TOPICS > Politics

Handle With Care

June 4, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, Senate hearings on the FBI and some judicial matters, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: The last time FBI Director Louis Freeh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee he was grilled about the Bureau’s handling of the investigation of Richard Jewell in the Atlanta bombing case. Freeh was back before the committee today, giving an accounting of the FBI’s activities across the board. And the reception was considerably different. Kwame Holman has our report.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the issues raised in today’s FBI hearing and on other matters of concern to the Judiciary Committee we’re joined by its chairman and its ranking Democratic member, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Welcome, gentlemen. Senator Hatch, has the FBI, do you think, gone a long way to redeem itself through its handling of the Oklahoma bombing case?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH, Chairman, Judiciary Committee: Well, I don’t think anybody could doubt that. That was well handled. The prosecution was well handled, and the results speak for themselves. I think Director Freeh did a great job, as did others at the FBI. But I think since he has taken over, he inherited a lot of problems, and he’s worked steadily to try and resolve those problems, and I think to a large degree has. There’s been a blip here and there. There have been some failures here and there, but the fact is, it’s a tough agency to handle, and he’s done a very good job.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Sen. Leahy, do you agree with all that?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D) Vermont: I do, and I think you look at some of the things that have happened here. The handling of the Montana standoff with the militia out there, it was handled very, very well. It took a long time, but finally settled peacefully, and I think that’s great because it follows new procedures, especially the procedures after Ruby Ridge. Now Ruby Ridge was something that Director Freeh inherited. He improved the situation, determined how that would be handled. And, of course, Oklahoma is an example of things being done right, including having a judge try the case the way it should be tried.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Hatch, there were concerns, of course, before the trial that the problems at the FBI lab which were detailed two months ago in an inspector general report would undermine a case. What’s your understanding about why that didn’t happen?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, as you can see, they didn’t undermine the case. The case was skillfully presented by an excellent prosecutor, and with the backup of the FBI in an appropriate way. Again, that was a problem, or those were problems that Director Freeh basically inherited, and he has been working steadily to resolve them. The computer problems at the FBI were matters of great concern, and he’s basically got those now solved. And you could go right on down the line and some of the deficiencies that the FBI’s had through the years, basically they’re all being solved, and I think it’s because of good energetic leadership and directing by the current director. He’s an excellent FBI director. He’s a man of integrity. He’s a person that you can rely on.


SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I think if there’s going to be any one major area that he should be looking at now and is looking at it is the FBI lab in Oklahoma, of course, had to bring in somebody from England to testify. But that should be set aside as an independent–as independent as possible with other scientific leadership. And I think that’s going to be done because it’s not just the FBI that relies on the FBI lab, but its state and local prosecutors and police agencies all over this country.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Sen. Leahy, what about the broader issue of domestic terrorism, combating domestic terrorism, do you think the FBI today is better equipped to prevent incidents than say it was two years ago at the time of the bombing?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: It certainly has a lot more people, and it is getting better. The thing is, of course, you can’t broadcast some of the things that we’ve prevented from happening. There are a number of issues that Sen. Hatch and I may get advised on that are not made public because they want to prevent even further ones. But I think they are getting better, and I think that domestic terrorism, whether it’s directed by people in the United States or people abroad, is one of the greatest threats this country faces. It’s the thing that the FBI has to be most on guard for. And I believe they are doing that.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Sen. Hatch, your view on that, on how well equipped the FBI is in that regard.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, literally, you don’t hear the thousands of cases that they actually–not necessarily in the terrorism area–but they actually saw resolved. But in the terrorism area just last year they’ve prevented a number of attempts to bring down aircraft. They’ve prevented a number of other terrorist activities. They captured overseas and elsewhere terrorists and have brought them to justice. They’re doing a very good job. There’s no way you can be absolutely certain that we can catch every attempt toward terrorism, but this director is not only doing it here domestically, but he’s got–he’s got facilities and capabilities worldwide that really were never utilized before, and I just have to say you can point to some flaws in every organization and some faults, but overall, I think we’re getting a very, very good leadership of the FBI.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, now, Senators, let’s move on to another issue in which I don’t believe there’s quite as much agreement between you. And that’s the issue of the high number of vacancies in the federal judiciary. And we have a graphic to put up that outlines the scope of the situation. According to the administrative offices and U.S. courts, out of 844 federal district and appeals court judgeships around the country 98 are currently vacant. Your judiciary committee and the full Senate have confirmed five of President Clinton’s nominees to the bench this year, and there are an additional twenty-one judicial nominations pending before your committee right now. Senator Leahy, is this an unusual number of vacancies, and what impact is this having?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, the chief justice says that it is a very large number, and, of course, it is, and it’s causing a–a crisis. Unfortunately, I agree with the Republican leadership, especially in the House, trying first to shut down the executive branch a year and a half ago–that didn’t go over very well with the American public when they closed down the government. Now there seems to be an effort and some in the Senate to close down or to tamper with the independence of the federal judiciary by not allowing nominations to go through. And we’ve had only one more confirmation than we’ve had vacations so far this year in the Senate. I don’t fault Senator Hatch, but I did take to the floor in what I’m told is an extremely unusual thing and elected the Senate Majority Leader on this, Senator Lott, and said that it’s his responsibility as leader to do what great leaders in the past, Sen. Mansfield, Sen. Baker, Sen. Byrd, Sen. Dole, Sen. Mitchell, had done, and that is whether it’s a Republican or Democrat president, bring the judges up and vote on ’em. If you don’t like ’em, vote against ’em. But don’t keep ’em bottled up and never let them come to a vote.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Hatch, why aren’t they being voted on?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, now, I think you’ve got to look at the facts. We confirmed in the first four years of the Clinton administration more judges than we did in the Bush, Reagan, Nixon, Ford administrations; 202 judges, about a quarter of the total federal judiciary. So we confirmed them, but I have to tell you, with the end of the last Congress there were 65 vacancies. At the end of the Congress before that, when Sen. Biden was chairman, there was 63. And the Justice Department said that the federal courts were virtually full. So I didn’t say much different. The problem is we’ve had an unprecedented number of retirements since then–36. But you know, even with all of that, there’s no way we can confirm people who haven’t even been nominated. Of the 98 remaining judgeships, there are 75 for which we do not even have a nominee. So we have basically about 18 judges or 18 nominees that are sitting in the committee. Last year they only nominated 21. We confirmed 17. And we would have confirmed four more had it not been–had it not been for Democrat objections last year. There were a couple of Senators who weren’t getting their judges, so they–

