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One point was not in dispute: the badly battered reputation of Congress, tarnished by numerous recent cases of individual misconduct, had been dealt a major blow. "The institution has been hurt," conceded House Speaker Tip O'Neill. "I'm very disappointed, discouraged and shocked," said Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd. "I'm sick," declared Congressman Robert F. Drinan, who served on the Judiciary Committee that had voted in 1974 to impeach Richard Nixon. The actions of that committee were so impressive that 48% of Americans, according to a Gallup poll at the time, said that they approved of the way Congress was performing. Assaulted by more recent charges, including President Carter's repeated claim that Congress is a captive of special interest groups, the legislature's approval rating fell to a lowly 19% last summer.
(Only big business generally ranks lower than Congress.) Until the Abscam evidence is finally evaluated in the courtsand no indictments are anticipated in less than three monthscynics can say that their suspicions have been justified: all too many legislators are heedless of the national interest and also personally corrupt.
The FBI's dramatic undercover attack on white collar crime also left no doubt about a shift in priorities since the death of its first and legendary director, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover liked to put emphasis on the showy crimes of his youth: bank robberies and kidnaping. In the political area, he concentrated on spies and groups that he considered leftist. He did not at all mind his agents picking up scandal, mostly sexual, about members of Congress; but he filed it away to use as a club over legislators' heads, sometimes even informing the Congressman of what he knew (promising as a favor to keep it quiet). And in undercover work, he relied heavily on paid informants. He did not want his agents to be sullied by posing as other than what they were: clean-cut types in impeccable white shirts.
In the post-Hoover era, Hoover's successors have sought to reform the agency. They banned such routine FBI tactics as illegal break-ins. First Clarence Kelley and then the current director, William Webster, steered the FBI away from such simple federal offenses as bank robbery into the more complex areas of white collar crime. This meant going undercoverand enduring the attacks that such operations can bring. Over the past two years, the FBI has been engaged in nearly 100 separate undercover operations and with impressive results. Last year, these investigations produced 2,817 arrests, 1,372 convictions and the recovery of $318 million in stolen property.
These operations began with the FBI joining local police in setting up phony fence operationsoften in storefronts. There stolen goods were readily purchased, and at the proper time the unsuspecting sellers