The 1992 shootout with North Idaho white separatist Randy Weaver now is haunting FBI Director Louis Freeh, even though he wasn’t directly involved in the case.
Freeh is facing one of the toughest challenges of his 18-month tenure by trying to promote a close associate as his No. 2 man, two months after censuring the man for his handling of the Weaver confrontation.
His choice as deputy director is 20-year FBI veteran Larry Potts. The 47-year-old is widely regarded as an exemplary agent and is Freeh’s top confidant.
For several months the Justice Department has resisted making Potts the deputy FBI director because of his involvement in the bloody Ruby Ridge shootout.
While Potts was in charge of overseeing the siege from FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., a bureau sniper near the Ruby Ridge cabin shot and killed Weaver’s wife, Vicki, as she held their 10-month-old baby.
Potts monitored the Ruby Ridge siege by telephone for 36 hours and left before the final rules of engagement were transmitted from Idaho to Washington, Freeh said.
Confusion exists on that point, however.
Attorney William Bransford, who represents Gene Glenn, the FBI’s on-scene commander at Ruby Ridge, said earlier this week that “there’s no question Potts was informed” of the rules. Bransford said Glenn discussed the matter with Potts over the telephone about five hours before the shooting.
A second agent, Richard Rodgers, former head of the hostage rescue team, testified at Weaver’s 1993 trial that he, too, obtained approval from Potts.
Freeh censured Rodgers and Glenn and temporarily suspended them from duty.
On the other side, Howard Shapiro, general counsel to the FBI, said Potts never authorized the use of the final rules of engagement at Ruby Ridge.
“Potts’ conversations amounted to (telling ground agents), ‘This is a dangerous situation that puts people at risk. Use the full scope of your lawful authority,”’ Shapiro said.
After a long administrative review, Freeh announced on Jan. 6 of this year that even though the Justice Department decided not to file criminal charges against any of the FBI participants, 12 agents including Potts would be disciplined.
Despite censuring Potts, Freeh said he would “enthusiastically” continue to support him in his bid to become the bureau’s permanent No. 2 official.
“My obligation is to put into that position someone who would become director if I dropped dead or get killed tomorrow,” Freeh said. “My certain conclusion is that he’s in the best position to do that.”
Freeh’s recommendation is now before Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, who did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern said Gorelick is reading all the material on the case “and that takes time.”
Freeh’s friendship with Potts is a complicating factor. It began in 1990 when Freeh, then deputy U.S. attorney in New York, was appointed to take over the investigation of the bombing deaths of a federal judge and a civil rights lawyer.
Potts was the chief FBI agent on the case and worked closely with Freeh. Their effort yielded a life sentence for the bomber.
Since becoming FBI director in September 1993, Freeh has gained a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, but he also is viewed with skepticism by some in the bureau for giving promotions or assignments to colleagues he knew from his years as an FBI agent or federal prosecutor in New York.
In the letter of censure, Freeh cited Potts for “failure to provide proper oversight with regard to the rules of engagement.”
Under guidelines set down in Supreme Court decisions, those rules generally permit the FBI to open fire only if the lives of agents or innocent persons are in danger.
At Ruby Ridge, the rules were changed so that snipers from the bureau’s elite hostage rescue team could open fire any time they saw an armed suspect out in the open.
FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi said when he fired the shot that killed Vicki Weaver, he was aiming at one of Randy Weaver’s followers, Kevin Harris. Horiuchi said Harris was taking aim at an FBI helicopter.
During their trial for murder and other charges, Weaver and Harris denied threatening the helicopter.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = From staff and wire reports Staff writer J. Todd Foster contributed to this report.