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At the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the mantra, dating back to the days of J. Edgar Hoover, has always been “Don’t embarrass the bureau.” Says former special agent Clint Van Zandt, who first became an agent under the legendary director: “Culturally, it was understood that there was something greater than me at stake — there was the reputation of the FBI, the trust people had in the FBI.” The old man’s words had to be ringing last week in the ears of outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh, himself a young agent during the 1970s. His Teflon stripped clean, Freeh appeared hat in hand before two congressional committees, trying to offer an explanation about one of the most humiliating moments in the agency’s storied history. Days before the scheduled execution of Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the largest mass murder in American history, Freeh’s agency had discovered thousands of pages of documents that had never been turned over to McVeigh’s defense lawyers. “I’m accountable and responsible for that failure,” Freeh said last week. In the firestorm that followed, McVeigh’s execution was delayed, Freeh’s reputation — and the FBI’s — took another hit, and the agency’s critics smelled blood. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the FBI, labeled the Bureau a “cowboy culture” and Rep. David Obey, D-Okla., who hails from the state where McVeigh killed 168 citizens by blowing up a federal building, remarked, “I think we have today something close to a failed agency.” That McVeigh had been caught within days of the bombing — and successfully prosecuted for murder based on overwhelming evidence — seemed lost amidst the clatter. Had it been only a year ago when Freeh was the pinup boy for congressional Republicans seeking to bring then-President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore down for campaign finance improprieties? Then, Freeh’s disagreement with Attorney General Janet Reno over the appointment of a special counsel had been made very public. And Freeh was viewed by Republicans as a vigilant guardian of the republic — a trusted ally against alleged government corruption. Despite troubles involving the 1993 siege at Waco and the bungled investigation of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, Freeh’s star seemed ascendent and untarnished. He got what he asked for in the Republican Congress — major increases in spending each year. Now, a year later, after the stunning disclosure that a longtime FBI agent, Robert Hanssen, had allegedly been a Russian spy for 15 years, and as the bureau was preparing to admit to losing track of documents in perhaps the most important case in its history, Freeh was no longer ascending. He was out the door. He leaves the job June 1, citing the need to make money to support his family. Behind him lies a once-proud agency that has suffered a critical drop in public opinion since Freeh’s tenure began in 1993. It wasn’t just McVeigh or Hanssen. It was Ruby Ridge and Waco. It was Wen Ho Lee and Richard Jewell. One thing was for certain. Hoover’s command had been disobeyed. The bureau had been embarrassed, time and time again. COMPUTER ERROR Earlier this month, the FBI disclosed that it had discovered that about 3,100 pages of documents it had pledged to give to McVeigh’s defense lawyers had never been turned over. Most of the documents consisted of memorandums of interviews, or “302s,” conducted during the initial investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing. Freeh was quick to blame the FBI’s computer archiving system. But Stephen Jones, the Oklahoma lawyer who served as McVeigh’s defense lawyer at trial, says obtaining documents from the FBI “was a continuing problem” throughout his defense of McVeigh. “It was an ongoing issue,” Jones says. “We didn’t have much problem with the FBI on the physical evidence, but with the paper discovery — the 302s — it was not an easy process.” Beth Wilkinson, one of the federal prosecutors who convicted McVeigh, disagrees. “We went out of our way to disclose witness statements,” she says, adding that the FBI did a “fabulous” job in its investigation. Timothy Lynch, a criminal justice policy analyst for the Cato Institute, suggests that Freeh’s assignation of blame to computers is an example of a deeper problem plaguing the bureau. “If you just blame the computer system, then nobody is made accountable, and we won’t learn who was responsible for this,” Lynch says. “People who make serious mistakes are not held accountable. The standard response to problems at the bureau has been to weather the storm and return to business as usual.” There have been several storms. HIDING THE BALL Freeh, a former Republican-appointed New York federal judge, took over the FBI in 1993. He inherited a pair of disasters. The previous year, federal agents involved in a hostage situation at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, mistakenly killed the wife and infant daughter of Randy Weaver, whom they were hunting. Not long after, in another standoff in April 1993, the FBI stormed the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The compound caught fire, and 80 people inside died. While the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents were controversial, the actions of the agents involved were defensible. But in both cases, the Bureau made bad situations worse by sitting on information that it had promised to divulge. “[McVeigh] isn’t just an isolated example,” says Cato’s Lynch. “It has been an ongoing problem.” In 1995, it was discovered that an FBI supervisor had destroyed a report involving the Ruby Ridge incident. And, after denying doing so for six years, the FBI revealed in 1999 that it had, indeed, used incendiary devices during the siege at Waco. (The FBI maintains that the devices had nothing to do with the fire that claimed the compound.) Disclosure and misinformation continued to be a problem for the Bureau. In 1996, after the bombing of a park during the Olympics in Atlanta, FBI agents identified a local man, Richard Jewell, as the likely bomber. Jewell was innocent. And in 1999, the FBI began building a case against New Mexico nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was ultimately indicted on charges of espionage. Lee ended up pleading guilty to a minor felony and was, for all intents and purposes, exonerated. At