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The world needs a new set of the Untouchables

An unholy alliance of corrupt politicians and sophisticated thieves is ripping off the world, while police and intelligence agencies seem helpless to combat it.

In Moldova, a Russian general popular for keeping the peace quit rather than take part in a plot to sell off his disbanded army's weapons through the Russian mafia.

In Latvia, unknown financiers help force the nation's largest bank to close its doors, destabilizing the government before this fall's elections, threatening to bring in a regime of former apparatchiks who might be more tolerant of mafia operations.

In Russia, nearly half of consumer sales are of illegal imports winked through by government officials on the take, according to testimony to our Senate Intelligence Committee; meanwhile, Izvestia reports that more than $100-billion in mafia profits has been illegally siphoned out of Russia and secretly invested abroad.

This pattern of hugely profitable corruption emerges in talks with intelligence officials of several nations who observe, listen, monitor, but do not see law enforcement as their job. Instead of pooling information on the world underworld and sharing it with police, the intelligence communities "stovepipe" what they find.

"Stovepiping" is espionage argot for sending compartmentalized data directly up top. No foreign dissemination; no intracommunity vetting; no coordination with law enforcement. In this way, leaders and overseers become musclebound; the misperceived need to protect sources precludes effective action.

I came across this pattern in starting my periodic assessment of world spookery.

(Preliminarily: The KGB is as inept as Russia's Foreign Intelligence under Primakov is ept; CIA Operations is a shambles but analysis is improving; British intelligence is off-balance because of its Matrix scandal; France is aggressively spying on allies to aid state-owned industries, and wants Chirac to invest heavily in satellite surveillance; Spain's spooks are in deep soup because they were caught bugging the King; Germany's BND is conflicted, having to choose cooperation with France or the United States; China's long-term investment in its small percentage of student spies in the United States is now paying off; most improved human-intelligence collection is Turkey's.)

Almost every agency, however, is stovepiping the same evaluation: the most destabilizing force in the world today is based on what the impolitic Russian reformist Yegor Gaidar has called "the conversion of power into property." The state property stolen by former Communist bureaucrats and their families and investors during privatization is channeled out of Russia, laundered, recycled and the riches used to keep or gain more power.

The new book the spymasters are reading avidly is Comrade Criminal, by Stephen Handelman. The corporate name that keeps popping up in spooklebutt, however, is the Nordex Group. The Swiss-Austrian company, based in Vienna _ now the city with the world's highest spy-per-capita population _ boasts $2-billion in annual sales, and is headed by a former academician of Riga, Latvia, named Grigory Loutchansky.

This Georgian-born capitalist became a hero in Ukraine two years ago after arranging a three-cornered barter deal for $120-million in Russian oil. His company, which leases Tupolev jumbo jets to China, buys subsidized Russian commodities cheap and sells them at great profit abroad.

He may be the victim of a KGB smear, as his lawyer insists, but something caused the Canadian government to refuse him entry last year and it's remarkable how the name Nordex causes intelligence faces to turn to stone.

Spooks want only to know; lawmen want untainted evidence that will allow them to prosecute. And the law is national _ suspicious of cooperating with the penetrated police of other nations _ while the mafia, though not monolithic, is multinational. That's two strikes against the law.

Opening an FBI office in Moscow or Copenhagen is no answer. Surely the G-7 nations plus Russia could come up with a team of "untouchables" _ available to receive intelligence leads but aware of Western rules of evidence _ to combat the new menace. When political power is convertible to heavy money, democracy dies.

New York Times News Service