Wednesday, November 4, 1970
By Jim Morse
New York ? It was a dark bar on a dingy street running off of New York's Times Square. Joe Blaise, a husky, well-dressed man with a light smile, was talking to three gangsters he knew were planning a gambling operation in Florida. They referred to themselves as "The Three Musketeers".
As the drinks flowed and the conversation drifted toward their plans to take in illegal dollars from the Florida vacationers, one of the men cautioned: "Hey you guys, be careful what you say. What about Joe?"
"He's okay," replied another, "he's been cleared."
"Great," said the first man, "let's have another round. And if you're interested, Joe, we may include you in on the deal and make it 'The Four Musketeers' This was a victory of sorts for Joe Blaise. He's been accepted. He was very much interested in the deal, but not from the same view point as its three companions."
He was in the bar in his role as an undercover investigator for a relatively obscure federal agency ? the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (AT&F) Division of the Treasury Department.
Think of the IRS
When most of us hear of the Treasury Department, we immediately think of the Internal Revenue Service. When we hear of federal undercover agents, we think of the FBI.
Both are misconceptions.
Actually, the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division comes under the broad umbrella of the IRS in the Treasury Department, as do Secret Service, Intelligence, and US customs agents, but AT&F has nothing to do with income tax.
"As for undercover work," explains special agent Blaise, "unlike the FBI, we do our own. The FBI does have undercover operatives, but they aren't the FBI agents themselves."
According to Blaise, there's another misconception that the FBI leads the Federal Government's war against violent crime.
"We're (AT&F) the ones who hit the crime syndicate the hardest." says Blaise, who has been with the Treasury Department for 19 years.
Although it's possible that you've never heard of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division, it has been around since 1934 when agents of the division functioned as 'revenuers' seeking to exact alcohol taxes from armed moonshiners in the hills of Kentucky, Georgia and the Carolinas.
Today, Blaise and his fellow agents are still concerned with the enforcement of alcohol tax laws, but they have other major duties, including enforcement of federal firearms laws.
One of AT&F's proudest achievements is the Gun Control Act of 1968, a measure that became law with the division's active support.
"That law gives us the tools to fight syndicated crime," says Blaise. "It gives us the authority to enforce laws pertaining to the shipment and processing of machineguns and cut-down rifles, and the possession of firearms by convicted felons."
"What we're most concerned with," says Blaise, "is the illegal possession of machineguns, sawed-off shotguns, and destructive devices such as Molotov cocktails, grenades, rockets and other forms of bombs. The importation of surplus military firearms and any firearms not suitable for sporting purposes is also prohibited under the Gun Control Act."
"Lee Harvey Oswald could never have gotten his rifle the way he did if the law had been on the books in 1963."
Blaise was referring to the 6.5 Mannlicher-Carbine, and imported Itialian army surplus weapon which Oswald purchased by mail order for $12.78. Oswald is believed to have used the weapon to slay President Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
The 1968 bill halted mail order buying of such weapons in addition to prohibiting the sale of firearms to convicted felons, mental incompetents and dishonorably discharged servicemen.
Blaise, who was at Pearl Harbor the day of the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941, and who spent six years with the Air Force in WWII as an aerial gunner instructor, admits with a sly grin that his wife, Vivian, isn't happy with his undercover work.
"I've served as an undercover agent with the Mafia in New York, Milwaukee and Chicago, and Vivian doesn't like it at all. She keeps telling me, 'One of these days they'll throw your body on the front lawn.'"
"I'll tell her not to worry, that the Mafia doesn't know where I live and that they're more likely to throw my body in the river."
Blaise says such things with a laugh, but he admits that AT&F threat of sudden death.
"Percentage wise," he says, "Our division has the highest rate of fatalities of any law enforcement service in the country. We've had 155 agents killed ? 102 by gunfire ? in the last 25 years."
Blaise, 49, says that it calls for "a special breed of man" to be an AT&F agent.
"We got to get out there on the street and really fight crime," he says, "God knows we don't do it for money, glory or prestige. Most people don't know who we are. When I show my badge, people usually say 'Oh, you're here about my income tax' or 'you must be from the FBI.'"
Blaise, who lives with his wife in New York City, has served as a bodyguard to President Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Jacqueline Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.
"I was assigned to the Nixon family for a year," he says, "It was a privilege. I was able to get to know them all very well. The President has a tremendously strong character. His personality doesn't come through at first, but we got along very well."
Joe's present assignment is that of law enforcement liaison and public education officer for AT&F's North Atlantic region, which includes New York and the six New England states. He works out of headquarters in New York City, under the supervision of John Piper, a 6-4, 250 pound crime fighter who came up through the ranks to become AT&F's chief enforcement for the region.
"We have 1,500 AT&F agents throughout the country," says Blaise, "Most of them came to us because they wanted action. And one of our concerns this fall is violence ? on and off the campus. If anyone has any knowledge of bombings or bombers, we urge them to get in touch with us."
Joe Blaise is a man who is proud of his job. "We're still revenuers to a certain extent," he says, "but we do more. Much more. And the only thing we have to do with income tax is to ? just like everyone else ? pay it."