, through the channels of the KGB and the Mafia. And in exchange they had license. However, there were certain restraints. That is, the establishment under the Communist regime was just as corrupt as the one we have seen succeeding it. The difference was that ordinary people were not free to behave as they are now free to behave, with a total collapse of law enforcement and restraints.

HEFFNER: Would it be fair to say, too, that ordinary people were safe, or safer, considerably?

STERLING: Yes, they were safer. They were subject to political oppression, which was a terrible danger in itself. Obviously. We don’t even have to underline it. But they also had…there were certain values that were accepted by people. Theft was considered a pretty valid way of getting the other fellow’s property if it wasn’t your own. Theft was accepted. People didn’t report crimes to the police because the police were essentially were dedicated to suppressing political dissidents and were not handling crime. And people sifted for themselves but they didn’t feel the freedom to be as broadly crooked as the freedom…as they have done since the total absence of constraints arrived after the collapse of the Communist State. And I don’t mean everybody because there are a lot of people in Russia who really hate what’s going on, who hate it who are helpless and frustrated and impotent, absolutely to do anything about it. Because in Russia today, it is almost impossible to be honest and survive, so that people grit their teeth and they feel nauseated, revolted by things they have to do, but they’re forced to do them because circumstances don’t give them any other way out. And the only people who have the money are the crooks. And there you are.

HEFFNER: Well, being there where I am, and you being where you are, I guess I have to ask whether at some point you’re not going to sit back and put all of these things together. I’ve been reading Claire Sterling…when did you go over to Europe to start to write?


HEFFNER: That’s a while ago.

STERLING: That’s a while ago.

HEFFNER: Okay. When are you going to sit back and write about this century?

STERLING: Well, I think I might do that now. I’ve been covering a good part of the world, from the beginning to the end of the cold war, from the first session of the U.N. Assembly in London, from the Communist coux in Czechoslovakia in 1948, the de-colonialization of Africa, the wars in the Middle East; I traveled with a group of Jewish refugees to Palestine before it became the State of Israel and I went to a concentration camp in Cypress with them; I saw the State of Israel born; I saw the wars break out in the Middle East afterwards; I’ve been in Asia…well, I’ve seen it all. And I…I don’t have any intention…my proposed title…I don’t know if I should give it away because I probably won’t use it, but “A View from Below”. It’s not high level interviews with heads of state that I didn’t do very much. And it isn’t meant to be, to teach anybody a lesson from history. I would like to give…to remind them of history.

HEFFNER: But why do you say not to teach a lesson, the lesson of history?

STERLING: I don’t think there is a lesson of history.

HEFFNER: That’s fair enough. I mean, it’s just all there?

STERLING: It’s just…all people should know, I think, that the lack of historical memory has led us into very destructive paths. And that historical memory has grown shorter and shorter over the years. I can’t believe the things I have seen and reported a year ago, two years ago are forgotten, let alone what happened 10 years ago, 15 years ago. So like the legendary auk who flew backwards to see where he had been, I think this is what I would like to do. And remind people that this is how it was and this is how it went.

HEFFNER: Of course I’m intrigued by the touch of an idea that you offered before, that the intellectual odyssey of Claire Sterling may find itself not coming full circle, but you’re now concerned again about the very things you fought against as a young woman. You’re concerned again about unbridled free enterprise and what it brings. What’s your thinking about how…

STERLING: Oh, I’m deeply concerned. I believe that the United States in particular, but all the Western countries, all the Western advanced capitalist and post-industrialist countries…they’re a very heavy responsibility for what’s happening on one sixth of the Earth’s landmass, in Russia and in Eastern Europe, by it’s incredible short-sightedness by attempting to impose a swift transition to a capitalist free market on societies that were under total centralized tight control for 70 years. It has brought total misery. It has imposed the crudest, most cruel, harsh knife on the people, terrible suffering, which I believe could have been avoided if there had been more thought and care given to the fact that these countries were different from ours. I have heard this talk over and over again from all kinds of experts, academic and otherwise saying all capitalist societies, all free societies start with pirates, bandits, who are crooks, but then as they go along, their the pioneers that build up the wealth of the country. Then they acquire a new set of ethics to fit their new standing in the community.

HEFFNER: Not true, Claire?

STERLING: Not true. Well, maybe it was true with certain people in our own history in the last century. Maybe it was true of Britain. But it’s not true in Russia and Eastern Europe. The mafia, the crooks in Russia and Eastern Europe produce nothing. They are not building railroads. They are not digging oil wells. They simply steal what’s there. Russia has the largest store of natural resources in the world. And Russia is being mercilessly plundered, ransacked by its own criminal class, by its own politicians in collusion with its own criminal class, who in turn, are in partnerships with the biggest criminal organizations in the world. A thousand Russian Mafia gangs have relationships, working relationships, operative relationships with foreign crime groups. This is according to President Yeltsin himself. At least a thousand and it’s probably doubled by now. And together they are moving the country. They are, as anything comes up for privatization, the real estate is grabbed. The oil is grabbed, the titanium, the plutonium, the uranium, all of the natural resources; the gold, the diamonds, either bought for cheap rubles and sold for dollars legally by buying licenses by bribery or exported illegally. The last year I reported on this stuff, 1993, in 1993 the estimate of the Russian government was that 20 billion dollars worth of raw materials were exported illegally from Russia in just that one year.

HEFFNER: Yes, but there’s also an indication in Thieves’ World that we’re somewhat in collusion with that process, no?

