If anything good has come out of the deadly standoff between federal agents and a white separatist in Ruby Ridge, Ida., it is the refreshing willingness of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to accept blame on behalf of the bureau and to promise to remedy defective procedures. At Senate hearings that ended Thursday, Director Louis J. Freeh conceded that the bureau's operation there was tragically flawed. A federal marshal and the wife and the 14-year-old son of the separatist were killed in the 1992 siege.
Freeh also admitted he made a "grave error" in promoting his friend, Larry A. Potts, to deputy FBI director after he, Freeh, had censured Potts for his role in overseeing the Idaho operation. Such admissions would have been unthinkable under the dictatorial regime of the FBI's first director, the self-righteous J. Edgar Hoover.
The Idaho incident--in which agents were trying to arrest the separatist, Randall C. Weaver, on firearms charges--served only to feed the paranoia of the right-wing militia movement. If extremists needed evidence of jackbooted government thugs, Ruby Ridge offered it--as did the later FBI siege against the Branch Davidian sect near Waco, Tex., which ended in the fiery deaths of 80 adults and children in 1993.
In fact, the Ruby Ridge problem came not from despotic malice in Washington but rather from poor management at the FBI. The bureau's normal strict rules that forbid the use of deadly force except in instances of imminent threat to human life or safety were relaxed in the Idaho siege. As a result, an FBI sharpshooter fired a shot that inadvertently killed Weaver's wife, Vicki, standing hidden behind a door while holding her baby.
Freeh vowed to revamp procedures to prevent any recurrence. He said FBI rules of engagement have been rewritten to prevent any ad hoc local changes that could be interpreted as license to shoot on sight.
Freeh did not become director until a year after the Ruby Ridge incident and therefore cannot be held responsible for what happened there. But his behavior in investigating it later is troubling. He promoted Potts and then rejected out of hand the complaints by the local agent in charge in Idaho, Eugene Glenn, that he was made the fall guy for bad decisions by Potts at FBI headquarters. In August, Freeh finally demoted and suspended Potts and four other high FBI officials after the Justice Department uncovered evidence that documents were shredded to protect Potts and others.
Freeh's admissions are noteworthy, but the real lesson here is that the FBI, given its special powers and tarnished history, must be subject to close oversight by the Justice Department and Congress.