FBI: TROUBLED HOUSE
APRIL 16, 1997
Experts reflect on negative evaluations of Director Louis Freeh, numerous incidents of mishandled cases, and plummeting morale at one of the nation's chief law enforcement agencies. A background report is followed by a panel discussion.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For some perspective we turn to three people who've had long experience with the FBI. George Terwilliger was deputy attorney general with responsibility for the FBI during the Bush administration. He's now a partner at a Washington law firm. Democrat Don Edwards from California served 16 terms in the House of Representatives. A former FBI agent himself, he was the longtime chairman at the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights, which oversaw the Bureau. And Ronald Kessler is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post who's author of The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency. Thank you all for being with us. Rep. Edwards, how do you explain what's happened over the last couple of years at the FBI?
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
Online NewsHour links:
April 16, 1997:
A background report on troubles at the FBI.
April 15, 1997:
A panel discussion 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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FORMER REP. DON EDWARDS, (D) California: Well, it is perplexing, Elizabeth. There wasn't proper oversight by Congress. They--the procedures broke down. I don't want to say that it's still not the premier law enforcement agency in the United States, certainly in the world, but something went wrong, and it seems to me that the task, our task is to find out what went wrong and to put in place cures.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But you think if Congress had been paying more attention, this might not have--some of the things might not have happened?
FORMER REP. DON EDWARDS: Oh, Congress should pay attention on a daily basis to the FBI. It has a history of problems, and it's a powerful, dangerous organization. It's a good organization in many ways, but Congress should--should have oversight by the hour on everything that the FBI is doing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Terwilliger, how do you explain what's happened over the past couple of years at the FBI?
GEORGE TERWILLIGER, Former Deputy Attorney General: Elizabeth, I think the FBI is powerful. I don't think I characterize it as a dangerous organization. I would characterize it, however, as an extremely important institution in America. After all, the securing of public safety is a core responsibility of government. That is "the" primary responsibility of the FBI, along with its national security responsibility. I think what's happened over the last few years is that the FBI has experienced, in part, growing pains. It has experienced some real deficiencies in management.
Whether or not congressional oversight would have fixed that, to me, is somewhat beside the point. Congressional oversight is critically important, and it's certainly a valid exercise of the legislature's function. But the real responsibility for managing the FBI is with its leadership cadre, and that's not just the director. It's the leadership on down the line. I think some of the more recent things, including the inspector general's report, while they make life difficult for the FBI and might cause a crisis in confidence, are also an example of government at work. Now here's something that was not swept under the rug, was investigated, brought out in the open, and is being dealt with. And I think people can take some comfort in that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Kessler, how do you explain what's happened?
RONALD KESSLER, Author/Journalist: I'd put it on the doorstep of Louie Freeh, the director. He is the director. He has been, in fact, directly responsible for a number of these problems. For example, in the laboratory he made a decision to cut the number of experienced agents who are examiners by half, despite the objections of the then director John Hicks, which led not only to a lack of expertise, contributing to some of these problems, but also it increased the backlog, which is almost as big a scandal as what has come out. The backlog--when I did the book on the FBI in ‘93 it was six months. It's now more than a year, and--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Backlog in cases--
RONALD KESSLER: Cases, yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --that the lab work can be done.
RONALD KESSLER: Right. And was involved in the Jewell case in a negative way. He was a person who insisted that he be read his Miranda rights, which were not necessary at all, and because it was part of his training exercise.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He had called Mr. Jewell in and said this is a training exercise.
RONALD KESSLER: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We're just going to ask you questions.
RONALD KESSLER: And as a result of that, Jewell clammed up; he wouldn't talk anymore. If he had kept talking, they might have exonerated him sooner, but also contributed to this impression that his rights had been violated. In fact, he did not have to have his Miranda rights read to him. And the bogus thing, even though it was sort of foolish, it was not actually illegal.
The basic problem was that he, the director, doesn't want to hear bad news, doesn't want to hear countervailing opinions. And in any organization, but particularly the FBI, that is fatal, and so nobody tells him anything. Nobody brings him any news. Nobody disagrees with him. On top of that, he tends to micro manage cases, as he did in the Jewell case. So you have this director, and everyone is saying, yes, sir, yes, sir, nobody wants to tell him anything different, and you just have one problem after another. I could go on with some of these other things and show how the director was involved, and his top aides.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think about that, Rep. Edwards? Do you think that it's Mr. Freeh's problem?
FORMER REP. DON EDWARDS: Well, he's the boss, of course, and the ultimate responsibility is that of the director; however, I don't think we are going to get anywhere if we get into personalities. Obviously, their procedures and processes are not working. For example, the lab. The laboratory is considered up until now the best in the world; however, the FBI has refused, despite Congress's insistence, that they not have--be audited by an outside laboratory.
All state labs are audited, and are certified to be operating correctly. Well, the FBI lab men in charge say we're perfect; we don't need outside surveillance. So things like that can be--can be cured. In the DNA legislative bill we insisted in law that there be outside audits of the laboratory. So I think that in almost every case if processes and procedures had been in place, the bad things wouldn't have happened.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What are you hearing from inside the FBI? How is morale right now?
