Marshals Successful; FBI Wants Role : Federal Lawmen Feuding Over Pursuing Fugitives

Times Staff Writer

A furious turf war between the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service has erupted over the marshals' increasingly successful pursuit of fugitives.

The bureau says that this effort is jeopardizing the safety of its agents and the integrity of investigations and prosecutions. The marshals say that the FBI has not produced a single example to support those allegations and contend that proposals by the bureau to change the marshals' law enforcement charter would render them subservient.

So bitter has the fight become that the head of each unit personally took his case to Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III at one point in unusually strong memos. Although those memos were withdrawn last week in a final effort to end the feud, the division runs so deep and has become so personal that Justice Department officials doubt that it can be resolved without Meese's involvement.

The Justice Department, parent agency of the two services, is particularly concerned about the dispute because it is taking place amid a campaign by Meese to emphasize stronger cooperation among federal law enforcement agencies. And the fight has become a major test of will for William S. Sessions barely two months after he was sworn in as director of the FBI.

"For them to put him in the middle of this is just bad staffing" by FBI subordinates, who should not have allowed Sessions to become involved in a complicated and politically sensitive dispute so soon after taking office, one Justice Department official said.

Caught in the middle of the fight is the Drug Enforcement Administration, which reports to Meese through the FBI and where officials confide that they are pleased with the current process, under which the marshals have hunted down some prime narcotics violators.

Sessions, in his Dec. 18 memo to Meese, said that the DEA agreed with a proposal to restrict the marshals' jurisdiction to fugitives who flee after being convicted, leaving it to the FBI and DEA to pursue those sought before conviction. Most notably, the FBI would strip the marshals of jurisdiction for all fugitives in cases involving foreign counterintelligence, organized crime, narcotics and terrorism, regardless of when they flee.

Caught Ex-CIA Agent

Under such restrictions, the marshals would not have been able to make such celebrated apprehensions as that of Edwin P. Wilson, the ex-CIA official wanted for training Libyan terrorists and supplying them with explosives; Alphonse (Ollie Boy) Persico, reputed former boss of the Colombo organized crime family, who had eluded pursuers for seven years despite being on the FBI's 10 most wanted list; and Alvaro Rafael Sarovia, a prime suspect in the 1980 assassination of the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador.

Several Justice Department sources said that the fight began when the marshals succeeded in a plan to lure Wilson to the Dominican Republic and then rush him onto a flight to the United States, where he could be arrested. The FBI had dismissed this scheme as harebrained and remains unhappy about it to this day.

In an interview, Sessions said that he "wouldn't want to discuss" the dispute or the varying versions of DEA's position. But he did underscore that the DEA reports to Meese through him, making clear that the FBI will speak for both agencies on the fugitive issue.

In his memo to Meese, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, Sessions said: "A major concern of the FBI and DEA is protecting the integrity of our investigations by preserving the ongoing process of evidence-gathering . . . . Until charges against a defendant have been resolved by a judge or jury, investigative interests are overriding, and the FBI must seek fugitive apprehension until that time.

"Similarly, in cases involving foreign counterintelligence, organized crime/narcotics and terrorism, the FBI must always seek the fugitive because an apprehension effort must be coordinated at every step so as not to interfere with ongoing undercover operations, electronic surveillances, placement of informants and relationships with foreign governments," Sessions told Meese.

Safety Problem Claimed

The "serious problems" caused by the marshals' pursuing FBI fugitives, according to Sessions, include "safety of investigative personnel, adverse effect on ongoing substantive investigations and prosecutions and duplication of investigative efforts."

But Stanley E. Morris, director of the Marshals Service, told Meese in his own memo on Dec. 30 that Sessions' statements "contained many misrepresentations and inaccuracies . . . ."

Morris said that Sessions had cited "not a single instance wherein safety has been jeopardized by (the marshals') actions." Likewise, Sessions failed "to mention a single case" in which the marshals' fugitive hunts had adversely affected investigations and prosecutions, Morris said in the memo, a copy of which also was obtained by The Times.

Underlying the dispute is a 1979 agreement between the FBI and the marshals, under which the marshals took over responsibility for FBI fugitives who had violated their conditions of parole or probation or jumped bond after being convicted.

At that time, although the backlog of fugitives was growing to unprecedented totals, the bureau was giving them low priority because of what Sessions said were "scarce resources and the many demands being placed on the FBI."

'Innovative' Schemes

The agreement gave the marshals responsibility for the majority of federal fugitives, and the agency has capitalized on that authority by using what one Justice Department official described as "marvelously innovative" schemes for snaring hunted felons--usually without one shot being fired.

Such schemes have ranged from a plan to lure fugitives out of hiding with football game tickets they ostensibly had won to a ruse that persuades them to leave their homes because of reports that their cars had been stolen or damaged.

Those techniques were used under plans known as FIST (fugitive investigative strike team) operations, which are usually conducted over a period of weeks and often involve hundreds of arrests. In nine FIST operations, the marshals have worked with state and local police and other federal agencies since 1982 in apprehending nearly 15,000 fugitive felons.

The FBI, however, contends that since the 1979 agreement the marshals have "expanded their role beyond what was contemplated by FBI, causing a continuing series of serious problems."

FIST Criticized

Sessions maintained in his memo that the marshals' FIST operations are "clearly beyond the statutory authority of the (Marshals Service)" because state and local fugitives are being apprehended "without any federal process," such as federal warrants, and undermine the FBI's unlawful flight to avoid prosecution program.

But Morris countered that "perhaps a more compelling case" can be made for transferring jurisdiction of the unlawful flight program to the Marshals Service. "Certainly, such a realignment would receive enthusiastic state, local and congressional support," he said.

As the nation's oldest federal law enforcement agency, dating to the Judiciary Act of 1789, the marshals had moved from being the idol of schoolboys with such colorful figures as Wyatt Earp to a backwater, near moribund outfit that only rarely made big news.

During the Reagan Administration, however, the agency has captured increasing attention with its fugitive hunts, including the work that established the death of Josef Mengele, the Nazi death camp doctor, its operation of the controversial witness protection program and its protection of federal judges--grabbing headlines that once seemed to be exclusive FBI property.

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