FBI: FEELING THE HEAT
APRIL 15, 1997
A Justice Dept. report concludes the FBI's crime lab provided flawed evidence in the Oklahoma City bombing and other cases, and endorsed an effort to get an outside review of the lab. A background report is followed by a panel discussion with Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.)
MARGARET WARNER: Now for congressional reaction to the FBI lab report and the independent counsel issue we're joined by two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee: Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa and Democrat Robert Torricelli of New Jersey. Welcome, gentlemen. Sen. Grassley, you've been quite critical of the FBI in past months, in part on the basis of the charges made by Dr. Whitehurst. How do you react to these findings? Do you find them reassuring, or do you find them alarming?
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April 15, 1997:
A background report on the Justice Dept. report critical of the FBI crime lab.
December 18, 1996:
A veteran FBI agent has been charged with spying on the U.S. for Russia.
June 26, 1996:
The investigation into the White House's handling of confidential FBI files
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SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, (R) Iowa: I think the FBI has stated it very well. They say that they're accurate, and they're going to make the changes that the IG recommended, and the IG said that Dr. Whitehurst did the country and the FBI a favor by bringing this to their attention, and also they said that he may have gone too far, but the important point there is that the regulations of the FBI and the Department of Justice require over-reporting. If he had under-reported anything he felt was wrong, he could have been charged for malfeasance in that case.
MARGARET WARNER: But how serious do you think the findings of fact are about the FBI lab procedures?
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, I think that it lays it out very clear. They used to be a state of the art, an accredited institution. They're no longer accredited. There are state crime laboratories that are accredited. And the IG had to bring in people from foreign crime labs to look the situation over, to verify what Dr. Whitehurst has said. So yes, I think they're very true, and they need to be carried out. And the real test for Director Freeh and the senior FBI, are they going to stonewall, or are they going to carry it out? I hold every intention that they will carry it out, and if they do, I think that Director Freeh can rehabilitate himself.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. What's your assessment of this report and where you go from here?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI, (D) New Jersey: Well, I think largely that many of our minds can be set to rest. The worst of Dr. Whitehurst's allegations was that there was false testimony, even perjury, in criminal trials. That is not the case. Largely what the IG has recommended are things that Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI, has already begun, certifying laboratories to national standards, increasing the equality of the personnel, the transfer of people who not meet these standards. If anything, I think this report is an endorsement of Louis Freeh's directorship of the FBI, and I think there's every reason to be confident that now with this report in hand we'll see the laboratory return to international standards.
MARGARET WARNER: Any comment on the perjury and the evidence tampering?
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: First of all, the inspector general has told me that he was not investigating anything criminal. Perjury and evidence tampering is something criminal. Now they could say that they never found any evidence of that, but in the first place they didn't investigate it. And the fact that they didn't investigate anything and prove it doesn't mean it is a fact, so I don't think we should draw a conclusion.
MARGARET WARNER: So you wouldn't go as far as Sen. Torricelli, to say that--
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: No. And not based on something I'm saying, based on what the IG said that he was only looking at administrative problems within the FBI, not something criminal.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Well, these are some of the important cases in American history, from Oklahoma City to the World Trade Center bombing, and it's important to note that the U.S. Attorney's offices involved have all said after reviewing this report that there is nothing in it that gives them any concern about the status of these cases. And, indeed, the report, itself, focuses on the procedures of the lab, all of which Louie Freeh has already, before this report was issued, begun to improve and taken command and specifically says that there is no evidence--and for the lack of any evidence, no reason to conclude that there's any false testimony.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both briefly before we go on to the Reno matter, how did we get to this point? How did we get to a point that Sen. Grassley said, that the FBI lab, which should be the pinnacle of forensic science in this country, wasn't even accredited?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Well, the FBI has operated independently, and we found this with the Central Intelligence Agency, when I was on the Intelligence Committee as well, when you have government agencies that operate independently, are not sufficiently monitored on occasion, they do not rise as standards rise. To Louie Freeh's credit, this began when he started an internal review. This is now really just confirming what he began eight years ago.