FORMER REP. DON EDWARDS: Okay. What?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How is morale inside the FBI, given all these--
FORMER REP. DON EDWARDS: Well, the morale isn't good. Something like this and something like the Jewell case and Ruby Ridge and all of those cases do great damage to the FBI, and--however, there has always been a group in the FBI that wants to get rid of the director. Remember that. It's always part of the game, you know. And even when I was there, we didn't say very much about Mr. Hoover, but we certainly didn't, but the general--the general feeling was that his time should have been up.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What are you hearing from inside the FBI?
RONALD KESSLER: Well, that the agents universally lost faith in the director, and, you know, I certainly adopt Congressman Edwards' point that there's a lot of discontent at all times, but I've watched the FBI since the 60's, and never has there been this much outrage at what the director has done. Under William Sessions you have these abuses that he engaged in, and so he looked bad, but it didn't taint the whole bureau, and it didn't screw up cases. Now you have a situation where cases are being screwed up. The whole confidence of people in the FBI is being undermined.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How many cases have been screwed up, do you think? I mean, I know that there was one estimate of about 55, but some of the investigators criticized yesterday have been involved in several thousand cases.
GEORGE TERWILLIGER: Elizabeth, I think we have to keep this in perspective, with all due respect. I think Mr. Kessler basically presses his point a little too far to say that morale is universally poor; that the director has got to go based on what we've seen, and to draw the conclusion that leads to your question, frankly, that there might be a massive number of cases that are now suspect. There are thousands of men and women in the FBI who do an outstanding job for America day in and day out. I think Louie Freeh is on trial to a certain degree right now. I think Mr. Kessler raises some valid points about some of the leadership issues.
I think that Mr. Freeh in some ways perhaps was not fully prepared for the scope of this job. I think it is a mistake for anybody to conclude that his integrity is in question. What's on the table right now and what time will tell whether or not he can succeed with is the use of leadership and management skills to change some of these things that clearly need to be changed, and to restore the luster to the FBI image. But I don't think that there is--there is complete widespread and utter contempt within the ranks for the director, nor do I think it is correct to conclude that these mistakes and his responsibility should lead to crisis in confidence to the degree he should resign.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, help us look at this in context. Is the FBI, even with all these problems, a much stronger, better organization than it was in the 60's, for example, when you worked there and had a lot of criticisms?
FORMER REP. DON EDWARDS: The FBI has a sordid history in many ways; the co-intel pro--program of harassment and some criminal conduct where they would target different people; the ABSCAM, where they would get people drunk and confuse them--so--and of course, during Mr. Hoover's time, they--anybody who had any views different from the views of Mr. Hoover and later the FBI, itself, on religion, on sexual conduct, or politics would be suspect, and the file would be opened up. They don't have files on suspicion anymore. There has to be some kind of criminal conduct there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Before you can open a file.
FORMER REP. DON EDWARDS: Before you can open a file.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What needs to be done now, besides congressional oversight, what needs to be done?
FORMER REP. DON EDWARDS: Well, certainly the attorney general should take a stronger role. After all, the FBI's a part of it--a part of the Department of Justice. And I really think that day to day oversight by Congress and by the attorney general would--and, of course, by the newspaper people and Mr. Kessler is premier in that area--so I think that the FBI is a much better organization than it was in the early 60's and late and 70's too.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Where do you come down on that, and also what needs to be done?
RONALD KESSLER: I agree it's very important to keep it in perspective, as both your guests said. The Bureau is much more sophisticated than it used to be. It's basically a very honest organization. It really does get its man or woman in the end, in most cases. And most of its agents are doing a great job. Also in the laboratory, it's not that they're politically trying to put people in jail. In fact, in about one third of the rape cases where DNA analysis is done, the FBI laboratory exonerates the suspects. It's just that occasionally you have these incompetent people who shouldn't be there and the Bureau has historically been very lax in weeding some of those people out.
But at the same time the fact is that the Bureau, as never before, is suffering a credibility crisis, and something has to be done about it. And it goes back to the director, and you just can't avoid that. I don't think that government leaders have a divine right to rule; you know, that they have to be--to engage in criminal conduct for people to find that they shouldn't be in their jobs. They have to be accountable, and that's the only solution.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think needs to be done?
GEORGE TERWILLIGER: I think that both Mr. Kessler and Chairman Edwards make some very good points. I think the attorney general's role is important. The FBI is part of the Justice Department, after all. I think that Louie Freeh has got to step up to the plate, avoid some of the tendency to micro manage that Mr. Kessler points out, and manage the big issues in an effective way, and get troops behind him. To the extent that there is some discontent, that's got to be corrected. If the FBI cannot function in a way in which the public can have full confidence in its integrity and its abilities, then the country is going to lose in the end. I think Director Freeh deserves an opportunity to do that. He's got some ground to make up.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That's all the time we have. Thank you all very much.