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Freeh Admits 'Incomplete' Testimony Before Congress

Justice: FBI 'squandered our trust,' senator says, as director revises statements about lab whistle-blower.

March 18, 1997|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — FBI Director Louis J. Freeh has acknowledged that he gave "incomplete" testimony to Congress earlier this month, a startling admission that deals yet another setback to the bureau's increasingly tarnished image.

In letters released Monday, Freeh conceded that he had been in error when he told a House subcommittee that the FBI was "solely and directly" following the recommendations of the Justice Department's inspector general when it disciplined a bureau chemist for making allegations of sloppy procedures and deliberate deception at the FBI's crime lab.

Instead, Freeh said in letters to the inspector general and the chairman of a House subcommittee, the truth was that whistle-blower Frederic Whitehurst was disciplined for refusing to cooperate with an internal FBI investigation into leaks about the inspector general's long-anticipated upcoming report on the lab.

The revelations come at a time when the FBI--and now Freeh personally--have been harshly criticized not only for their ability to handle high-profile criminal cases, but also for alleged intrusion into politically charged matters in Washington.

In recent years, the FBI has been attacked for overstepping its authority in fatal gun battles both near Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and at Waco, Texas. The bureau also has been criticized for its failure to determine the cause of the crash of TWA Flight 800 and its treatment of Richard Jewell, a security guard incorrectly profiled as the man who planted a bomb at the summer Olympics in Atlanta.

At the same time, an increasing number of conservative Republicans in Congress, many of whom traditionally have been supporters of federal law enforcement, are beginning to openly chastise Freeh and the bureau.

On Monday, attempting to clarify the situation from its standpoint, the FBI released this statement:

"Director Freeh totally rejects any contention that he deliberately misled the Congress or the public during recent testimony before the House. Freeh has candidly admitted that he failed to mention an important point in the testimony. When this was pointed out to him, he promptly corrected the record. Freeh regrets his inadvertent omission."

On March 5, when Freeh testified before the House subcommittee, he came under sharp fire by Republicans angry over his leadership of the FBI.

The heat was intensified again Monday by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs a Judiciary subcommittee that oversees the agency.

"We put too much trust in the FBI," Grassley said on the Senate floor. "The FBI has squandered our trust."

*

The Freeh letters, released by Grassley, are pivotal because Whitehurst's credibility will likely influence public perceptions of the veracity of his allegations about the lab.

Whitehurst has maintained that the FBI used sloppy lab procedures and changed some analyses, and that some lab technicians tilted their findings to help boost prosecutions. The allegations triggered the ongoing inspector general's review of the lab, expected to be completed in April.

Already, while Freeh has maintained that no criminal cases will be compromised, senior officials in the Justice Department have begun alerting lawyers in as many as 50 cases that there may be problems with their evidence.

In the upcoming trial of Timothy J. McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, defense attorneys have challenged the lab's findings on forensic evidence and are considering calling Whitehurst as a defense witness to bolster their case.

*

At the March 5 subcommittee hearing, Freeh was asked by Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) why Whitehurst was suspended. This is how Freeh responded:

"The action taken against Mr. Whitehurst was taken solely and directly on the basis of the recommendation by the inspector general and their findings with respect to Mr. Whitehurst, which they have furnished us in writing.

"We notified the inspector general and the deputy attorney general's office that we were going to take administrative action [against Whitehurst]. They did not object to it."

He added: "The only reason that action was taken was because of what the inspector general wrote and recommended to the FBI."

On the following day, Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich wrote Freeh a stinging letter saying that his testimony was "incorrect in three parts."

Bromwich said his office had been told in the past that Whitehurst was disciplined for refusing to cooperate in the FBI leak investigation.

Bromwich told Freeh that "it was inaccurate to say that I did not object" upon learning that the FBI intended to suspend Whitehurst. And he took issue with Freeh's testimony implying that Whitehurst was disciplined based on language in the inspector's general's draft report.

"The draft report in fact contains no such recommendation," Bromwich wrote. "Nor can it be fairly construed to imply that such action should be taken while the draft was being reviewed."

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