Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime

Larry Holzwarth - January 8, 2018

The names alone are chilling, a litany of murderers, extortionists, thieves, and racketeers. Lucky Luciano. Albert Anastasia. Meyer Lansky. Vito Genovese. Federal agents of the FBI spent millions of dollars and countless man-hours seeking ways to arrest and convict these men. So did state investigators and prosecutors. Through each other, and through their allies in crime, these men and others controlled what was known as the rackets. They carried labor unions in their pockets, ran smuggling operations which cost the taxpayers thousands upon thousands of dollars, controlled prostitution, purchased protection from police, and when it suited their business model, murdered with relative impunity.

Hard as it is for some to believe, when the United States entered the Second World War it actively sought the cooperation of organized crime. Mafia organizations, and in some cases other organized crime groups, were approached to work with the government to prevent sabotage, identify subversives, control labor unions, and offer protection of docks and other infrastructure. The cooperation between the government and organized crime, implemented through the OSS – predecessor of today’s CIA – the FBI, and offices of military intelligence established a precedent which lead to further cooperative ventures well into the 1960s. Some speculate it continues to this day, citing the case of Whitey Bulger as an example. Bulger remained hidden in plain sight for 16 years, twelve of them on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, after working as an FBI informant.

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime
Al Capone is widely regarded – inaccurately – as the founder of organized crime in America. Federal Bureau of Investigation

Not until the Kefauver Commission in 1951 would the government admit the existence of what it called a “sinister criminal organization” known as the Mafia. Here are ten examples of the United States government knowingly doing business with it, and why.

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime
USS Lafayette – the former French liner Normandie – lies capsized at its pier in New York in 1942. National Archives

The Normandie and Lucky Luciano

The French ocean liner Normandie was moored in New York when World War II began and was immediately interned by the United States government in September 1939, with the French crew remaining in board and in control of the ship. During the German attack on France, the US Coast Guard placed a crew onboard to keep an eye on the French sailors as prevention against sabotage, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States seized the ship, disembarked the French crew, and began preparations to convert the liner to a troop transport ship under the name USS Lafayette.

While Lafayette was undergoing conversion a fire broke out, and although all of the 1,500 personnel aboard but one was evacuated safely the ship capsized at its pier due to the huge amount of water pumped into it fighting the fire. Sabotage was suspected, and the Navy recognized the need to ensure security around the docks and port facilities of New York and other ports. An investigation soon revealed that the Normandie fire had been an accident, but that did not deter the Navy from approaching the organized crime figures who had long controlled New York and New Jersey port facilities for their help.

They didn’t need to look far for Lucky Luciano, he was in Clinton Prison doing a thirty to fifty-year sentence for compulsory prostitution. The Navy approached Luciano through Meyer Lansky, asking for the former’s assistance in providing security to ensure agents for the Germans or Italians were prevented access to the critical shipping facilities. The Normandie lying on its side in the harbor mud was a daily reminder to Navy officials of the potential damage which could be done. Luciano was happy to oblige.

In return for commuting his sentence, Luciano agreed to provide organized crime assets to ensure the docks and warehouses remained free of Axis-leaning agents. Luciano also guaranteed that the docks would be free of labor stoppages for the duration of the war, a promise he extracted from his organized crime associate Albert Anastasia. Finally, Luciano gave information to the Navy regarding known organized crime contacts in Sicily, to be exploited when the Allies invaded that island in 1943.

When the Normandie/Lafayette burned, Albert Anastasia spread rumors through the docks that his organization, though his brother Anthony, had been responsible for starting the fire. The rumors helped compel the Navy to seek Luciano’s help, unaware of the working relationship between Anastasia and Luciano. The official investigation revealed no sabotage or arson in the Normandie’s destruction, leading one to infer that Luciano took advantage of the accident to extort his freedom from prison. In 1946 he was deported to Europe having served less than ten years of his sentence.