STERLING: Oh, yeah, I think an awful lot of people are in collusion with that process. That is, we are, first of all, from the point of view of the kind of advice we’re giving, the kind of conditions we’re setting, the kind of aid we’re offering, we are trying to force, continue to force Russia into the swift transition into the free market which has been so lopsided that it simply has created a worse problem than they had before, at least in my small, modest view. That’s the official position and it continues to be the official position even after the disaster of the last election in Russia would show, that the Russian people’s patience is not limitless, contrary to popular belief. Their way of protest is to vote for this really crazy man, at least to vote against the people who are doing this, who have been pushing this program on the advice and with the guidance of Western economists, especially American economists in the world bank and so on. But apart from that, of course there are the private forces at work. There are the politicians, businessmen, bankers…


STERLING: Certainly here. Certainly here. Part of the huge flow of resources that are going out of Russia are landing right here. And we know it. And the FBI knows it. We know now that they’re beginning to discover through which channels it is moving. The Russian Mafia is moving it in complicity with mafia groups here, among others. There is a very important factor of pressure against trying to resolve these kinds of problems, in the self-interest of the people in the forces concerned. The legitimate forces concerned. There is a very strong element of self-interest that stands in the way of the kind of resolution that would at least make it possible to improve. I don’t say we can solve this problem. But to try to get some kind of handle on it, to try to impose some kind of restraints on this wild, calamitous growth.

HEFFNER: The invisible hand of God is not going to bring this to…

STERLING: No. Not enough.

HEFFNER: Not enough. Where do you think that those constraints can come from?

STERLING: Well, I think for one thing, the first, the absolute first necessity is a public knowledge of what is happening. A public awareness of what is happening. This has been the problem I’ve faced when writing about these things from the time I wrote about…

HEFFNER: Yes, but let’s face it. Each time we’ve been together, we’ve talked about things that you have uncovered that the public never really becomes aware of. And the events kind of slide away and become history, still not aware of them. You yourself talk about how short our memories have become. You talk about things that happened a year ago, two years ago that are forgotten now. What does that do to Claire Sterling’s sense of the way the world ought to be run?

STERLING: Oh, it doesn’t make me want…

HEFFNER: A question…

STERLING: Well, it doesn’t make me want to go into politics. (Laugher)

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

STERLING: It frequently pushes me into thinking that there’s no point in trying to even investigate these things because they get lost. And then I think that that’s really not right. It’s what I’ve been doing all of my life. At least I can do what I can to tell what I can but on the whole, Dick, it’s really frustration. It’s very hard for me to feel hopeful about arousing the kind…hopeful about seeing civilized nations together in the way they have to work in this…

HEFFNER: You’ve been abroad so many years. You’ve looked back at what the nature of our informational processing establishment is. What do you see now that you didn’t see before? What are the feelings that you have? It sounds like a celebrity interview…

STERLING: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I really don’t mean it to be that. I mean, as you look back at our media, the ways in which we educate ourselves, do you see something…

STERLING: I see something…

HEFFNER: Same? Better, worse?

STERLING: I see something appalling. For one thing, it is almost impossible to report a story unless it can be filmed. Today we have to depend on television for mass communication of the news. And I know, because I’ve worked with television people a lot, that if you can’t film it, it isn’t a story. If you can’t tell it in a minute and a half (laughter), essentially it isn’t a story. The yawn that goes up…(laughter) If you suggest that you should try to explain for 5 or 10 minutes something that you’re talking about in a minute and a half it’s prohibitive. I mean, it just stops you cold. Certainly every time I come back to America from someplace abroad I feel more and more anguish about the…about the lack of knowledge about what is happening in the world outside our frontiers. And it’s possible that people in the media say that that’s what the public wants to hear, but I believe it’s the other way around. The public has been conditioned not to want to know more by what it’s fed by the media. And I fear that the press has not helped too much. There are obvious exceptions, but I have great frustration when I come back to the United States when I try to find out what is happening in the rest of the world.

HEFFNER: Is it different abroad, really?

STERLING: It’s different up to a point. If you’re in New York, you find out more about what’s happening in Europe. And you also find out about what’s happening in America, because a great deal of attention is paid by the press and media in Europe to America.

HEFFNER: But what is the institutional, what is the basic difference between the media in Europe and here?

STERLING: The media here is terribly inbound. And it’s also terribly, terribly slick. As you know, I mean, it’s the right face against the right background and the right makeup. The technology of producing something has become so much, has taken on so much importance, I think that this is often at the expense of content. It’s still possible in Italy to see an anchorman with warts and a wilted collar…(laughter)

HEFFNER: Well, look at me! Look at me! (Laughter)

STERLING: (Laughter)…and his hair not always…although it’s getting less and less possible. We’re seeing more and more young girls who are doing an anchor job and some of them are very good, and some of them are airheads, also, who are being used for this purpose because they are attractive. And again, I don’t feel that news is amusement and I fear that more that’s what it’s become. And once again, the worst things that happen in America are those things that are most quickly imitated everywhere else in the world. And we see that this pattern of conveying news is, has taken hold very strongly elsewhere, and certainly all over Europe.

HEFFNER: Well, the important thing I would guess, in the 30 seconds that we have remaining, is the conveyance of news has become an entertainment.

STERLING: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And that’s true even in Italy.

STERLING: Oh, yes it’s true, it’s increasingly true, it’s increasingly true in Italy. In Italy, of course, we have other problems of political control over what is being said and not said. But that’s a problem everywhere.

HEFFNER: So, Claire, our time is up. Come back and we’ll cry on each others’ shoulders again.

STERLING: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Meanwhile, thanks again for joining me, Claire Sterling.

STERLING: Oh thank you, it’s always such a pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, about our intriguing guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Carnegie Corporation of New York; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Ruder-Finn, Inc.