TOPICS > Politics

FBI Under Fire

May 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now, some analysis of the FBI’s current troubles and what it says about the culture at the Bureau and its future. Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa is a member of the Judiciary Committee. Michael Bromwich was inspector general for the Department of Justice during the Clinton Administration; he conducted several special investigations into the FBI, including one concerning allegations of misconduct and improper procedures at the Bureau laboratories. John Sennett is a special agent from the Albany field office at the FBI; he’s president of the FBI Agents Association; and Oliver “Buck” Revell is a 30-year FBI veteran; he’s the former Associate Deputy Director of the Bureau. Welcome, gentlemen.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Grassley, let’s throw your words back at you. You were the one who coined the phrase “cowboy culture” to describe the FBI. What did you mean by that?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, what I mean by “cowboy culture” is the fact that when the FBI deviates from the fundamentals of their profession, which is to seek the truth, they get into trouble. Seeking the truth, they do a very good job of it. Seek the truth and let the truth convict. I have a great deal of respect for FBI agents. My father taught me to do that. Now, what I mean, Gwen, is when they stray from it, there’s a management style, a management culture that tends to put headlines and public relations above the fundamentals, and that’s what bothers me.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, are you talking about arrogance in this case, or you talking about inefficiency, specifically having to do with the discovery of the McVeigh papers?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: I’m talking more about arrogance. Obviously the papers are a result of a management culture I think that particularly in higher profile cases is conducted in a way to make people look good and to watch out for the image of the FBI, as opposed to the substance of the FBI.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Revell, you worked for the FBI for many years. What’s your response to that?

OLIVER REVELL: Well, I think the Senator is wrong. I think that the 10 years that I was in charge of FBI investigations I never had any concern about the public relations. Our concern was solving the case. I think that was certainly the case in the Oklahoma City bombing; there are over 11,000 FBI agents who are dedicated to exactly that purpose.

And I think it’s harmful when the Senator essentially makes a judgment across the board about the quality of personnel and their activities when we don’t even know the facts about this particular circumstance, so I have to disagree with him and I think that the Bureau, in fact, focuses on those core values that Louis Freeh talked about and is dedicated to justice, although obviously mistakes have been made.

GWEN IFILL: Well, how did these – I’ll give you a chance to respond in just a moment. I just want to follow up with Mr. Revell briefly. How did these mistakes get made?

OLIVER REVELL: You know, I don’t know how the mistake got made on the documents. It’s a fundamental flaw in the information systems. I do know and certainly it’s my expectation that it will not have been willful; it was not intentional; and it will have no lasting impact on the outcome of the case. But it should not have happened, and the responsibility of Louis Freeh and the FBI leadership, as well as the Justice Department, is to see how it happened, why it happened, and fix it immediately. It’s not an acceptable circumstance.

GWEN IFILL: Senator?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, with all due respect for the statements just made, I do make my judgments across the board that basically the FBI agents in the field are doing what they’re supposed to do. But we’ve heard Congressman Obey during this program point out case after case after case very high profile cases.

The one that Michael Bromwich and I were involved in is a cutting of corners, and the absence of scientific principle at the FBI lab as evidence of hurting people who should not be hurt, not putting out exculpatory information that ought to be available to everybody, and why – if there – if there isn’t an effort of public relations and worrying about headlines, why would some of this be covered up?

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me turn to Michael Bromwich. You have investigated the FBI – the Senator just mentioned – what do you think may have gone wrong in this case?

MICHAEL BROMWICH: Well, I think that there is a fundamental problem when you have a major criminal investigation. What the FBI does is to throw hundreds of agents and scads of resources at the investigation. What that does is to generate a huge amount of paper that later needs to be collected and analyzed and retrieved. It’s not very glamorous work but it’s critical work and it’s critical that it be done well in order to protect the rights of the defendants. That kind of critical document collection and retrieval work is where the failure seems to have lain in the McVeigh case.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re saying that the Bureau was just overwhelmed?

