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Friday, Aug. 20, 1999

Will wiretap law catch mob off guard?


Staff writer

KOBE -- Police officials have long claimed the wiretapping legislation recently enacted by the Diet was necessary in order to crack down on organized crime.

But local detectives and journalists who keep tabs on the yakuza have doubts about just how effective the new law will be, and some fear it may push illegal gang activity even further underground.

"If people believe wiretapping will catch large numbers of senior gang leaders openly discussing illegal gang business on the phone, they are mistaken," said Masahiro Yamada, a journalist who follows the underworld. "Gangsters, especially at the higher levels, have assumed for years that police are listening in on their conversations and have developed sophisticated ways to avoid having their communications intercepted."

The top leaders of Japan's most notorious gang, Yamaguchi-gumi, for example, meet twice a month in Kobe. Arrangements and communication on most issues are made only by fax, which has a big advantage over the telephone.

"With current technology, we can't capture and read fax transmissions," claimed Yasufumi Senda, a spokesman for NTT West in Osaka.

The most important messages are conveyed in person -- often by written notes that are quickly destroyed. If discussions do take place on the phone, mob kingpins are very careful to speak in code, with encrypted voices, Yamada said.

Wiretapping of cellular phone conversations can also pose technical problems, depending on what kind of signal the telephone is using.

"Digital cellular phones work better, but are easier to tap. Analog-based phones aren't as easy," said Gary Brown, an American electrical engineer who works for Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco.

Yukio Yamanouchi, an Osaka lawyer who used to serve as an adviser to the mob, said that while Yamaguchi-gumi leaders are concerned about the new legislation, he didn't expect a large increase in arrests. But, he added, the law will still make life more difficult for the mob.

"I don't foresee lots of arrests, at least in the short term," Yamanouchi said. "However, police and prosecutors could use the new law to force plea bargains from lower-level gang members. They want to go after the big crimes, including murder, the smuggling of drugs, weapons and people, as well as money laundering."

But in the eyes of Yamada and some police who monitor the underworld continually, the wiretapping bills could have the exact opposite effect to what lawmakers had intended.

Prior to the 1992 enforcement of a reinforced antigang law, police and yakuza had maintained sort of give-and-take relations, tipping each other off on their respective activities through informal channels. After the law came into effect, however, gang members were ordered by Yamaguchi-gumi head Yoshinori Watanabe to assume a lower profile and keep quiet.

"As a result, the amount of information about gang activities that filters back to the police has greatly dwindled, making it harder for police to gather evidence," Yamada said.



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