KWAME HOLMAN: This morning when FBI Director Louis Freeh walked into a Senate hearing on oversight of the FBI, a contentious session was expected. The FBI has been criticized on several issues in recent months, including serious problems with the handling of evidence at the FBI's forensic laboratory, the still unresolved investigation into what caused the crash of TWA's Flight 800 and FBI agents' interrogation of security guard Richard Jewell after last summer's Olympic bombing. Freeh also has disagreed publicly both with the White House and the Justice Department. Last month, the "Washington Post" reported Freeh recommended to Attorney General Janet Reno that she seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Democratic campaign fund-raising. Justice Department officials currently are investigating the matter.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, (R) Pennsylvania: I would ask at this time if you did give the attorney general your judgment that there ought to be independent counsel appointed.
LOUIS FREEH, FBI Director: Sir, I certainly understand the import of the question. It is certainly an important matter. With the greatest respect, however, my view is that the views that I've given the attorney general, which she has asked for on this matter, in particular, are really confidential discussions.
KWAME HOLMAN: In spite of the controversy, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch's approach to the questioning was typical of the tone of today's hearing.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH, Chairman, (R) Utah: We appreciate the pluses and minuses and the difficulties and the successes that the FBI's had. Like every large organization, you're going to have a lot of those. But you've handled them all with aplomb. You've handled them all with skill. You've handled them all, it seems to me, with courage, and certainly with integrity in every way. And I personally appreciate it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Hatch also praised the FBI's handling of the investigation into the Oklahoma City federal building bombing.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: I know that the director must take pride in the successful prosecution of that case because the bureau played a pivotal and very important role in the investigation and in the case, itself. The successful handling of the Oklahoma City case shows that the FBI is capable of high quality investigative work.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson raised the latest embarrassing issue for the FBI--the theft yesterday of an FBI van in Memphis containing automatic weapons and ammunition. The burned out van, but no weapons, since has been recovered.
SEN. FRED THOMPSON, (R) Tennessee: What can you tell us about that in terms of your own regulations, in terms of where the investigation stands, in terms of public safety and security, in that area right now?
LOUIS FREEH: Yes, Senator. We certainly have put on a full court press to try to immediately retrieve and find those weapons, which are very dangerous weapons, as you described them. We also have initiated an internal inquiry to look at the facts and circumstances to see exactly what happened and whether or not any of our regulations were violated.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa sharply criticized Freeh for the suspension of Federick Whitehurst, the FBI scientist agent who first made allegations about poor handling of evidence in the FBI's lab.
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY, (R) Iowa: I can't tell you how many people come up to me puzzled about why the messenger is being shot since he pointed out the wrongdoing.
LOUIS FREEH: Senator, I certainly don't think that Dr. Whitehurst is the problem. I never have, and I've never either said or promoted or supported that. We are thankful for the matters which were raised in part by Mr. Whitehurst.
KWAME HOLMAN: In the end, both Director Freeh and several Senators expressed the belief such problems now are things of the past for the FBI.