MICHAEL BROMWICH: I think that the Bureau was to some extent overwhelmed, and they don’t have either the management systems or the computer systems to gather all the data and do what they need to do in order to provide the defendants, even a defendant like Timothy McVeigh, with his legal rights.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Sennett, are the FBI agents getting a bum rap on this?

JOHN SENNETT: I think so very much, Ms. Ifill. I was glad to hear the director this morning express pride in the FBI agents who worked the Oklahoma bombing case. It is – remains the most extensive, far flung investigation in the history of the FBI, and when the Senator suggests that professional standards were deviated from in the conduct of this investigation, I don’t accept that criticism.

These 3,000 so-called “missing documents” that have been alleged to have been withheld from the prosecution – from the defense in this case, rather, are not – nothing was withheld. The existence of these documents came to light in an inventory of documents conducted at the initiation of the FBI and the awareness of the fact that these documents did not show up in this inventory was made known to the defense by the FBI.

That’s a perfect – I can’t think of a better example of good government and professional law enforcement than to make errors known as soon as possible after they are discovered, knowing that it’s going to be embarrassing and knowing that it’s going to be difficult to account for.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Sennett, this discovery was made five days before the scheduled execution. You consider that a victory, not a failure?

JOHN SENNETT: Well, it certainly is better than not disclosing it, and it is certainly better to find it than not to find it.

GWEN IFILL: Senator. Yes, Senator.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Yes. I want to make very clear that I have no judgment in regard to the McVeigh case whether or not professional shortcuts were made. But there is a pattern, and I’ve given some of the cases that I’ve been involved in – so that has not only been the case, but it’s been proven.

What I see here is an excuse that the data system was not up to date; that’s a little bit like the dog ate the homework. If this is the first time I heard that, I would believe it, but case after case after case, this decade, particularly high profile cases where careers are made or broken, it’s been a pattern, and it’s – and it has hurt the public relations; it’s hurt the public confidence of people in the FBI, and I think changes have to be made to reestablish that confidence.

GWEN IFILL: Do you accept Director Freeh’s explanations today and his proposals with solutions that he offered today?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, this is something that I wanted to ask Mr. Bromwich in answer to your question. I was on a program a few days ago with Mr. Bromwich and the statement was made and again today about the data system not being up to date to handle this properly. It needs to be modernized. Now I have some contacts inside Justice and the FBI, and I knew at the time I was on the program before with Mr. Bromwich that I had evidence to the contrary. I’ve checked that out again today, and I get the word that the data system is not a problem. I believe Mr. Bromwich is a good person -

GWEN IFILL: Let’s let Mr. Bromwich respond.

MICHAEL BROMWICH: I think there have been problems with the computer systems and the FBI is taking steps to remedy them. The problem us that those problems with their data systems have been known for a very long time, and too little has been done to remedy them quickly enough or to devise shortcuts around the known defects so that the important work of the FBI can go on, so what I see here is to a substantial degree a management failure.

What we have in the McVeigh case is 46 out of the 56 field divisions of the FBI failing to produce some documents, and with all due response to Mr. Sennett, that is a massive failure and a massive management failure that is not in one office or two offices or five offices but in forty-six out of the fifty-six offices. That suggests a major problem.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Revell, what about that, is there a major problem in the management culture at the FBI?

OLIVER REVELL: Well, certainly the failure to find and disclose those documents does – does bring to light a failure. There’s no question of that. It was not a willful failure, and I think that’s just what the special agent said in that case, and when the Bureau found out about it, it promptly disclosed it, but it is still a failure. Now, whether or not it was a personnel failure, a systems failure, that has to be determined, and that was exactly the point I’m making.

Before judgments are rendered, we need to know the facts, and that is certainly the responsibility of the investigative groups, the internal investigation, the IG investigation, and the oversight hearings, and before the Senators and Congressmen start essentially determining the responsibility, they need to determine what the facts are.

