Inquiry into FBI actions in bloody Idaho siege in '92 called a top-to-bottom review

November 25, 1993|By David Johnston and Stephen Labaton | David Johnston and Stephen Labaton,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The bloody standoff between the FBI's elite paramilitary force and a white separatist in Idaho has produced one of the largest and most wrenching internal inquiries ever conducted by the Justice Department, threatening some of the country's top law-enforcement officials with criminal prosecution.

The far-reaching inquiry, which has been under way for weeks but has remained largely unknown, centers on the operation at a remote ridge in August 1992 by the Hostage Rescue Team, the FBI unit trained to capture terrorists, hostage-takers and other violent criminals with minimal casualties.

The rescue unit was sent to the Idaho mountain after a confrontation between the white separatist, Randall Weaver, and federal marshals in which one federal agent and Weaver's 14-year-old son were killed.

The next day, a sniper from the rescue team shot and killed Weaver's wife, Vicki, who was in the doorway of their cabin holding their 10-month-old daughter. She was not considered a threat, and the FBI later acknowledged that she had been shot by mistake. After a 10-day siege, Weaver surrendered.

Deputy Attorney General Philip Heymann, who is supervising the inquiry, described it as a top-to-bottom review of the case.

People who have been interviewed by government agents said the inquiry is focusing on whether officials misjudged the danger the agents faced and knowingly violated the agency's limits on the use of deadly force by killing Mrs. Weaver.

The inquiry is also examining whether officials failed to consider less aggressive tactics and later closed ranks to avert scrutiny of their actions.

Investigators from the Office of Professional Responsibility, the Justice Department's internal ethics unit, have warned top managers, agents, prosecutors and former officials that they could face civil or criminal charges, including obstruction of justice and violations of civil rights law.

The investigation has begun to reach the highest officials in the FBI and the Bush administration's Justice Department, although investigators say many of the officials they have interviewed are not likely to be charged.

Among those questioned is Larry Potts, head of the FBI's criminal investigative division, who was the most senior Washington official involved in allowing the agents to shoot without provocation, a change in procedures that led to the death of Mrs. Weaver. Other officials who have been questioned include George Terwilliger III, the former deputy attorney general, and Henry Hudson, former director of the U.S. Marshals Service.

Investigators say they will also talk to William P. Barr, the former attorney general; William S. Sessions, the former FBI director; and Floyd Clarke, the FBI's No. 2 official, who announced yesterday that he is retiring. Officials said his departure is not related to the inquiry.

In interviews with the New York Times, Mr. Barr, Mr. Terwilliger and Mr. Sessions said they were not directly involved in the decisions that led to the death of Mrs. Weaver. Mr. Hudson defended the actions of the Marshals Service.

FBI Director Louis Freeh would not permit any bureau officials to comment on the case, and he himself declined to talk about it because, he said, the investigation was continuing. "Complex legal issues should not be prejudged," he said.

Some FBI officials said they also feared that a separate investigation by a state prosecutor in Boundary County, Idaho, where the incident took place, could lead to homicide charges against FBI agents.

The Hostage Rescue team, with its black Ninja uniforms and assault specialists, has achieved near-heroic status within the FBI and at the Justice Department.

Earlier this year, the team's performance was heavily criticized after it led the tear-gas assault on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. The assault ended when the compound caught fire and at least 75 cultists died, including 25 children.

Within the ranks of the hostage rescue unit, the inquiry has stirred deep resentment. Agents who took part in the operation defend their actions and regard the inquiry as unfair second-guessing of those who place themselves at risk to uphold the law.

Some, including Richard Rogers, the unit's commander, have refused to cooperate with investigators, officials said.

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