WASHINGTON -- Four high-ranking officials of the FBI were suspended yesterday after the Justice Department opened a broad new criminal investigation into the possibility of a high-level cover-up of what really happened during a deadly 1992 standoff with a white separatist in Idaho.
Among those suspended yesterday by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh was Larry A. Potts, Mr. Freeh's close friend whom he had made the bureau's No. 2 official before demoting him recently because of his role in the Idaho shootout.
Another suspended official is Anthony A. Betz, now assistant chief of the Baltimore office but who was then a unit chief in the criminal investigative division.
The Justice Department on Thursday night forwarded new findings on the incident for possible criminal prosecution to Eric H. Holder Jr., the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, officials said.
The documents sent to Mr. Holder, the chief federal prosecutor in the capital, raise the possibility that the four officials, and a fifth who was suspended earlier, may have committed obstruction of justice in the form of false testimony and destruction of documents.
The fifth FBI official, E. Michael Kahoe, was suspended last month after Justice Department investigators uncovered evidence that he may have destroyed an FBI analysis of the siege.
"We know that Kahoe destroyed documents," said one Justice Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The question we have to logically ask is whether he did it on his own."
In addition, Justice Department officials said the new report also concluded that other FBI officials besides Mr. Kahoe appeared to have lied about what had occurred.
One senior Justice Department official said that Mr. Freeh and Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick were furious upon learning from the report that they may have been deceived by senior FBI agents.
The official said there was far less evidence that Mr. Potts and one of the other suspended officials, Danny O. Coulson, participated in a cover-up than the other three officials. But the official said that Mr. Freeh wanted to include all possible suspects in the investigation.
In addition to Mr. Potts, who was head of the bureau's criminal division at the time of the Idaho standoff, and Mr. Coulson, who was his deputy, the others suspended yesterday are Gale Richard Evans and Mr. Betz, both of whom were unit chiefs in the criminal investigative division.
On Aug. 21, 1992, Mr. Potts dispatched the FBI's hostage rescue team to a remote mountaintop in Ruby Ridge after a shootout in which a federal marshal and the 14-year-old son of the white separatist, Randall C. Weaver, were killed.
The next day, an FBI sharpshooter killed Mr. Weaver's wife, Vicki, who was unarmed and standing in the cabin doorway holding her infant daughter. The FBI marksman said he was aiming at another person who was armed.
Long-standing FBI policy allows agents to shoot only in self-defense. But a looser set of rules of engagement were adopted during the siege -- allowing agents there to shoot on sight virtually anyone who was armed -- and the FBI has been roiled ever since by investigations into who approved the change.
The latest Justice Department investigation was begun early this year after the commander at the scene, Eugene Glenn, who was suspended and transferred after the incident, charged that he was being punished unfairly.
During the earlier inquiries, Mr. Glenn said Mr. Potts had authorized the change, but Mr. Potts said that Mr. Glenn had acted on his own.
In January, Mr. Freeh laid the blame for the faulty rules of engagement mostly on Mr. Glenn and the head of the hostage rescue team, Richard Rogers.
Mr. Glenn's complaint was that it was unfair for him to have been suspended and transferred by the director, who had handed out lighter punishments to officials like Mr. Potts.
Mr. Potts had been given a letter of censure, the mildest available punishment.
Mr. Glenn's persistent complaints resulted in an investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility at the Justice Department.
Dan K. Webb, Mr. Potts' lawyer, issued a statement saying there was "absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing by Larry Potts and this suspension . . . is completely unwarranted."
None of the other suspended officials could be reached for comment.
Mr. Potts was demoted last month to the training division; Mr. Coulson is now chief of the bureau's Dallas office; Mr. Evans is assistant chief of the Salt Lake City office, and Mr. Betz is assistant chief of the Baltimore office. All were suspended with pay.
Mr. Kahoe, who had been the special agent in charge of the bureau's Jacksonville office, had been assigned to review the bureau's conduct in Ruby Ridge.