Under very hostile questioning from congressional Republicans, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh testified Wednesday that no criminal cases will be compromised by reports of widespread problems at the bureau’s troubled crime laboratory in Washington.
Freeh’s comments suggest that the government’s high-profile cases against the Oklahoma City bombing defendants and the accused Unabomber, plus as many as 50 other criminal cases, will not be jeopardized by reports of sloppy and incompetent lab work at FBI headquarters.
Speaking before a House Appropriations subcommittee, ostensibly to lay out the FBI’s budget request for the upcoming fiscal year, Freeh was forced to defend his leadership as the nation’s top police official.
Challenged by panel Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the steamed FBI director shot back that after 21 years of government service, his independence and integrity remain intact.
“If I can’t succeed in that, or if you lose confidence in my integrity, then I shouldn’t be FBI director,” Freeh told Rogers.
Basing his comments about the lab on a draft report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, and with the final report expected soon, Freeh said, “I know of no FBI government case that has been or will be compromised.”
“I’ve read the draft report,” he said. “I’ve spoken to the FBI individuals who have furnished the response back to the department. I’ve even spoken to a couple of the prosecutors in the cases affected.
“And I have no knowledge and no belief at this point that any of our FBI investigations have been compromised or jeopardized, either past, present or to come,” he added.
But Freeh said it nevertheless “has become necessary” for Justice Department officials to inform federal prosecutors in about 50 cases of potential problems with evidence that should be shared with defense lawyers.
Freeh did not identify any of those cases, but said he did not expect the evidentiary problems to derail any prosecutions.
Freeh also strongly defended his decision to remove from the lab the FBI agent-turned-whistleblower who first raised the allegations about conditions there. Frederic Whitehurst, who is expected to be a key defense witness in the trial of Oklahoma City bombing defendant Timothy J. McVeigh, was removed at the behest of the department’s inspector general, he said.
He said the bureau has been apprised of the inspector general’s findings regarding Whitehurst. And he told Rogers: “When that’s public, I think you will be satisfied with it.”
Throughout the raucous, two-hour session, Rogers and other Republicans chastised Freeh and the bureau for their failure to solve the downing of TWA Flight 800 in New York and the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
They sharply criticized him for the way the bureau leaked the name of Richard Jewell, a private security guard, as the key suspect in the Olympics bombing.
The GOP members also complained that about 180,000 immigrants were naturalized as U.S. citizens last year before the FBI could conduct proper background and fingerprinting checks to determine if they had prior criminal records.
The Republicans charged that there was a rush by the Clinton administration to naturalize immigrants in order to win new Democratic voters in last year’s elections.
Freeh responded by asking for additional funds to bolster the FBI’s background-checking process for immigrants. But Rogers angrily cut him off.
Last year’s problems should be corrected first, he said. “Until we get this mess cleaned up,” Rogers vowed, “don’t expect a penny.”