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime
Mobster Meyer Lansky’s relationship with the US Government extended through several decades. Library of Congress

Meyer Lansky and the US Navy

Meyer Lansky was a member of what was known as the Jewish Mafia – a term he despised – and in an organized crime career that spanned five decades managed to avoid being convicted for anything other than the minor charge of illegal gambling. Lansky was deeply involved in the organization of the Italian Mafia and was heavily involved with Murder Incorporated. After the war, he was instrumental in the development of Las Vegas as a mob playground. Lansky was also deeply involved in consolidating Luciano’s power by arranging for the murders of rival bosses.

Before the United States entered the Second World War Lansky had attracted the attention of US intelligence agencies by his active disruption of American Nazi Party and German American Bund meetings in New York and New Jersey. Lansky, who was Jewish, would personally lead several of his cronies into the meetings and physically attack the participants. “We threw some of them out the windows,” he said of one such meeting, “We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.”

When the US Navy experienced a lack of cooperation while interrogating the largely Italian community of fishermen and stevedores which populated the New York docks, hoping to screen out potential saboteurs and spies, they decided to approach the Italian mob. They did so by going through Lansky, appealing to his anti-Nazi feelings.

The US Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence also suspected large numbers of German and Italian sympathizers were working the bars and other dives around the docks, attempting to gain information from dockworkers and sailors on the scheduled departures for vessels. This information was then transferred to German U-Boats waiting off of the American coast. Lansky, after negotiating a suitable deal for Luciano’s freedom, provided additional security to report to the FBI and ONI those individuals who seemed to have a special interest in ship movements.

Shipyards in New York and New Jersey were soon working at full capacity building Liberty ships to carry cargoes as well as the warships necessary to carry the war to the Axis at sea. Members of Lansky’s organizations provided extra security in and around the shipyards, minimizing the risk of sabotage to the vessels under construction in the yards. Other than the release of Luciano, which took place after the war was won, what the US Navy gave in return for Lansky’s support is unknown.

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime
Charles “Lucky” Luciano in exile in Rome. Luciano was one of the leading architects of organized crime in America. Wikimedia

Lucky Luciano and the Invasion of Sicily

Whether Luciano conned his way out of prison by merely appearing to assist the United States Navy in the Normandie affair and its aftermath remains a subject of debate. The postwar investigation into the ship’s unfortunate fire was definite in its rejection of sabotage or arson as the cause of the fire. The absence of further acts of sabotage can be attributed to the efforts of organized crime, or military security, or a combination of both. According to some sources, including New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, Luciano’s contributions to the war effort were minimal.

It was Governor Dewey who commuted Luciano’s sentence, although his comments when he did so were less than a ringing endorsement of Luciano’s help. “It appears that he cooperated in such effort,” wrote Dewey upon commutation, “Although the actual value of the information procured is not clear.” Dewey eventually had a 2,600-page report prepared which outlined the deal with Luciano and the information is provided, the Navy requested that it remain classified for public relations reasons. It remained classified until the 1970s.

Nonetheless, Congressman Walter Horan reported that Luciano, who was held throughout the war at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, was visited in prison not less than eleven times by representatives of the Office of Naval Intelligence. These visits led to the identification of native-born Italian Americans in New York and New Jersey, who were then used by ONI personnel as both informants and spies. Luciano also provided information regarding contacts then living in Sicily.

Through the contacts, ONI and OSS personnel were able to implement a plan in which members of the Sicilian criminal element, eager to be rid of the Mussolini regime which was desirous of prosecuting them, cooperated with US military planners and eventually with landing troops. The United States prepared and fully implemented a Special Military Plan for Psychological Warfare in Sicily, which included the use of Mafia leaders (specified by that name in the plan) to encourage resistance to German/Italian troops and cooperation with the Americans and British.

