Tough Criticism Pelts FBI

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The FBI came under broad attack Wednesday for a "fortress mentality" that blocks any outside scrutiny, as congressional leaders sought to rein in a once-vaunted agency they said appears to be spinning out of control.

"The image of the FBI in the minds of too many Americans is that this agency has become unmanageable, unaccountable and unreliable," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said at a Senate hearing examining the bureau's recent string of embarrassments.

The indictment of the FBI by lawmakers and prominent witnesses was all the more remarkable because of how quickly the bureau's status has sunk. Just a year ago, many members of Congress were still giving Director Louis J. Freeh rave reviews and urging that the FBI be allowed to take over expanded responsibility for drugs and guns from other federal agencies.

But those plans were declared dead on Wednesday, and instead the FBI faced a blizzard of reform efforts aimed at making the bureau more accountable for its mistakes.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft on Wednesday ordered a comprehensive review on "reforming and improving the FBI," while two senators proposed an unprecedented top-to-bottom outside review of the agency aimed at accomplishing the same end. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee approved a measure Wednesday from its chairman, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), to create an inspector general post as a watchdog over the FBI, an oversight role that the bureau has generally resisted. A similar idea was proposed in the Senate.

The reforms are considered particularly critical given the FBI's pending changeover in leadership as Freeh prepares to depart.

During nearly three hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, lawmakers from both parties slammed the 11,000-agent FBI over what Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) called "a litany of embarrassing blunders."

Drawing the biggest headlines in recent weeks have been the FBI's failure to uncover the alleged espionage activities of former agent Robert Philip Hanssen and its failure to disclose 4,000 pages of materials in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation--a blunder that forced a one-month delay in Timothy J. McVeigh's execution.

But senators and law-enforcement officials who have dealt with the FBI also lit into the bureau over a series of other serious missteps in the last few years.

These included misleading statements concerning the Branch Davidian standoff near Waco, Texas; agents' overly friendly relationship with mob informants in Boston; evidence of widespread ineptitude in the FBI lab; and botched investigations into nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was cleared of spying allegations, and security guard Richard Jewell, cleared as the prime suspect in the Olympic bombing in Atlanta.

Just this week, an FBI security expert in Las Vegas who had access to informant identities and witness lists was charged with selling secret FBI information to organized crime figures and others under investigation.

"Sometimes you owe it to a friend to look him in the eye and tell him the hard truth," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a longtime supporter of the FBI and friend of Freeh's. "The hard truth is that the FBI has made mistake after mistake after mistake."

But the expert witnesses appearing before the Judiciary Committee said the FBI has been unwilling to own up to its mistakes because of a "culture of arrogance" that resists self-scrutiny and seems to perpetuate a mistrust of outsiders.

Former Republican Sen. John C. Danforth, who spent 14 months heading a federal investigation into the FBI's conduct in the Branch Davidian standoff, told the panel that even though the FBI was ultimately cleared of serious wrongdoing, many employees were evasive and uncooperative during his review.

Danforth said he had to threaten to get a search warrant before the FBI would turn over certain documents, and one FBI agent who acted as a liaison to Danforth's investigation has allegedly suffered retaliation from the bureau as a result of his cooperation.

"A long-standing value of the FBI is not to embarrass the FBI. Mistakes are embarrassing, so rather than admit them, cover them up," Danforth said.

Similarly, Norman J. Rabkin, a director with the General Accounting Office, said that when his office did a review of how the federal government responds to terrorist incidents, it ran into so many roadblocks from the FBI that it decided to drop the agency from its review.

Of all the federal agencies that the GAO monitors, "the FBI is by far our most contentious," Rabkin said.

Freeh was invited to testify at the hearing to give the FBI's perspective, but he told the committee that he was "unavailable," said a disappointed Leahy.

At the time of the midday hearing, Freeh was being given a send-off at the FBI's courtyard, attended by about 1,000 employees. He announced last month that he is leaving his post at the end of June, although a departure date has still not been set. Robert Mueller, a federal prosecutor in San Francisco, is considered the White House's leading candidate to replace him.

FBI officials declined to respond to the allegations after the hearing. But in a letter dated Wednesday, senior FBI official John Collingwood told the GAO's Rabkin that the bureau will take steps to be more accessible to outside scrutiny and "make your job easier."

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