Copyright 1997 Times Mirror Company
Los Angeles Times
March 6, 1997, Thursday, Home Edition
SECTION: Part A; Page 1; National Desk
LENGTH: 1000 words
HEADLINE: FBI LAB HASN'T JEOPARDIZED CASES, FREEH TELLS PANEL
BYLINE: RICHARD A. SERRANO, TIMES STAFF WRITER
FBI Director Louis J. Freeh testified Wednesday that no criminal cases will be jeopardized by widespread reports of sloppy and incompetent work at the bureau's crime laboratory in Washington.
Freeh's comments to a House Appropriations subcommittee suggested that the government's high-profile cases against the Oklahoma City bombing defendants and the accused Unabomber, plus as many as 50 other criminal cases, had not been compromised.
But under critical questioning from House Republicans, Freeh also was forced to defend his leadership as the nation's top police official.
Throughout the raucous, two-hour session, panel Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky and other Republicans chastised Freeh and the bureau on a host of issues, including their failure to solve the downing of TWA Flight 800 in New York and the bombing at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. They pointedly criticized the way the bureau leaked the name of Richard Jewell, a private security guard, as the key suspect in the Olympics bombing.
At one point the steamed FBI director shot back that after 21 years of government service, his independence and integrity remain intact.
"If I can't succeed in that, or if you lose confidence in my integrity, then I shouldn't be FBI director," Freeh told Rogers.
Regarding the lab, Freeh said, "I know of no FBI government case that has been or will be compromised." He said his conclusion is based on a draft report by the Justice Department's inspector general, and with the final report expected soon.
Nevertheless, it "has become necessary" for Justice Department officials to inform federal prosecutors in about 50 cases of potential problems with evidence that should be shared with defense lawyers, he said.
Freeh did not identify any of those cases but said he did not expect the evidentiary problems to derail any prosecutions.
Freeh strongly defended his decision to remove from the lab the FBI agent-turned-whistleblower who first raised the allegations about conditions there. Frederic Whitehurst, who is expected to be a key defense witness in the trial of Oklahoma City bombing defendant Timothy J. McVeigh, was removed at the behest of the department's inspector general, he said.
He said the bureau has been apprised of the inspector general's findings regarding Whitehurst. He told Rogers: "When that's public, I think you will be satisfied with it."
The GOP members also complained that about 180,000 immigrants were naturalized as U.S. citizens last year before the FBI could conduct proper background and fingerprinting checks to determine if they had prior criminal records.
The Republicans charged that there was a rush by the Clinton administration to naturalize immigrants in order to win new Democratic voters in last year's elections.
Freeh responded by asking for additional funds to bolster the FBI's background-checking process for immigrants. But Rogers angrily cut him off.
Last year's problems should be corrected first, he said. "Until we get this mess cleaned up," Rogers vowed, "don't expect a penny."
On other political fronts, committee Republicans lambasted Freeh over the flap concerning the release of some 1,000 FBI files to White House operatives, as well as the bureau's attempt to stymie a book by a former FBI agent who was critical of the Clinton administration.
Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.) said the FBI has become a "Stepin Fetchit for the White House."
Rogers glared at Freeh and said: "I'll tell you this, Mr. Director. We're facing a serious problem. A problem of management and integrity. And, frankly, unless there's some changes made, there may not be a budget for 1998."
Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), who chairs the full Appropriations Committee, was more direct in demanding that Freeh fire the FBI's chief counsel, Howard Shapiro. Livingston was particularly upset over Shapiro's acknowledgment that he had personally leaked a manuscript of the agent's book to the White House before it was published.
Freeh protested that an internal investigation was still underway into Shapiro's activities. But then Livingston interjected: "Fine. Give him his day in court. Then fire him."
Only one Democrat at the subcommittee meeting, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, came to Freeh's defense. He complained that his Republican colleagues should not be publicly vilifying Freeh for their own political gain.
"They're just putting together innuendo and fluffy facts," Mollohan said.