The suspended deputy director of the FBI told Congress on Thursday that he didn’t approve shoot-on-sight rules for Ruby Ridge or order shredding of related documents.
“I did not direct anyone to alter or destroy documents,” Larry Potts told a Senate panel investigating the 1992 siege at Randy Weaver’s North Idaho cabin.
Potts and four other senior FBI officials, including Danny Coulson and E. Michael Kahoe, were suspended in mid-August by FBI Director Louis Freeh.
The five now are at the center of a criminal investigation into the controversial shooting rules and an alleged cover-up of who had approved the rules.
Potts managed the Ruby Ridge siege from FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., but he contended the shooting rules were written by agents at the scene.
Potts said notes he took at the time would corroborate his testimony. The notes have not been made public and now are in the possession of the Justice Department.
He and Coulson testified in the third week of hearings before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. They both said they will be exonerated of wrongdoing.
Kahoe has admitted destroying FBI documents associated with the orders that allowed FBI snipers to shoot any armed adult outside Weaver’s cabin.
The rules were drafted after a deputy U.S. marshal and Weaver’s 14-year-old son had been shot and killed during a gunbattle at Ruby Ridge.
The following day, an FBI sniper shot and killed Weaver’s wife, Vicki, while she stood in the cabin doorway.
The destruction of the documents apparently occurred before Freeh gave Potts - his close friend - a mild rebuke last spring for the handling of the 11-day siege and then promoted him a month later to the No. 2 position at the FBI.
A March 7 letter from Freeh released Thursday shows Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick wanted to suspend Potts for a month, costing him $10,000.
“I am concerned about the impact this decision would have on my credibility as director,” Freeh said in the letter to Gorelick.
Freeh prevailed, and Potts got only a letter of censure.
But he and the four others were suspended in mid-August after the cover-up allegations surfaced, prompting the new criminal investigation and congressional hearings.
Potts and Coulson directly contradicted Richard Rogers, head of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, and Eugene Glenn, on-scene commander at Ruby Ridge, who said the shooting rules had been approved at headquarters.
“I know that the rules changed after they got out there,” Potts said of Glenn and Rogers.
Coulson said he saw the initial Ruby Ridge operations plan but immediately rejected it because it included no attempt to negotiate a surrender. Instead, it called for an assault on Weaver’s plywood home.
“An armored vehicle would destroy portions of the Weaver compound and insert tear gas into the cabin if the Weavers did not surrender,” Coulson said of the plan he rejected.
The operation plan’s second page contained the controversial “rules of engagement,” but Coulson said he either didn’t read that far or didn’t receive the page at headquarters.
Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., wanted to know why the “the world’s finest law enforcement agency” couldn’t figure out which of its commanders had approved the Ruby Ridge shooting orders.
“It is an embarrassment that we all feel,” Coulson replied.
Then he continued, “Senator, I think it’s also an embarrassment that we have to come here and testify.”
Even though the shooting rules violated FBI policy, Potts and Coulson said the FBI sniper was justified in firing a shot that wounded Randy Weaver and the second shot that wounded Kevin Harris and killed Vicki Weaver.
That brought an angry response from committee chairman Sen. Arlen Specter.
The Pennsylvania Republican said the second shot - fired while Weaver and Harris were running to the cabin - doesn’t square with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says deadly force can be used only when there is an immediate threat of grievous bodily harm.
“If this controversy continues, then those people (in the FBI) have to be replaced,” Specter told Coulson and Potts.
Both FBI officials said they viewed the siege as the most-dangerous situation ever encountered by the FBI.
“We had a situation where armed individuals had routed six well-trained marshals and killed one of them,” Coulson said. “I don’t know of a much more serious threat.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wanted to know why - if the Weaver siege was such a threat - Potts and Coulson remained behind at FBI headquarters.
“Well, I would have loved to have gone to the scene,” Potts replied, but he and Coulson said FBI procedures required they stay at headquarters.
By remaining behind, Feinstein said, it’s easier for Potts and Coulson to blame commanders at Ruby Ridge for the mistakes, including the shooting rules.
The Senate panel appeared frustrated at times by the testimony from the high-ranking FBI officials.
“So far, all the people that we’ve heard from the FBI, … nobody did anything wrong,” Kohl said.
With no one accepting responsibility, Kohl said he is “led to believe by the FBI that (the Ruby Ridge siege) was almost a model of conduct.”
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