Inquiry Targeted Foes of Latin Policy : 6 FBI Officials Disciplined for Broad Terrorism Probe
FBI Director William S. Sessions, in a rare public crackdown, disciplined six FBI officials Wednesday for their handling of a controversial investigation of a group opposed to Administration policies in El Salvador.
Critics have charged that the FBI violated citizens’ rights of free expression and association in the inquiry. But, although calling the investigation “flawed” and one of which the FBI was not proud, Sessions told the Senate Intelligence Committee there was no evidence of any White House involvement in it or that it was politically motivated.
The discipline--ranging from censure to two weeks of suspension without pay--was directed at lower and mid-level bureau officials in Dallas, where the investigation was concentrated, and at FBI headquarters here. Sessions also announced several changes in FBI practices to prevent a recurrence of the errors he acknowledged in the investigation.
Explains Webster’s Action
He said that former FBI Director William H. Webster, who headed the bureau during the investigation of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, and Executive Assistant Director Oliver B. Revell, who headed the FBI’s criminal investigative division, “had no reasonable way to know” of the errors in the CISPES investigation.
Nevertheless, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) expressed “my disappointment in the former director for not knowing” of the excesses in the CISPES case. DeConcini has been a strong supporter of Webster, who left the FBI in 1987 to head the CIA.
Contending that the CISPES investigation began as “a reasonable examination of a possible terrorist threat,” Sessions said: “That its execution was flawed reflects mismanagement. It does not reflect a policy of purposeful interference with legitimate domestic political activity.
“No substantial link between CISPES and international terrorism activities was ever established,” he said.
Sessions said that the officials used information provided by an unreliable informant to unwisely expand its investigation of the group, then failed to properly review and direct the inquiry later to keep it within proper bounds. He blamed, in part, shortcomings in the attorney general’s guidelines for such investigations.
Michael Ratner, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose freedom of information requests brought some of the investigation’s problems to light, contended that the FBI had addressed “only the smoke” about the inquiry, not its possible full dimensions. He said the FBI should have fired the officials involved.
Sessions drew praise for his candor and actions, however, from several members of the intelligence panel, including its chairman, Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), and Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who has often clashed with the FBI.
As summarized by Sessions, CISPES first came under FBI scrutiny during the first year of the Reagan Administration when the Justice Department asked the agency to determine if the organization had complied with the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The act requires that people who act as agents for foreign governments or entities register with the U.S. government.
Find No Violations
In an initial three-month “limited investigation,” the bureau found that CISPES endorsed objectives of two organizations “known to be Salvadoran terrorist groups,” but no violation of the act was found. The inquiry was completed in December, 1981, Sessions said.
But in March, 1983, acting chiefly on information provided by Frank Varelli, a Central American expatriate who had been an FBI “asset,” or intelligence source, since 1981, the bureau’s terrorism section authorized a new CISPES investigation to determine if it was financially or otherwise supporting foreign terrorist organizations.
The investigation “was unnecessarily broadened in October, 1983,” when the terrorism section wired all the FBI’s 59 field offices seeking investigative support in the case, which made it a nationwide inquiry. CISPES’ 180 chapters throughout the United States then became subject to investigation, and this led to “spinoff” investigations of nine other groups and 169 individuals over the next 18 months.
The investigation was finally closed in June, 1985, after the Justice Department told the FBI that the case no longer appeared to satisfy the attorney general’s guidelines for an international terrorism inquiry.
Defines Chief Flaw
Sessions made clear that the chief flaw in the case was the FBI’s failure to adequately investigate Varelli’s background and the accuracy of the information he provided. Varelli was later found to be unreliable.
Although Sessions refused to make public the names of the FBI officials who were disciplined, other government sources and court records identified five of the six.
They are Stanley Klein, who was chief of the FBI’s terrorism section in 1983 and is now special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Haven, Conn., field office; Gary Penrith, who was assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas office and is now deputy assistant director for intelligence; Ronald Davenport, a terrorism supervisor at FBI headquarters; George H. Van Balen, an international terrorism unit chief at FBI headquarters; and Parks Stearns, supervisor of the agent who dealt with Varelli.