FBI Director Louis J. Freeh removed his chief deputy, Larry A. Potts, Friday, saying that Potts “is unable to effectively perform his duties as deputy director” because of controversy over his supervision of the deadly 1992 Randy Weaver siege in Idaho.
Potts was transferred to the FBI’s training division in Quantico, Va., as criticism mounted over the bureau’s handling of an internal probe of the Idaho incident, in which Weaver’s unarmed wife, Vicki, was killed by an FBI sniper.
The sniper swore that he did not see her and was aiming at a man fleeing the sniper’s first shot.
Allegations that top FBI officials may have misled investigators and destroyed a crucial document describing key decisions about the use of force left Freeh in the awkward position of asking for a new independent probe of his high-ranking aides.
Freeh’s judgment in supporting Potts also had been called into question. He pushed Potts for the No. 2 job earlier this year after reprimanding him and 11 other senior agents and employees for their roles in the Idaho standoff, which occurred before Freeh took office. Potts, he said, inadequately supervised the FBI during the standoff.
Freeh maintained in making Potts his deputy that he had full confidence in the 20-year FBI veteran and urged Attorney General Janet Reno to approve the promotion. A seasoned investigator, Potts, 47, quickly took command of the largest investigation in FBI history: the terrorist bombing of a federal building last April in Oklahoma City.
Potts’ abrupt removal came even as he and other high-ranking FBI agents braced for harsh questioning next week at congressional hearings into another law enforcement tragedy: the 1993 confrontation at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Potts also supervised the FBI’s morning tear-gas assault intended to force out leader David Koresh and his followers. The plan went awry when fire broke out, leaving about 80 people dead.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, promised Friday to hold an initial hearing on the Ruby Ridge, Idaho, siege next Friday and more extensive hearings in September.
“Freeh knows his reputation is on the line,” Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said shortly before the announcement was made. “He came into this town with a mantle of integrity, and he’s determined not to lose it.”
The new Justice Department investigation into Ruby Ridge was triggered by a complaint from Eugene F. Glenn, former agent in charge of the FBI’s Salt Lake City office, who was top-ranking official on the ground at Ruby Ridge and who received the severest penalty Freeh meted out: a 15-day suspension, censure and reassignment to Washington. He charged that the FBI review had been unfair and was distorted to protect Potts and others.
In the Idaho incident, an FBI sniper’s bullet killed Vicki Weaver as she stood unarmed in the doorway of her remote cabin holding her 10-month-old infant. Bureau officials, including Potts, came under scrutiny as investigators tried to dissect how agents from the hostage rescue team came to employ a “shoot on sight” policy. Subsequent Justice Department internal reviews found the guidelines used in the Idaho incident went far beyond accepted law enforcement and constitutional guidelines.
Potts denied ever approving the Ruby Ridge guidelines, but Glenn and another senior FBI official have sworn that he did.
In his May letter to the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, Glenn called the FBI internal review flawed and skewed to find scapegoats rather than the truth.
Justice Department officials say they began a new investigation of the case after receiving Glenn’s complaint. Earlier this week, news reports disclosed that a probe was under way and it was focusing on allegations that senior FBI officials destroyed records and misled authorities as they reviewed the siege.
One document known to have been destroyed could have shed light on decisions made by Potts and other top officials about the instructions given to the snipers, according to sources. A senior FBI official, E. Michael Kahoe, who now heads the Jacksonville, Fla., field office, was suspended after the document destruction was discovered.
Hatch, one of Freeh’s biggest boosters on Capitol Hill, said the FBI director had taken complaints of a cover-up at Ruby Ridge seriously. Hatch said his committee began looking into the controversy “in earnest” around the same time and he vowed to hold “tough hearings” in September when Congress returns from its summer recess.
The House subcommittee on crime, headed by Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., also has announced plans for Ruby Ridge hearings in the fall.
Earlier investigations by the Justice Department and the FBI of the 1992 siege and the subsequent trial of Weaver uncovered one flaw after another, on the part of federal prosecutors in Idaho and the U.S. Marshals Service as well as the FBI.
According to an April 5, 1995, summary memo by Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick, the inquiries showed “misconduct before the grand jury” by the U.S. attorney’s office in Idaho, lack of cooperation between the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office, and an inadequate internal investigation by the FBI of the killing of Vicki Weaver.
A Justice Department review team cited “persistent intransigence … by FBI headquarters personnel” in producing several significant documents needed for trial.
For his part, Freeh said in January that a dozen FBI employees, including Potts, “demonstrated inadequate performance, improper judgment, neglect of duty and failure to exert proper managerial oversight.”