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Last Straw for the FBI - June 21, 2001

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Minutes before a congressional hearing on FBI oversight was about to begin, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he himself was ordering a comprehensive review of the federal law enforcement agency. While it is admirable for the Attorney General to express concern, and reassuring to hear that he agrees that something must be done, it seems wholly inappropriate that he would assign a high level Justice Department group the task of investigating its own colleagues.

Ashcroft has called his new investigative body "The Strategic Management Council." The council will likely be populated with Justice Department insiders and chaired by the Deputy Attorney General.

In what has to be considered the last straw for the FBI, James J. Hill, a support employee in the FBI's Las Vegas office, has been charged with selling top secret files to organized crime figures and defense lawyers in New York. This information comes on the heels of the arrest of top FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was a specialist in counter intelligence and allegedly sold secrets to Moscow.

It is painful to witness this sort of self-destruction on the part of the FBI. The now shabby record of this once great institution serves to dampen what few embers remain of the public's trust. All the more reason that a thorough investigation must be conducted immediately. All the more reason that the investigation must be an independent one.

What follows is a partial review of some of the questionable behavior of the FBI over the past several years.

- The FBI failed to turn over 4,500 documents and multiple computer disks, which related to the case against Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. The subsequent execution of McVeigh took place after a federal judge determined that nothing in the materials withheld would have cast doubt on McVeigh's scheduled execution. This decision occurred after Attorney General John Ashcroft, on his own authority, delayed the first execution date because approximately 3,100 pages of evidence had not been produced.

- A FBI agent admitted giving false testimony against Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos Labs. A federal judge said that the case against Wen Ho Lee had embarrassed the nation. Mr. Lee was held in solitary confinement for 9 months. He was released after 58 of the 59 charges against him were dropped.

- A FBI supervisor pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for destroying evidence concerning the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident. It is unlikely that the sniper who took the life of Vickie Weaver will be prosecuted, even though a federal appellate court has removed any obstacle to the proceedings.

- The FBI denied using pyrotechnic devices during the Waco tragedy. The denials turned out to be false.

- In the 1960s, four African-American girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Ex-Ku Klux Klansman Thomas Blanton, Jr. may have been brought to justice earlier if the FBI had turned over evidence, which it had in its possession for almost 40 years.

- The conviction of Boston truck driver Joseph Salvati was thrown out because information that would have cleared him was withheld by the FBI. Because the FBI was protecting an informant, Salvati remained in prison for 30 years for a murder that he did not commit.

There is a troubling pattern to these and other high profile FBI cases. With regard to the most recent incident surrounding the Las Vegas office, a FBI spokesperson has stated he is "very sure" that no national security secrets were disclosed. Americans should not be comforted by his words. Credibility is difficult to acquire, but even more difficult to recover once lost.

Problems within the FBI and the Justice Department are systemic. It is vital for the Bush administration to address two areas as soon as possible.

First, a new director must be chosen. The selected individual must have impeccable management skills. He or she must also have the drive to create accountability for misconduct and the ethical wherewithal to report whether or not actions on the part of the FBI were negligent, reckless or intentional.

Second, an independent investigation must be launched under the supervision of the Judicial Branch. A Danforth-style investigation would be completely insufficient, if not unduly corrosive, and would do nothing to restore the needed credibility. At this stage, perception does matter, but truth matters a great deal more. The public must be confident that the investigation is truly independent. No progress will be made in this regard unless the Bush administration sheds its politically pragmatic mentality.

Though the rule of law itself is strong, respect for the rule of law is somewhat fragile. Its efficacy is threatened by suspicion. Mistrust of federal law enforcement accrued rapidly during the Clinton years. It must just as quickly now be purged.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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