Memo says FBI officials tried to keep Idaho standoff data from prosecutors

July 16, 1995|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- An unpublished Justice Department report on the FBI's standoff with a white supremacist in Idaho shows that in late 1992 and early 1993 -- the period during which bureau officials are suspected of destroying documents about the incident -- FBI managers were trying to block federal prosecutors from obtaining the bureau's records on the case.

Justice Department investigators who uncovered the document destruction in recent weeks have found that a career FBI official stripped the files of official records that would have clearly shown that top FBI officials in Washington were in command of the ill-fated operation.

The issue of who was in charge has been an explosive one because top FBI officials, including FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, contended until last week that the critical decisions had been made in Idaho by on-the-scene commanders who have faced far harsher discipline than their headquarters counterparts.

Mr. Freeh has said he is determined to get to the bottom of the most serious crisis of his two-year stewardship at the FBI. Last week, as the investigation examined whether higher-ups had ordered the document destruction, Mr. Freeh moved swiftly, demoting Larry Potts, his trusted friend and the FBI's deputy director, after suspending Mr. Potts' former subordinate, Michael Kahoe, who had admitted to investigators that he destroyed key documents.

The confrontation in Idaho took place in August 1992. Mr. Potts, then head of the FBI's criminal division, dispatched the bureau's hostage rescue team of 50 heavily armed agents to Ruby Ridge after a shootout Aug. 21 in which a federal marshal and the suspect's son were killed.

The next day, an FBI sharpshoot er shot and wounded the white supremacist, Randall Weaver, and then fired again. The bullet struck and killed Mr. Weaver's wife, Vicki.

A key question is who approved a relaxation of FBI rules that permitted agents to shoot virtually on sight. The bureau's long-standing lethal-force policy permits agents to shoot only in self-defense. The commander on the scene, Eugene Glenn, said Mr. Potts had authorized the change; Mr. Potts said Mr. Glenn had acted on his own.

A 1994 Justice Department report that has never been made public but that was provided to news organizations by government officials who believed the Idaho operation needed a fuller public airing shows that the FBI fought to keep its files closed, even to federal prosecutors.

After Mr. Weaver and a companion surrendered, the U.S. attorney's office in Boise obtained a broad conspiracy indictment against them. But the prosecutors found themselves in a confrontation with their usual ally, the FBI.

As Maurice Ellsworth, who was the U.S. attorney in Boise in 1993, described it in the report: "We felt like we were battling on two fronts, the defense counsel and the FBI."

Complaints by prosecutors prompted senior Justice Department officials to order the FBI to provide documents. But the FBI balked.

One frustrated Justice Department official accused the FBI of conducting a "shell game" by hiding documents. Another top Justice official wrote in a March 18, 1993, memo that the "the bureau intransigence appears to emanate from Larry Potts' level or above."

After another Justice Department directive, the FBI agreed to provide the documents. But some were not provided until late in the trial of Mr. Weaver and his companion, who were acquitted in 1993 of most of the serious charges against them.

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