the time, the Justice Department blamed the misstep on bad information given by an FBI agent in support of the indictment. The bureau was also accused of failing to share information about the case with the Senate subcommittee investigating its actions. Last year, the FBI was criticized in a General Accounting Office report for failing to forward two key government reports involving its investigation into the 1996 explosion of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island to the National Transportation Safety Board. Last month, it was revealed that the FBI had for 20 years withheld thousands of documents that could have aided the prosecution of the Ku Klux Klansman accused of a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. “It’s not what I would call a success story,” says Kris Kolesnik, who worked in the Senate for Grassley for 18 years and was principally involved in several oversight investigations of the bureau. “The higher profile the case, the more temptation there is to hide documents. These are career-makers.” Kolesnik, now the director of the National Whistleblower Center, lays the problem at the feet of Freeh. “There was not strong leadership at the top,” he says. “He didn’t get a handle on the way the department runs itself. Right now, the FBI runs the director, not the other way around.” IN THE FIELD Freeh will not comment on the criticism outside the testimony he offered Congress, according to an FBI spokesman. But Freeh’s defenders say he has done his best to take charge of the unwieldy 27,000-employee bureaucracy, but hasn’t been given the resources for the task. Freeh’s biggest impediment may have been institutional. The Bureau describes its culture as “field driven,” in which individual offices and agents are empowered to make command decisions involving investigations — for better or worse. The agents prefer it that way, but it can lead to a lack of oversight in Washington. “The agency has been built on the back of the individual agent. Part of the FBI has always had a fiefdom-type mentality,” says former FBI supervisor Van Zandt. “That part of the culture needs to be retuned.” At Ruby Ridge and Waco, the decisions had fatal consequences. But Van Zandt, who was present at both conflicts as a hostage negotiator, says that the poor judgment of a handful of agents shouldn’t serve as an indictment of the entire agency. “If one or two people had been different, we wouldn’t have had Ruby Ridge, we wouldn’t have had Waco — and we wouldn’t have given Tim McVeigh a basis for his hatred of government,” Van Zandt says. Adds former FBI Deputy Director Oliver “Buck” Revell: “Out of hundreds of thousands of cases, you only hear about four or five.” A critical lack of basic infrastructure has occupied the center of Freeh’s tenure. The FBI laboratory was the subject of a scathing 1997 report from the Justice Department’s inspector general. Freeh has since hired outside experts to reform the section. And last year, he did the same with the Bureau’s information technology, hiring a top executive from IBM to oversee modernization. Van Zandt says technology has remained a constant problem. “The FBI has always been out of date technologically,” he says. “I would get a brand-new 386 when industry was getting Pentiums. We were always two years behind.” But Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the former chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the bureau’s budget, clearly didn’t buy technology as an excuse for the McVeigh snafu. “This subcommittee has lavished the FBI with money,” Rogers said last week. “But the one area where we’ve had difficulty is the computers and the data information system. But it’s not a money problem.” In fact, Freeh has benefited from congressional largess. Since 1993, the bureau’s budget has increased 65 percent to its current $3.5 billion. Much of that money was earmarked for technological enhancements. And the agency is seeking an 8 percent increase for 2002 in a time when other Cabinet agencies have been asked to limit spending. But with the increase has come a dramatic expansion of the FBI’s investigative responsibilities — particularly in the international arena. Freeh was responsible for opening FBI offices in countries across the globe to assist in prosecuting crimes against Americans. The current trial in New York involving the bombing of a U.S. embassy in East Africa is a result of an FBI probe. “Operations have absorbed money for infrastructure,” Revell says. “When you are going after Osama bin Laden, that comes out of funds for operations.” At the same time, as a result of Congress’ actions to expand the definition of federal crime, the FBI has found itself investigating violations that used to fall within the purview of local law enforcement. “The bureau doesn’t need to be going after carjackers and local pornographers,” Revell says. “What are you going to do about drug trafficking and Russian organized crime?” CASTING A WIDE NET The Justice Department, together with the White House, is conducting the search for a new director. Strong candidates for the job include George Terwilliger III, a former deputy attorney general in the first Bush administration; Robert Mueller, the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco; and Frank Keating, the governor of Oklahoma and a former FBI agent. Unlike Freeh, Mueller and Terwilliger were never FBI agents. And David Israelite, the deputy chief of staff to Attorney General John Ashcroft, says that a background with the agency isn’t a job requirement. “We’re not going to rule anyone out because of in- or out-of-the-bureau experience,” he says. Critics like Lynch and Kolesnik say that it is imperative that the new director come from outside the FBI. “Is the new director someone who is going to come on and admit that they have this culture of arrogance at the FBI?” Kolesnik asks. Even seasoned agents like Revell and Van Zandt agree that a restructuring of basic administrative functions is required and that a person with hands-on management skills is needed. Both say an entire new management team — not just a single director — will be required. “They don’t need another federal judge. I would like to see a former agent, but the reality is that the FBI of the 21st century is going to need the vast knowledge of managing a major corporation,” Van Zandt says. “There is a desperate need for change.”

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