The head of the Oklahoma City bombing investigation won promotion Tuesday to be deputy FBI director despite his recent censure for poor management of the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge which left three dead.
Larry Potts’ promotion to the FBI’s No. 2 position was announced less than a month after he received a Justice Department reprimand for “management omissions” during the standoff in North Idaho with white separatist Randy Weaver.
The decision by Attorney General Janet Reno to promote Potts was criticized immediately by the head of a militia organization as confirming the “worst nightmares” of disaffected Americans that their government is above the law.
The Oklahoma bombing has focused widespread attention on private military groups whose leaders have been accused by critics of encouraging violence by using virulent anti-government rhetoric. Two men being held as material witnesses once tried to join a militia.
Reno announced at the White House that she had accepted FBI Director Louis Freeh’s recommendation that Potts be made deputy director, a position he has held in an acting capacity since December.
“Mr. Potts has been directing the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing and the results to date are a tribute to his ability to coordinate a complex nationwide multi-agency investigation,” Reno told reporters. Potts has been directing the effort from FBI headquarters in Washington.
Reno called Potts “the very best the FBI has” and said that his promotion reflected a “long and distinguished career in law enforcement and the confidence the director has in him.”
In a statement, Freeh said “it is because Larry Potts has such great skills that I placed him in personal charge of the FBI’s priority investigation” of the Oklahoma City bombing.
But Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who has called for Senate hearings into the siege, said he was “very disappointed” by Reno’s decision. “I don’t dispute the total record of Mr. Potts. That isn’t the issue,” Craig said. “The issue is that failure to act in a clearly decisive way on his part caused … life to be taken, and for a jury of citizens of our society to look at that and to know that something was dramatically wrong here.”
“I still am convinced that Janet Reno does not recognize the type of message she sends to America today,” Craig said.
Samuel Sherwood, director of the U.S. Militia Association in Blackfoot, Idaho, and Gerry Spence, Weaver’s lawyers, said Potts’ promotion would only fan fears among Americans in the militia movement who believe the government is conspiring against them.
“If people feel those things, then she just confirmed their worst nightmares,” said Samuel Sherwood, director of the U.S. Militia Association in Blackfoot, Idaho. “This is a terribly immature and insensitive decision,” said Sherwood, whose group lobbies for the creation of citizens’ militias under the control of states.
Spence, who successfully defended Weaver against a charge of murdering a deputy marshal during the siege, said Reno had missed “a very good opportunity to restore people’s confidence in the FBI.”
The FBI has come under intense public criticism for its role in the siege, which began when authorities tried to arrest Weaver at his Ruby Ridge cabin for failure to appear in court on a federal weapons charge.
A deputy U.S. marshal and Weaver’s 14-year-old son were fatally shot. Later, Weaver’s unarmed wife, Vicki, was killed by an FBI sharpshooter and Weaver, himself was wounded during the subsequent standoff.
Freeh concluded that the shooting of Weaver’s wife was accidental.
Potts received the mildest punishment among several FBI officials who were disciplined for what the Justice Department found to be widespread errors in the bureau’s handling of the siege.
Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick found that Potts “did not adequately follow through to ensure that his intent with regard to the rules of engagement was properly reflected in the final rules.”
She criticized the FBI for exaggerating the nature of the threat posed by Weaver and for deploying sharpshooters before talking enough with the U.S. marshals who first attempted to arrest him.
Gorelick and Freeh both accepted Potts’ denial that he approved orders that agents “could and should” use deadly force against armed men in the open at the Weaver compound.
But Eugene Glenn, the FBI’s onscene commander of the siege, disputed Potts’ account in a sworn statement. Glenn swore that Potts approved the rules of engagement that the Justice Department’s investigation concluded were potentially unconstitutional. Longstanding FBI policy bars the use of lethal force except in self-defense.
Freeh concluded that those rules of engagement were never in force.
The Justice Department task force that investigated the siege recommended consideration of criminal charges in the shooting of Vicki Weaver, but the civil rights division subsequently found no basis to charge FBI sharpshooters with use of excessive force.