Thomas Dewey had prosecuted Luciano in the case which led to his imprisonment and had indeed made his political career on his reputation of being a hard-on-crime law enforcement candidate. His resentment for Luciano and reluctance to give any credit to his support of the war effort can be looked at through that veil. Equally true though is the amount of hype afforded to Luciano’s contribution by some such as Walter Winchell, who once reported that Luciano deserved and would be secretly awarded the Medal of Honor.

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime
Serial murderer and mob enforcer Albert Anastasia used the US Army to obtain American citizenship. NYPD

Albert Anastasia and the US Army

Albert Anastasia was one of the founders of Murder, Incorporated, an organized crime enforcement group of Jewish and Italian killers for hire. It is believed to have committed between 400 and 1,000 murders over the decade of its existence, and Anastasia was known as its Lord High Executioner. He was personally responsible for ordering numerous murders and no doubt was the killer in more than a few, but he was never charged for any of the murders carried out by Murder, Inc.

The idea of obtaining a pardon or commutation of sentence for Lucky Luciano originated with Anastasia, who created the story of mob sabotage leading to the destruction of the Normandie, with the thinly veiled threat of more of the same being carried out in the same message. When the US Navy approached Meyer Lansky, he relayed the information to Anastasia, who promised to provide security for the waterfront and an absence of labor disputes for the duration of the war, both of which he delivered.

Meanwhile government pressure on Murder, Inc caused Anastasia to decide to detach himself from its proceedings before it became too late. In 1942 Anastasia enlisted in the United States Army. This action took place just as prosecutors were moving to obtain indictments of him for his involvement in several murders carried out by Murder, Inc, including those of government witnesses in other cases.

Anastasia entered the Army as a Technical Sergeant and the former master of the docks and warehouses in the Port of New York was assigned to a new job as a trainer of longshoremen. Anastasia was assigned as an instructor at the Army training facility in Indiana Gap, Pennsylvania. Anastasia’s age and his several arrests over the years seemed to be no impediment to his enlistment or his immediate employment by the army. The following year Anastasia used a regulation allowing for a sped-up process obtaining US citizenship for those serving in the military to become a US citizen.

Once he had citizenship in hand, the former Mafia ruler of the docks found his age (he was 43) to be an issue having an adverse effect on the performance of his military duties, and he was discharged in 1944, with the nation’s war effort at its height. Anastasia would have many more run-ins with the law over the remainder of his life, including problems with the INS and the IRS, but for a time still not fully explained during the Second World War he was a welcomed addition to the United States Army.

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime
Vito Genovese served the United States, Benito Mussolini, and himself, according to circumstances. Wikimedia

Vito Genovese and the Sicilian/Italian Campaign

Vito Genovese was an enforcer for Lucky Luciano, eventually rising to become the so-called Boss of all Bosses in organized crime in the United States. Genovese participated personally in several murders as he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a naturalized American citizen, and after Luciano went to prison he took over as leader of the Luciano crime family. When it became apparent that he would be prosecuted for a murder committed in 1934, Genovese fled to Italy, where he continued to enjoy success as a member of the Mafia. He also supported the Mussolini government, both with bribes to local officials and with donations to the Fascist party.

In 1943 the Allies, already having been successful in Sicily, invaded Italy and Genovese switched to supporting the Allied cause. Deciding to return to the United States he offered his services to the United States Army as an interpreter. He also served as a liaison officer between military authorities and the local Italian government. Genovese worked within the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories.

Genovese continued to exploit the local black market to line his pockets as he worked for the Americans, and in the late summer of 1944, he was arrested by the US Army Military Police. Subsequent investigation by the MPs revealed who he was and the fact that he was implicated in a murder charge in New York, but the Army and other federal agencies expressed little interest in any further prosecution, as Genovese’s value in dealing with local matters exceeded the desire to prosecute him on a state charge in New York.

The US Criminal Investigation Division continued to build a case for sending Genovese back to the United States, with one agent trying to send the mobster home despite increasing resistance from senior American intelligence officers. Eventually, as the war began to die down Genovese’s value to the Army lessened and he was returned to the United States, where he was acquitted of the murder charge after a key witness was found murdered, and another died while in protective custody.

