WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, in an unusual session that one participant described as "a real bloodletting," Wednesday ordered the heads of three Justice Department agencies to end their opposition to a compromise he had worked out on legislation overhauling the department's inspector-general powers.
Thornburgh's edict to the heads of the Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Naturalization Service and Marshals Service followed steps he had taken earlier to prevent the FBI from differing with the Administration's stand on a gun control issue and to monitor contacts between high department officials and reporters.
"He's moving to take control of the place and see that we speak with one voice," said one official familiar with the actions. The moves by Thornburgh, who took office last month after the resignation of Edwin Meese III, indicate that he does not consider himself to be a caretaker attorney general.
Those involved in the session Wednesday included Alan C. Nelson, INS commissioner; J. Michael Quinlan, the prisons director; and Stanley E. Morris, the marshals' director. They had requested the meeting in an 11th-hour attempt to block creation of an inspector general for the department, a move that would strip their agencies of their own internal inspection and audit powers.
Meet With Lawmakers
The three officials had met Tuesday with representatives of a congressional conference committee that is working on legislation to create the post and argued against a deal that had been accepted provisionally by Thornburgh.
The three officials pleaded with the attorney general to make one more telephone call to Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, to ask for changes in the legislation. Thornburgh at first indicated to them that he would consider their request reluctantly but minutes later decided that he would make no such call, according to participants in the meeting.
The compromise accepted by Thornburgh would retain the Office of Professional Responsibility for investigations of major wrongdoing inside the department. But it would create an inspector general to handle all audits and matters that the office does not have the staff to tackle, and it would eliminate the internal inspection units of the three agencies.
The dispute with the FBI over the Administration's gun control position concerned a measure passed by the House last week ordering the Justice Department to develop a computer fingerprint identification system that would allow gun dealers to check instantly whether a prospective gun purchaser is a convicted felon. The Administration chose not to oppose the measure, but the FBI had planned to lobby against it.
Milton Ahlerich, assistant FBI director for congressional and public affairs, prepared a letter expressing the FBI's opposition, but his efforts were blocked by department officials.
Loye Miller, the department's director of public affairs, said that it was made clear to FBI officials "as bluntly as it could be" that the letter should not be sent.
Thornburgh's attempts to monitor contacts between Justice Department officials and the press came to light when Robert S. Ross Jr., Thornburgh's executive assistant, raised questions about a lunch that Acting Associate Atty. Gen. Francis A. Keating II had with a reporter last week.
Ross said that the questions resulted from Thornburgh's "desire to speak to the Congress and the press with the knowledge and the authority of the full department."