MARGARET WARNER: Does Congress reserve some of the blame for this, for not exercising oversight?
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Yes. We need to do more oversight, but first of all, a lot of this happened before Louie Freeh came there, admittedly, but Dr. Whitehurst started complaining about this eight years ago, and it proves that we ought to listen to whistle blowers; that they're a source of information, and both the inspector general, the FBI, and both in my office and today in the news reports, said if they had listened to Dr. Whitehurst eight years ago, this problem would never happen. So it proves that whistle blowers to have a good contribution to make to the process of representative government.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Changing--switching now to the issue of the independent counsel and, of course, Attorney General Reno said last night, responding to letters from both parties in your committee, that she was not going to seek an independent counsel, Sen. Torricelli, do you think she made the right call?
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: She made the right call and one that many of us on the committee urged her to make; that is, the independent counsel law needs to be a legal process. This is not a political judgment. The statutes is very specific, and she's exercised on four different occasions against the interest of the Clinton administration. That is, there must be a specific and credible claim against someone covered by the statute. There clearly from news accounts are problems with policy; there were bad judgments, but there is not a specific and credible claim that a statute of the United States has clearly been violated, or on an uncovered person by the statute where there's a clear conflict of interest with this attorney general. I think she exercised good judgment, the kind of judgment we've come to expect from Janet Reno--independent, tough, and principled.
MARGARET WARNER: Respond to those two points, which was her reading of the statute.
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, first of all, I read the statute; I have it right here in front of me; a definition of contribution. She states her entire case based on the fact that this statute only applies to hard money--it doesn't--
MARGARET WARNER: Meaning donations to candidates?
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Yes. As opposed to soft money, donations to parties.
MARGARET WARNER: To parties.
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: And how do we know, without getting into this and get it investigated, how do we know that some of this soft money didn't go to state parties, which in turn could have been used to influence federal elections? At that point, it's strictly a violation of the campaign law. It sounds to me like she sees her position more, instead of being the chief prosecutor of the United States, being the administration's chief defense, and some of the defense arguments she put up yesterday makes her look more like F. Lee Bailey than the country's chief prosecutor.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: I just don't think that's fair to an attorney general who named an independent counsel to deal with Whitewater and three different members of Bill Clinton's administration. Indeed, no attorney general in history has named more independent counsels to deal with their own administration. She has looked at this law on its face. Contributions under the federal law are money intended for federal candidates. They do not include soft money contributions. Maybe they should. In fact, I would argue we should change the statute to do that, which is interpreting the law as it is written, not as we would have it.
MARGARET WARNER: Where do you go from here?
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, where we go from here, hopefully, is somewheres along the line her own professional staff is going to wake her up to the serious public relations problem she has here, and they're going to find some sort of a peg for her to hang a request for an independent counsel on, because I think she's gotten herself into a very deep hole, and the only way she's going to get out of it is by appointing an independent counsel.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: But let's be clear. Janet Reno has not said that in the future she will not name an independent counsel. Her professional staff is now involved in an investigation of all these claims. The FBI has 50 agents working on these claims. It is not as if the justice process in this country is sitting still. It is in motion, in full investigation, and she has made clear that she is reserving judgment. If there is a specific and credible claim against someone covered by the statute, I believe she'll name an independent counsel.
MARGARET WARNER: Sunday, House Speaker Gingrich said if she didn't seek an independent counsel, she should be investigated. Do you agree with that?
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: I would not go that far at this point, but I would say this; that she has appointed lots of independent counsels. More importantly, this is something that every day there's a drumbeat of charges coming on fund-raising towards the White House and out of problems with the White House, and she's a political appointee, and it seems to me she has a responsibility to show the country that there's absolutely no politics involved in this, and the only way to do that is to appoint an independent counsel.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: I found Speaker Gingrich's comments in a politically charged atmosphere to be uniquely distasteful. Indeed, if it were not constitutionally protected speech on the floor of the Congress, it would invite an analysis of whether or not it's an obstruction of justice to be threatening the attorney general if you don't reach a judgment that you find politically palatable.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thank you both, Senators.