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A MASSIVE MESS AT THE FBI



Published: Fri, May 25, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Chicago Tribune: Lately, Americans may be wondering if the first letter in the FBI's acronym stands for "fouled-up." In recent months, the nation's chief law enforcement agency has produced one embarrassment after another. With Director Louis Freeh leaving his post next month, people inside and outside the agency need to take a long and honest look at how to turn the agency on its head.

The latest bungle was serious enough to force the postponement of the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the worst terrorist in American history. Despite repeated directives from Freeh, FBI field offices failed to turn over more than 3,000 pages of evidence that were supposed to go to McVeigh's lawyers before his 1997 trial.

Testifying last week before a House subcommittee, the director admitted "a serious error" by the agency, while expressing doubt that any of the material would have changed the outcome. But the failure follows a pattern established in other high-profile cases.

Destroying evidence: In 1996, an FBI supervisor pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for destroying evidence about the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge. After the Waco debacle, it denied using pyrotechnic devices, a claim that turned out to be inaccurate. During the investigation of Wen Ho Lee, an agent testified falsely about the nuclear scientist's conduct, giving the impression that Lee had acted deceptively.

In the McVeigh case, it may be that Freeh is right in depicting the lapse as inadvertent. In an agency as large and far-flung as the FBI, the logistical challenge of making sure no piece of paper is overlooked can be formidable. Investigating the Oklahoma City bombing, agents conducted more than 28,000 interviews, each requiring a written report.

But critics argue that the FBI also harbors a suspicion of the criminal justice system that discourages any action that might help the alleged bad guys. Since courts are generally deeply reluctant to order new trials in the absence of stunning revelations, some people in the agency may figure they have nothing to gain and much to lose by fully cooperating with the defense.

Whether they stem from inexperience or intentional deceit, the string of failures at the FBI shows that one of the most sensitive agencies in government is also one of the most troubled. Episodes like these, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., told Freeh last week, suggest "that there's a fundamental problem of management as well as a fundamental problem with the culture over there."

It's imperative to find a new director with a record of first-rate management -- and a willingness to hold people accountable for serious, avoidable mistakes. Agents should be subject to polygraph tests anytime, not just when they are hired. Congress should get serious about oversight, as Obey urges. "I've seen members of Congress more interested in getting an autograph from past directors than . . . in asking tough questions," he says.

Louis Freeh will hardly be missed. His successor will have quite a reclamation project to perform.




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