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: You only confirmed about five of the twenty or so that were sent up last year, and at this point, they’re confirming one a month.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, let me–

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Nobody’s going to be–don’t talk about the ones that haven’t come up. Let’s do something–let’s do some of the ones that are there. We have Margaret Morel, a woman, superbly well qualified, from California. She went to the committee unanimously last year. She’s brought back again this year, and then she’s asked, how did you vote on this, how did you vote on that, how did you vote in a secret ballot, and she’s just been nibbled to death by ducks up here. It is absolutely outrageous. It is–and as the news media has reported–it is an attempt by some in the Republican caucus of the Senate, who want to stop judges from going through. They ignore the fact that the President got elected.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Let me tell you something.

MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, let me break in here. Sen. Hatch, is that what Republicans are trying to do here, which is–

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Of course not.

MARGARET WARNER: –maintain some kind of ideological control over the bench, even though you’ve got a Democratic president.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Of course not. The fact of the matter is, is that–is that of the twenty-one judges there are three we don’t even have the paper work on, so there are only eighteen judges left, but every one of them has some problem with paper work or some other problem that–that has come up, almost every one of them. Margaret Morel will be on the next mark-up. We’ve actually put out of the committee ten judgeship nominations this year. Compare that to the past. In 1993, we had at this time zero judges.


SEN. ORRIN HATCH: During a Democrat-controlled Senate Committee. In 1991, twelve; in 1989, four; in 1987, eleven. We’ve–


SEN. ORRIN HATCH: The important thing that you need to know is we can’t confirm people if they’re not up here. And we have 75 vacancies without any nominees. So all this griping, it seems to me, is out of place. Now, let me just say this: Senator Leahy has a job to do. He’s ranking member on this committee, and he’s concerned about judges, as am I. And I want to fill these vacancies, but it isn’t a numbers game. If the President will send people up who are qualified, who really do have good reputations and so forth and who do not have problems, they’re going to go through quickly, like Mr. Dole, who was sent up from Florida in February, we’ve already had his hearing, we’ve already put him out–

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: He hasn’t been confirmed yet, though.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: No. But he’s–

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: But he has not been confirmed. And this is the point. To say that they’re up here–they haven’t been confirmed. You take Merit Garland, a person you yourself said was extraordinarily well qualified–


SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: And yet you had people who held him up and held up him up and then you had a couple of dozen or so Republicans who voted against him and those who were asked will say, well, he’s well qualified, but we have to do this. Have to? Why? Because there were fund-raising letters going out by Republican activists saying help us stop all Clinton judges. You have House members–Republican House members–who say that judges should be impeached because the House member happens to disagree with them. You have others who say, well, let’s have the Congress vote on every single judicial nomination. What is happening is an attempt to undermine the independence of the federal judiciary, an independence that is honored and admired all over the world. And I think it’s wrong. I’m not blaming Sen. Hatch for this, but he–if you open the doors of the Republican caucus, you will find that the Republican members say that they have got to slow down any judges by President Clinton, even though he won the election.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask–Sen. Hatch, is it the case–setting aside yourself–are there many members of your Republican caucus who, in fact, are doing this for ideological and political reasons?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I don’t think so. In 1991, at this time of the year, there were 148 vacancies when the Democrats controlled the committee. We have 98. I didn’t hear one gripe. I didn’t hear one news report. I didn’t hear one–I didn’t read one article in a newspaper about how terrible it was. In 1992, there were 117 vacancies at this time, but–

MARGARET WARNER: I don’t want to lose our viewers in all these numbers. You’re saying it’s just strictly a question of getting the paper work done.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: We’re not–

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Here are the numbers. Here are the numbers that show very clearly how this has been–

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, I’d like to be able to–


SEN. ORRIN HATCH: We’re not–we’re not losing the viewers in the numbers. What I’m telling you is that we cannot confirm people who are not nominated. The ones that are–a number of them have problems. We have put through as many as–to the committee–as many as of this date as most committees have in the past. And the fact is we’re moving ahead with dispatch. Yes, I’m sure there are some–I’m sure there are some, like there were many on the Democrat side who didn’t like Reagan and Bush nominees. But I’m sure there are some on our side who have difficulty with Clinton nominees, but I can tell you this–we have done a very good job on the committee, and we’re going to continue to do it, and frankly, I would like to see some real figures. These statistics are important because if you have 75 vacancies without nominees of the 98 that only leaves a few who haven’t been filled. So–

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: But at the rate that it’s going it would take two years just to do–

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: It’s taken the President–


SEN. ORRIN HATCH: It’s taken the President–


MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, I’m sorry. At the rate we’re going we’re out of time ourselves. So thank you very much. I’m sure we’ll come back to this.