WASHINGTON -- In the somber words of an aging former mobster, the Mafia has degenerated from a family in which 'men of honor' obeyed a code of respect to a greedy, more violent clan seeking only the huge profits of drug traffic.
Hidden behind a tall opaque screen for security reasons, Tommaso Buscetta, 60, came before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Monday to tell the lurid tale of his life as a 'made man' in La Cosa Nostra.
Buscetta, who became a government informant in 1984 and helped convict dozens of Italian mobsters with inside testimony, appeared as the subcommittee opened a series of hearings to assess the government's war on organized crime.
Twenty-five years ago, the same panel -- and the nation -- heard shocking testimony from mobster Joseph Valachi, who broke the Mafia's notorious code of silence, or 'omerta,' to reveal the inner workings of the criminal underworld.
Buscetta, speaking in Italian with a translator, said he chose to take the same risky course and to cooperate with authorities after gangsters killed seven members of his family when he refused to cooperate in drug traffic.
'My brother, my two sons and my three nephews all were violently and needlessly killed,' he said quietly. 'My son-in-law was gunned down in front of my daughter on Christmas Eve. These persons were not even members of Cosa Nostra families. There was no honor in these murders.'
Buscetta said La Cosa Nostra was respected as an advocate for the poor when he joined in 1948 and counted doctors and lawyers among its members. He said it had little money and its primary illegal activity was cigarette smuggling.
But over the years, he said, 'I have seen our organization change from within. I have seen money, drugs and greed corrupt the Cosa Nostra code of honor and loyalty to the families. I decided to cooperate with the Italian and American authorities in part because I felt the Mafia I had known no longer existed.
'Gone were the men of honor whose word you believed in. Gone were the men you could trust with your women and family.'
Buscetta spoke at length about Mafia initiations, in which a new member's finger is pricked and his blood dripped on a sacred image that is then set on fire. The new member must hold the sacred item in his hands until the flames go out while swearing allegiance to La Cosa Nostra.
Buscetta confirmed the key requirement for membership is murder. 'The most important thing this individual has to do is become an assassin,' he said.
Also testifying Monday was FBI Director William Sessions, who told senators more than 1,000 Mafia members and associates have been convicted and jailed since 1981. He contended the prosecutions have crippled the five New York City crime families and mobs in seven other areas -- but he acknowledged the Mafia remains a potent force.
'The question most often asked is whether we have eradicated La Cosa Nostra as a national threat,' Sessions said. 'The simple answer is no.
'(But) our expansive intelligence base on La Cosa Nostra indicates that many of their lucrative criminal conspiracies, which have existed unfettered for years, have been dismantled. Their secrecy and status in the criminal underworld has been co-opted and, most important, their ability to influence and intimidate the business and political community is weakened,' he said.
In a tantalizing aside without naming anyone, Sessions said authorities believe they know who killed Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa in the 1960s. The body was never found, but Sessions said Hoffa's presumed killers were convicted on unrelated charges and are now in prison. He said authorities never had enough evidence against them to bring charges for Hoffa's murder.