The FBI’s commander at a 1992 standoff with white separatist Randy Weaver in North Idaho charges in a letter to the Justice Department that the FBI’s review of the operation is a cover-up intended to shield top officials, including a trusted top aide to FBI Director Louis J. Freeh.
The commander, Eugene F. Glenn, charges that the FBI review blamed him for managerial lapses in the Idaho operation and sought to let off Freeh’s top aide, Larry A. Potts, with a mild rebuke. Potts recently was promoted to be the FBI’s deputy director.
Potts’ role in the standoff and his promotion, approved last week by Attorney General Janet Reno, have been the subject of criticism by Republican lawmakers.
On Sunday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized Potts’ actions in the North Idaho incident and the tear gas assault at Waco, Texas, in April 1993, which ended with a disastrous fire and the deaths of more than 80 Branch Davidians.
Among some conservatives, both events have become symbols of overzealous law enforcement, and prosecutors have said that Waco appeared to have motivated the only suspect charged in the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh.
Potts helped draft the plan for the Waco assault and was the primary supervisor from Washington in the standoff with Weaver. Potts now has overall responsibility for the Oklahoma City investigation.
The May 3 letter by Glenn, the agent in charge of the FBI’s Salt Lake City office, represents a highly unusual breaking of senior ranks. The FBI review it criticizes was described by Freeh in January as a “careful and thorough” assessment of the facts.
Glenn said in his letter, addressed to Michael E. Shaheen, head of the Office of Responsibility at the Justice Department, that the review is incomplete, inaccurate and undercut by flaws that “reveal a purpose to create scapegoats and false impressions.”
The Office of Professional Responsibility investigates charges of misconduct against the department’s lawyers and investigators. The letter was given to a reporter by people who have questions about the FBI’s handling of the Idaho incident. Glenn’s lawyer, William L. Bransford, would not comment on the letter.
Howard Shapiro, the FBI’s general counsel, said Glenn’s charges were groundless. “To make these baseless accusations at a time when there is such overwhelmingly important work to be done is absolutely irresponsible and destructive to the FBI,” Shapiro said in an interview Tuesday. “Despite their apparent baselessness, Mr. Glenn’s accusations will be fully reviewed and carefully considered by the Department of Justice.”
The bureau’s confrontation with Weaver on River Ridge occurred after a shootout in which a federal marshal and Weaver’s son were killed. In response, the FBI sent its Hostage Rescue Team, a 50-person team of assault specialists and sharpshooters, to Weaver’s mountainside cabin on Ruby Ridge. The next day a FBI sniper shot and killed Weaver’s wife, Vicki.
Vicki Weaver was shot while standing in the door of the cabin holding her child. Freeh concluded that her death was a tragic accident that did not warrant any disciplinary action. He found that the sharpshooter who killed her was justified under the FBI’s standard deadly force policy, which allows agents to shoot when they believe they are under an imminent threat of harm.
But Weaver’s lawyers said later that she was shot after FBI officials decided to loosen the rules restricting use of lethal force just for this operation. And they contended that the rules, which some agents later said was a “shoot on sight” policy, was part of an overly aggressive federal response that almost inevitably led to the shooting.
Based on the review, Freeh in January recommended discipline for 12 FBI employees, reserving the harshest for Glenn. The director said Glenn should be removed from his field command, suspended for 15 days and reassigned to FBI headquarters. The Justice Department has not yet ruled on the recommendation.
Freeh has subjected Potts to a milder rebuke - a letter of censure for failing to provide proper managerial oversight regarding the rules of engagement.
In his letter, Glenn contended that he was not asked who had written and approved the rules of engagement. He said the FBI review was biased because the agent chosen to lead it was Charles Mathews, a close associate and one-time subordinate of Danny O. Coulson, who was Potts’ chief deputy during the siege on Ruby Ridge. Glenn referred to Mathews as an “A-SAC,” a title that means assistant special agent in charge.
“The only logical conclusion that can be drawn to explain the deception and lack of completeness in this investigation is that A-SAC Mathews’ relationship with Coulson caused him to avoid the development of the necessary facts, and caused him to cover up facts germane to the central issues.”
Glenn also said that two unidentified witnesses at FBI headquarters who were in the agency’s top secret command center during the standoff have information about the rules, suggesting that they could shed light on who approved the change.
One, Glenn said, was a high-level official, and the other was a midlevel supervisor, who overheard Coulson discussing the rules with another FBI employee.
Shapiro said Potts deserved to be promoted to the deputy’s position. “It remains the unwavering position of the FBI that Larry Potts is exceptionally qualified to be deputy director as demonstrated by his long career in public service his exemplary talents and his thorough-going professionalism.”
In recent days, Republican lawmakers have said they would hold hearings on the incidents at Waco and Idaho.
But Tuesday two veteran Republican senators assailed each other as political opportunists about the timing of such hearings and who should hold them.
Last week, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the House should take the lead in re-examining Waco.
Soon afterward, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a presidential aspirant, announced that his terrorism subcommittee would hold a hearing on May 18 to review the government’s tear-gas assault at Waco and its actions at Ruby Ridge.
Hatch questioned Specter’s approach in a Monday letter that was released Tuesday, saying, “The hearing you propose is an important one, but I believe that it is unrelated, in any true sense, to the broader issue of the prevention of domestic terrorism.”
Tuesday, in a statement on the Senate floor, Specter defended his panel’s jurisdiction, saying, “I do think it is important that hearings proceed and that other senators and the public be aware of the status of this matter.”
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