Justice Department problems await new chief

February 12, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- If confirmed by the Senate, Attorney General-designate Janet Reno will head a highly skilled Justice Department plagued in recent months by severe criticism, feuding and declining morale.

Among the myriad problems facing the new attorney general, who will manage 92,000 employees and a $10.9 million annual budget, are the following:

* FBI director -- Beset by ethics charges and an image of weakness, FBI Director William S. Sessions may not survive much longer at the top of the nation's No. 1 police agency.

Democratic allies say Mr. Sessions was blindsided by an FBI "old-boy network" angered by his insistence on breaking down the agency's white-male cast.

But findings by the Justice Department that Mr. Sessions made personal use of FBI personnel and property will give President Clinton and his new attorney general an opportunity to name their own FBI chief.

* Immigration policy -- The influx of refugees may require Ms. Reno to grapple with issues of who should be allowed into the United States and how aliens can be prevented from entering illegally.

* Haiti -- In a Supreme Court case scheduled for oral arguments March 2, the Justice Department continues to defend the Bush administration's policy of capturing fleeing Haitians on the high seas and turning them back. Mr. Clinton, who as a candidate assailed the policy as inhumane, has since endorsed it while stepping up diplomatic pressure aimed at restoring Haiti's democratically elected government and preventing another exodus of refugees.

* Overcrowded prisons -- The "get tough on crime" policies of the 1980s -- especially the expanded war on drugs and the enactment of mandatory minimum sentences for drug and firearms offenders -- has left the federal prisons jammed with inmates serving longer terms.

So, despite the drive to cut spending, Ms. Reno may be forced to recommend more prisons and inmate health facilities.

* Criminal law enforcement -- Ms. Reno must confront a chronic headache: lack of coordination. Take the enforcement of drug laws, for example. The FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration, though officially under the direction of the attorney general, independently develop their priorities and strategies.

The much-criticized Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) and Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL) fraud cases disclosed how tough it is for prosecutors to get vital information from the CIA.

The criminal division's relationship to the 94 U.S. attorneys is habitually troublesome.

* White-collar crime -- What prosecutors call "crime in the suites" is rapidly increasing, but the federal response is fragmented. "Justice has little, if any, influence over agencies outside the department -- such as the Internal Revenue Service -- that are often critical for effective investigations and prosecutions," the GAO reported recently.

* Environmental crimes -- The Justice Department unit responsible for environmental crimes has been criticized for scrapping indictments and weakening tough agreements obtained by U.S. attorneys.

* Independent prosecutor -- Will the new attorney general become the first to support the law establishing an independent prosecutor to investigate suspected wrongdoing in the high echelons of the government?

The law, strongly backed by Democrats during the Reagan-Bush years, was allowed to expire in December. Republicans and some Democrats are infuriated by independent prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh's unfinished Iran-contra investigation, which has taken six years and cost $37 million.

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