Why senior US military and intelligence officers resisted the pressure from state and local authorities to deliver Genovese for trial remains a mystery, suffice it to say that in their view he was too valuable as an employee of the United States in Italy to let him return to face the charges.

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime
The 1948 Italian elections were seen as critical to controlling the spread of communism in post-war Europe. Wikimedia

The CIA, the Mafia, and the Italian Election of 1948

After the overthrow of Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party in Italy, the Italian government was dominated by a coalition of political entities that included the Italian Communist Party and the Italian Socialist Party. As Europe began to rebuild after the Second World War the influence of the Soviet Union was felt throughout the continent. In the winter of 1948, a Soviet-backed Communist coup occurred in Czechoslovakia, moving the country strongly to the Soviet sphere. American foreign policy professionals were deeply concerned over the influence of the Soviets in Italian politics.

If Italy were to be positioned under the influence of the Soviets it would provide the Communist bloc with a location in the center of the Mediterranean, isolating the Middle East from British and American shipping. In the 1948 Italian elections, the Soviets had an opportunity to consolidate influence and power in the Italian peninsula. America’s newly formed CIA, derived from the wartime Office of Strategic Services – the OSS – moved to prevent a communist takeover of the Italian government.

CIA operatives and agents worked with contacts which they had made and nurtured during the war years within the American and Italian mafias. These contacts provided links to local politicians in Italy and provided financial support through the direct distribution of funds provided by the US government through the CIA.

The CIA also provided funds to Mafia connected labor leaders to ensure that the communists would not be able to obtain control of the labor unions, and thus their important support in the general elections. In the United States, more than 200 labor leaders of Italian-American descent met in conferences and generated letters to newspapers in Italy endorsing resistance to communist influence in the unions. The United States also announced that Italians who endorsed the communist party in Italy would be forever denied entry into the United States.

As they had during the war, Italian and American Mafia leaders worked in tandem with US intelligence agents to identify persons of influence and to provide them with the funds necessary for them to control the vote in their areas. The Communist Party in Italy suffered a crushing defeat in the 1948 elections, but US funding of Italian political parties, labor unions, and organized crime members continued in Italy well into the 1960s.

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime
Six images of Frank Fiorini aka Frank Sturgis. In the image where he holds a rifle, he is standing over the mass grave of 71 executed Castro opponents, which he helped murder. National Archives

The CIA and Fidel Castro

In 1946 organized crime members from the United States and Europe held a meeting in Cuba which became known as the Havana Conference. Organized and allegedly chaired by the recently deported Lucky Luciano, the conference discussed the mob’s activities in Cuba, the disposition of the New York crime families in Luciano’s absence, and recent Mafia activities in Las Vegas. Meyer Lansky represented the Jewish mob delegation along with his silent partner in the Jewish mob’s Havana activities, Fulgencio Batista.

A decade later the American organized crime-owned casinos in Havana were generating over $100 million per year. When Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime in 1959 the mob bosses, having been aligned with Batista, were forced to flee leaving behind their lucrative financial empire, useful not only for cash generation but for laundering money from other illicit activities, including the narcotics trade. The Mafiosi fled determined to return, after first eliminating Fidel Castro. They soon learned that their desire to kill Castro was shared with the United States government, through the Central Intelligence Agency.

Mob leaders had already worked with CIA operatives in Havana and South Florida, smuggling stolen weapons to Batista supporters in 1958. The weapons had been stolen from a National Guard Armory in Ohio by associates of Pittsburgh organized crime leaders and flown to Cuba from Miami in CIA airplanes for distribution to fighters opposing Castro. One of the operatives involved in the operation was Frank Sturgis. (Sturgis was later one of the burglars arrested in the Watergate complex, triggering the investigation which brought down Richard Nixon).

