MOSCOW, July 5 -- FBI Director Louis Freeh signed a landmark cooperation agreement with the Russian Interior Ministry Tuesday, marking a new stage in joint efforts to stem the rampant growth of Russian organized crime. The signing of the memo of understanding was the climax of a four-day official visit by Freeh, the first FBI chief to come to Moscow and the first to speak about the threat Russian gangsterism poses to U.S. national security. Russian organized crime was, Freeh said, 'a new transnational adversary ... which we must face together.' He said the two countries were setting up a crime hotline to swap information more swiftly and effectively. The agreement envisages exchanging information to aid investigations into criminal cases touching the interests of both countries, and to help identify, detain and prosecute people suspected of organized and other crimes. The deal is designed to help the FBI and Russian police prevent and solve crimes like drug-trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, fraud, money- laundering and terrorism, which are becoming increasingly common in Russia. It also codifies an earlier decision to open a permanent FBI office in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and gives the green light for a bureau of the Russian Interior Ministry to be opened in Washington. Freeh's much-publicized visit signals the alarm felt in U.S. official circles at the speed with which Russian mobsters have internationalized their operations. The FBI says there are more than 300 Russian gangs operating around the world, 27 of them in the United States.
Many have links with Columbian drugs barons, who are eyeing Russia as a handy transshipment point for smuggling cocaine into western Europe. But the major concern of U.S. law enforcers is that Russian nuclear weapons and materials were falling into the hands of organized criminal groups active throughout the former Soviet bloc. Viktor Yerin, Russia's Interior Minister and top police official dismissed these claims Tuesday. 'In Russia, as in any other nuclear state, we have a sure-fire system of ensuring security at special facilities and over hazardous nuclear materials,' he said. 'Over the whole time this system has existed, we have had neither attempts nor cases of theft of such materials.' But Yerin admitted that Russian police were investigating 50 criminal cases where non-weapons-grade radioactive materials -- mostly used in health care, or in technical equipment -- had been stolen and sold. Despite Yerin's assurances, U.S. and German officials have recorded three suspected diversions of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium from Russia since 1993, though in each case the quantity of material was insufficient to make a bomb. Freeh said earlier on during his trip that Russian organized crime -- in particular, criminals pirating and selling nuclear-bomb-making materials -- posed 'a significant and direct threat to the United States.' During his 10-day tour of central and eastern Europe, Freeh has signed agreements allowing FBI agents to gather records, interview witnesses and seek criminal evidence in several former Soviet bloc countries. Yerin said that Tuesday's memorandum also allowed for a system of exchanging draft legislation, and for Russian officers to be enrolled in the elite FBI National Academy.