The Justice Department is investigating whether FBI officials destroyed records and misled authorities as part of a cover-up of the bureau’s actions in the bloody 1992 siege in North Idaho which led to the killing of white separatist Randy Weaver’s unarmed wife, sources familiar with the probe said Wednesday.
One high-ranking FBI official, E. Michael Kahoe, has been suspended after authorities alleged that he destroyed a document that could have altered the official account of what happened in the standoff on Aug. 22, 1992, the sources said. Kahoe was then a section chief in the criminal investigative division at FBI headquarters and prepared a report reviewing the circumstances of Vicki Weaver’s death. He now heads the FBI field office in Jacksonville, Fla.
But the sources said Wednesday that the actions of other FBI officials, including Larry Potts, who supervised the Idaho siege, also could be examined in the probe. The document, shredded within weeks of the incident, could have shed light on decisions made by Potts and other top officials about the “rules of engagement” to be used when the FBI’s hostage rescue team stormed Weaver’s heavily fortified mountain cabin, sources say. The FBI authorized the raid in response to the slaying of a U.S. marshal who had been shot while trying to arrest Weaver.
If allegations of document tampering in such a high-profile case prove true, that could precipitate a major crisis for FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who is personally close to Potts and has supported and promoted him despite serious criticism of his supervision of the Ruby Ridge confrontation.
Indeed, Freeh insisted on elevating Potts to the No. 2 post in the bureau after Freeh himself had censured Potts for his handling of the confrontation.
Freeh has enjoyed unusual political support throughout Washington as he has moved to put his stamp on the bureau. But evidence that a high-profile investigation was tainted could damage his credibility.
In concluding the FBI’s administrative review last January, Freeh reprimanded Potts and 11 others and said the “rules of engagement” drawn up for the showdown “were poorly drafted, confusing and can be read to direct agents to act contrary to law and FBI policy.”
But Freeh concluded that no criminal conduct was involved and that Vicki Weaver was hit accidentally by a sniper bullet. Freeh maintained that “the FBI sniper’s decision to shoot was guided by the FBI’s policy permitting the use of deadly force in self-defense or the defense of others and not the rules of engagement.”
Late Wednesday, after inquiries by The Washington Post, FBI officials publicly acknowledged the new fullscale investigation of the events surrounding the shootout at Ruby Ridge. One Justice Department official suggested that the probe has taken a serious and “ominous” turn. A spokesman for Kahoe’s office said Kahoe was not at work Wednesday.
“If there is any wrongdoing by FBI employees uncovered by the new investigation, it will result in firm FBI action,” Freeh said in a statement. “The FBI must be held to the highest standards.”
The new investigation could not come at a worse time for the bureau, which faces a potentially explosive congressional investigation next week into its handling of another deadly standoff - the 1993 confrontation with the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas. Law enforcement missteps at Waco and Ruby Ridge have become the focus of anger and fears of conservative critics of the federal government.
On Monday, Freeh met privately with a select group of congressional leaders to discuss the new Weaver investigation and its implications. FBI officials are worried that the latest development will fuel conspiracy theories about federal law enforcement overreaching which have raced through right-wing militia groups and their supporters. The probe also could have an impact on the local criminal investigation of FBI conduct under way in Boundary County, the site of the Weaver shooting.
An administration official said the Justice Department informed the White House counsel’s office of the investigation Tuesday night. The White House and other agencies have been heavily involved in trying to play down next week’s hearings on the Waco raid as an unwarranted attack on the credibility of federal law enforcement agencies. The official said this problem “comes at absolutely the wrong time” because it will give credence to conspiracy theories about federal agents.
The allegations of FBI misconduct grew out of the shooting death of Vicki Weaver as she stood unarmed in the doorway of the remote Idaho cabin. A day earlier, a federal marshal and Weaver’s 14-year-old son had been killed in a shootout involving her husband, Randy, and a friend of the family, Kevin Harris.
The FBI dispatched its elite hostage rescue team to the site, and Potts later deemed the Ruby Ridge standoff “the most dangerous situation into which the (hostage rescue team) had ever gone,” according to newly available Justice Department documents.
Potts, then based in Washington, and Richard Rogers, head of the hostage rescue team, agreed that the situation demanded enhanced instructions to snipers about when and at whom they could fire, according to court records. Later, there was much confusion about whether the snipers actually had “shoot-on-sight” orders.
Internal reviews criticized the policy as far exceeding acceptable law enforcement boundaries and constitutional guidelines for the use of deadly force. Under normal rules, FBI agents may use their weapons only to protect their lives or the lives of others if they feel they are in danger of serious bodily harm.
Last year, a Justice Department task force criticized the FBI’s actions during the incident, immediately after it and in court proceedings.
The task force concluded that the bureau’s conduct “contravened the constitution” and that criminal charges should be considered against the responsible agents. It also found that the bureau had failed to adequately use negotiators, had communication problems between command and headquarters and had failed to adequately document decisions. In addition, the report held that FBI officials failed to adequately cooperate with prosecutors once the standoff had ended.
The task force report was forwarded for comment to the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the Civil Rights Division. Those offices, in their evaluations, held that no criminal conduct took place.
Freeh’s final conclusions in January largely confirmed the Office of Professional Responsibility’s review. He termed the incident an accident while acknowledging blunders and concluding that FBI officials had demonstrated “inadequate performance, improper judgment, neglect of duty and failure to exert proper managerial oversight.”
The Justice Department suspended Kahoe for 15 days, criticizing him for an incomplete review of the Vicki Weaver shooting. Potts was given a letter of censure for improper supervision. But Freeh, in pushing Potts for the No. 2 job, said he retained full confidence in Potts’s abilities.
The recommendation for Potts’ promotion subsequently was approved by Attorney General Janet Reno despite questions about his role in approving the rules of engagement at Ruby Ridge. Potts denied ever approving them, but he was challenged by two senior FBI officials, including Eugene F. Glenn, the on-scene commander at Ruby Ridge.
Glenn, who received the stiffest disciplinary action meted out, challenged the bureau’s inquiry as unfair and distorted. Glenn’s recent complaints led the Office of Professional Responsbility to reopen the inquiry into FBI conduct.