Although a congressional commission later denied that Sturgis had ever been an employee of the CIA, he moved in a murky world which included US agents and Mafia contacts. In a conversation with Meyer Lansky after Castro had forced many of the mobsters to leave Cuba Sturgis, who was then going under his birth name of Fiorini, was told that it would be worth $1 million to Lansky and his Italian compatriots if Castro were to be taken out.

Lansky’s comment, whether serious or hyperbole, set in motion a series of events coordinated by the Mafia and the CIA to eliminate Fidel Castro. These included assassination plots to kill Castro by diverse means and in different locations. The CIA-Mafia connection regarding Castro continued through the last year of the Eisenhower administration and through the Kennedy administration, and when revealed beginning in the 1970s led to the conspiracy theories of mob/Cuban/CIA involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime
Fidel Castro arriving in Washington DC in April 1959. The CIA and mobsters plotted to assassinate him during his visit. Library of Congress

Castro Assassination Plot of 1959

Fidel Castro used Frank Sturgis to obtain information on the criminal activities and records of several American organized crime members, which Sturgis obtained through contacts within US law enforcement. Sturgis, at the time Castro’s Air Force Director of Security and de facto gambling supervisor, soon changed sides, despite having participated in mass executions of Castro’s enemies and serving as a guerrilla warfare trainer.

After being approached by Meyer Lansky, who indicated he and his gambling cohorts would pay to have Castro killed, Sturgis derived a plan to assassinate the Cuban leader during a visit to New York to address the United Nations in 1959. While Castro was in New York, registered at the Statler Hilton Hotel, Sturgis registered at the same time under his original name of Frank Fiorini. While staying at the hotel Sturgis was approached by a representative of the Havana Mafia gambling interests. Sturgis/Fiorini was offered $100,000 to kill Castro while he was in the hotel.

Sturgis, noting that the amount offered was considerably less than the amount referenced by Lansky, declined. When he returned to Havana several days later he reported the offer to CIA contacts at the still open US Embassy there. The CIA recognized that the gangsters and the US government shared a mutual interest in removing Castro, and selected known smuggler Norman Rothman as the liaison between the CIA and the Mafia. Rothman would serve as the communication pipeline between the mob and the CIA while continuing to run guns to Castro.

It quickly became evident that killing Castro on US soil would be counterproductive, if not impossible, and various means of using Mafia hitmen to reach Castro, as well as his brother Raul, were discussed. Sam Giancana and Santos Trafficante both provided contracted hitmen to CIA personnel. Several CIA operatives involved were not full-time employees of the agency but outside contractors serving as consultants, including Sturgis, E. Howard Hunt, and others.

Despite several attempts to launch a successful assassination of Castro during the Eisenhower administration, neither the Mafia nor the CIA was able to execute the Cuban leader. Trafficante associate and known enforcer Johnny Roselli volunteered to lead an execution squad to Cuba, using Mafia enforcers he personally selected, funded by the CIA, which would also provide arms and transportation. By the time of the Kennedy inauguration in January 1961, 38 separate attempts to murder Castro had been initiated by the CIA and at least two dozen included the use of operatives with known ties to organized crime.

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1964. The Kennedy Administration followed the preceding Eisenhower Administration in pursuing ways and means of eliminating Castro. LBJ Presidential Library

The Kennedy Administration and Organized Crime

When John Kennedy was inaugurated as President in 1961 his administration initiated a crackdown on organized crime spearheaded by his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The crackdown was largely focused on the relationship between organized crime and labor unions. At the same time, the CIA continued to conduct covert operations aimed at the assassination of Fidel Castro. During the Kennedy administration, the CIA planned or conducted forty-two separate attempts to kill Castro, and a significant number of them used Mafia members and associates.

