In an emotional first appearance before Congress, the former suspect in the Olympic Park bombing depicted himself as a victim of horrific FBI misconduct and belittled as a lie the official Justice Department report on the incident.
Speaking in a soft Southern accent, onetime security guard Richard Jewell made the most of his appearance Wednesday before a House panel and insisted his fondest wish is to prevent his fate from befalling anyone else.
“The FBI and the media joined together to launch an attack on me of unparalleled proportion in the history of the nation, an attack calculated to portray me to the world as some type of abnormal person with a bizarre employment history who was guilty of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing,” Jewell told lawmakers. “It was all a lie.”
Jewell also took advantage of Wednesday’s highly charged session of the House Crime subcommittee, exactly one year after his now-infamous interrogation by FBI agents in Atlanta, to rip into a recently released Justice Department report on the FBI’s handling of the Jewell matter.
“That report is also a lie,” Jewell said of the account, which portrays the FBI agents in the case as bunglers but finds no evidence of malice. “It is filled with false statements, half-truths, and gross distortions of the truth.”
Jewell’s odyssey has been extraordinary. Three days after a bomb exploded in the midst of Olympic festivities, killing two people and injuring more than 100, Jewell’s name was leaked as a prime suspect. The man who had discovered the bomb found his life transformed into a nightmare.
Three months later, the FBI cleared him in the bombing case, which remains unsolved. Since then, the erstwhile villain has become a hero of civil libertarians on both the left and the right, who view him as a martyr at the hands of overzealous law enforcement.
That praise continued Wednesday as lawmakers vied with one another in heaping lavish praise on Jewell.
“Your tragedy saved your country,” said Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.). “I’m glad you’re still alive. Sometimes martyrs save their country in death.”
One year after the bombing, full details of the Jewell fiasco are only now emerging.
Atlanta FBI agents, according to the Justice Department report that was released Monday, devised a ruse to persuade Jewell to allow them to tape their interview with him: They told him they planned to use the footage in a training video.
But while the interview was in progress, FBI Director Louis Freeh, unaware of the ruse, called from Washington and ordered the agents to read Jewell his Miranda rights. When they did, Jewell immediately became suspicious, and the ploy fell apart.
The report blamed the FBI for a “major error in judgment.” But Jewell and the lawyers who appeared with him blasted the report as too soft on the FBI.
Michael Shaheen, who heads the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, staunchly defended the report. “We did an honest job,” Shaheen said.
University of Chicago law professor Albert Alschuler added spice to the hearing by testifying that the search warrant approved for Jewell’s home should never have been issued. Sarcastic and derisive, Alschuler argued that the “probable cause” required to issue a warrant was absent.
An affidavit, sworn out by FBI Agent Diader Rosario and obtained by the Chicago Tribune, justifies the warrant in part by enumerating suspicious-sounding elements of Jewell’s background that, taken together, implied he was an unreliable, weird loner.
The affidavit, for example, cites allegations that Jewell was fired as a sheriff’s deputy after wrecking several police cars in high-speed chases. It also quotes a Jewell acquaintance as saying that he was “totally engrossed in his job. He ate, slept and breathed it. He didn’t have a girlfriend, just the job.”
Using such a subjective portrait to obtain a warrant is dangerous, Alschuler warned, adding that nothing in the document actually tied Jewell to the bomb.
“The FBI affidavit almost entirely consisted of hearsay, hearsay-on-hearsay, rumor, opinion, innuendo, and amateur psychology,” Alschuler said. “If this affidavit warranted the search of Jewell’s apartment, anyone at the scene of a bombing who has struck some former associates as unstable, who once lost a job, and who received explosives training … can expect an FBI knock at the door.”
Among the most incendiary topics at Wednesday’s hearing was the leak that transformed Jewell into a nationwide villain. One radio host even called for his execution.
“Without the leak, Mr. Jewell’s reputation would not have been besmirched,” said Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “The dirty little secret is that large parts of the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s offices leak like a sieve.”
Jewell’s attorney G. Watson Bryant Jr., who accompanied him Wednesday, also became angry on the subject.
“What in the world would have happened if some fool, believing what he read in the paper, came up and killed this man or killed his mother?” Bryant asked.
“People that knew him would be damn mad that these people got murdered because some people in the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office can’t keep their damn mouth shut,” he said.
FBI representatives at the hearing did not directly respond to the attacks. They reiterated the bureau’s position that while the FBI made serious mistakes, the agents were well-intentioned.
Jewell, meanwhile, continued to portray himself as a heroic crusader for civil liberties.
“I believe my actions on the night of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing made a difference in the lives of many people and their families,” Jewell said. “I believe my efforts in seeking accountability from the media and the FBI can make a difference in the lives of many more.”
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