It may have been some individual personnel actions that were inappropriate, but it also may have been a system that was overwhelmed by data from a number of cases across the board. Remember this – we’re talking about — if you take every case that the Senator or Congressman Obey talked about, you’re talking about an infinitesimal number of cases related to the volume of cases that the FBI handles on an ongoing basis. Mistakes have to be recognized and corrected, but they should be kept in context.

GWEN IFILL: What about the notion, Mr. Revell, that there is a pattern which has developed over time involving Ruby Ridge and Waco and McVeigh and everything else – and Wen Ho Lee and the labs – do you think there’s any connection that could be made with all of those failures?

OLIVER REVELL: Well, they certainly were all significant problems for the Bureau in dealing with very different types of issues, and I think they need to be evaluated in that context. One case does not necessarily represent a failure in another area. In the – in the Bureau you need to consider each and every instance of a failure or a shortcoming and react accordingly and make sure that you don’t repeat those errors as they occur. But I can guarantee you there’s no agency in government or in private business that doesn’t make mistakes. It’s how you deal with those mistakes that’s important.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Sennett, today Director Freeh said that the FBI is the most heavily scrutinized agency in the Executive Branch. Do you think that it can stand more scrutiny?

JOHN SENNETT: I think that the FBI is scrutinized, as you say, very, very rigorously by several congressional oversight committees, by our own Office of Professional Responsibility, by the Department of Justice. I think every American understands that as Director Freeh said, that an agency like the FBI, in a democracy, requires constant scrutiny. I think the level of scrutiny at the present time is completely adequate and serves the American public very well.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Bromwich, if this could happen in the McVeigh case, the most celebrated death penalty case in decades, what might happen in other cases which just don’t have the same amount of attention? Is there any way of knowing that the same kind of mistakes that are made here could be made in countless other cases?

MICHAEL BROMWICH: I think the risks are greatest that these kind of mistakes will happen in large cases – the very large and significant cases that we pay the most attention to. Precisely because those are the cases in which the Bureau devotes lots of manpower and lots of resources too.

In the normal case that’s handled every day you have one or two or three agents who know where everything is, who know all of the documents that have been generated and have a handle on what’s going on. And just to respond to what’s been said before, I strongly disagree with the claim that the FBI is the most scrutinized and overseen agency in the government.

Indeed, the Justice Department Inspector General has very limited jurisdiction over the FBI and to my knowledge, it is the only IG that has its powers limited with respect to an agency under its supervision.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, greater danger of this sort of thing happening in low profile cases or greater danger in a high profile case like this?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Very high profile cases, and I think there’s four things that could be done to check that. No. 1, not have news conference up front, have the news conference after the work’s done, have it checked out, and you’re pretty sure that you’ve got the right information so you don’t embarrass the Department. Secondly, there ought to be an Inspector General just for the FBI, and I say that because I ran into that with the IRS not having an Inspector General and we’ve set one up and I think it’s done some good.

The FBI was too late giving whistle blower protection to their agents under a special bill I got passed in 1989. Ten years later they didn’t have those rules put out yet, so there is not a willingness to let people within the agency that know something is wrong to have whistleblower protections so that information can get out, and then lastly there ought to be more involvement in the personnel evaluation for promotion or for retention of the issue of objectivity of the agent so that we do – we do reward objectivity, because that’s scientific; that’s seeking the truth. When the FBI agents do the fundamentals, seek the truth, they do their job right.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you. Mr. Revell, do you agree with that?

OLIVER REVELL: Well, there are certain things that the Senator said I think I would agree with and others that I would not. I would simply comment that the FBI has had over the years perhaps the most rigorous inspection process in the entire government, and we – I sat on the presidential council. In fact, we investigated the IGs, so I don’t think that’s been a lack of standards. I think it’s a matter of application. Certainly -


OLIVER REVELL: — there can be fixes looked at, but overall it’s not broken, it simply needs to be fine tuned.

GWEN IFILL: We’re out of time. Thank you all for joining me.