In August 1961 the CIA contacted Johnny Roselli with an offer of $150,000 to kill Castro. Roselli was a longtime member of the Chicago Outfit, the Mafia organization descended from that of Al Capone. By the early 1960s Roselli was the mob’s chief representative in Las Vegas, and also served as a go-between for Sam Giancana and Santo Trafficante. Roselli was contacted by Robert Maheu, a former FBI official who had been recruited by the CIA. Roselli, Giancana, and Trafficante met with Maheu and were provided by the CIA with poisons to be secreted in Castro’s food by a girlfriend Castro shared unknowingly with Frank Sturgis.

The CIA and mobsters recruited several Cuban nationals to make attempts on Castro’s life, none successfully, over the remaining months of the Kennedy administration. By 1962 Roselli was operating a training base in the Florida Keys, paid for and secured by the CIA, where rifle teams were prepared in assassination techniques. Roselli worked directly for CIA officer William King Harvey, another former FBI agent who had resigned from the Bureau rather than accept demotion for violations of regulations stemming from his chronic heavy drinking.

By the 1970s, the US Senate was investigating CIA activities regarding Castro, and Roselli was called to testify before the Church Committee on CIA-Mafia plots to assassinate Castro. Sam Giancana was also called to appear before the committee but was shot and killed in his home only days before. Roselli testified and was scheduled to reappear in April of 1976. Before he could return to the committee he vanished.

The CIA connection with the Mafia through John Roselli and others was confirmed by the CIA itself in 1976, through the declassification of records which are known as the Family Jewels. John Roselli’s decomposed body was found in an oil drum that same year, floating in the waters near Miami. His murder has never been solved.

Here Are 10 Undeniable Ties Between the United States Government and Organized Crime
Jewish mobster Mickey Cohen helped launch the political career of Richard Nixon, who relied on organized crime associates throughout his career. US Department of Justice

Richard Nixon and the Mafia

In 1946 Richard Nixon, a veteran of World War II and a budding politician, met with Mickey Cohen, a significant figure in the illegal gambling and bookmaking rackets in California, to raise campaign funds for Nixon’s campaign for a seat in Congress. Prior to the meeting, Cohen sought approval to meet with the young candidate from Santo Trafficante. Nixon’s campaign manager for this first political foray was Murray Chotiner, a Mafia lawyer with over 200 clients who were members of organized crime families nationwide.

Later as the United States Senator, Richard Nixon made several trips to Cuba, during which he gambled and stayed in the Hotel National, owned by Meyer Lansky. Nixon’s gambling during these trips was kept from the public and after his nomination to serve as Eisenhower’s Vice President his trips to Havana were curtailed, but the fact of his personal meetings with Lansky was well known, explained as being part of Nixon’s avid support of the Batista regime in Cuba. Lansky and Batista were business partners.

Nixon also maintained ties with Carlos Marcello, who in 1960 provided then-presidential candidate Nixon with a $500,000 donation to his campaign chest, arranged through and delivered by Teamsters leader James Hoffa. Throughout his political career, Nixon maintained close ties with Santo Trafficante as well, both directly and through Nixon’s longtime friend and gambling companion Bebe Rebozo.

During the early days of the Watergate Scandal which ended the Nixon administration in disgrace, the wife of Nixon’s Attorney General, Martha Mitchell, informed the press that Nixon was “involved” with the Mafia, attributing his election in 1968 to Mafia involvement. The administration responded with a series of attacks on her character and sobriety, many of which were successful in depicting her as a deranged crackpot.

Nonetheless, as more and more records are declassified, evidence of Richard Nixon’s career-long alliance with organized crime figures continues to emerge. Nixon’s prime legacy is the Watergate scandal, which most of the public remembers as a burglary gone wrong, ignoring the tendrils of misconduct which permeated the administration in all directions. It should be remembered that five burglars were arrested in the Watergate Complex which revealed the scandal and eventually the distribution of hush money, much of it mob money. One of the arrested burglars was Frank Sturgis, a frequent operative for both the CIA and the Mafia. Years after Watergate, Sturgis, a convicted felon, trained Contras in Honduras for the Central Intelligence Agency.