Today, the Judiciary Committee begins oversight hearings on the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Oversight of the Department of Justice, of which the FBI is a part, is among this Committee’s most important responsibilities. There has never been a greater need for constructive oversight of the FBI. The FBI has long been considered the crown jewel of law enforcement agencies. Today, it has lost some of its earlier luster. Unfortunately, the image of the FBI in the minds of too many Americans is that this agency has become unmanageable, unaccountable and unreliable. Its much vaunted independence has transformed, for some, into an image of insular arrogance.
STATEMENT OF SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY
CHAIRMAN, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE
Hearing On “OVERSIGHT: RESTORING CONFIDENCE IN THE FBI”
June 20, 2001
We now have an historic window of opportunity to examine the present state of the FBI and help guide constructive reforms to make the Bureau more effective, better managed, more accountable. The current FBI director has announced his resignation. No successor has not yet been named. This is a particularly appropriate time for us to take stock and think about how we should plan for the FBI of the 21st century. I would hope that these hearings will help the Members of this Committee prepare for the new Director’s confirmation hearings as well as apprise the nominee of the challenges that confront us all.
We had invited Director Freeh here today to thank him for his public service and to hear from him what his advice would be to his successor. I thought that it would be appropriate to begin these hearings by acknowledging all the positive contributions that he has made during the last eight years. I also wanted to get his assessment of the problems that remain. He explained to me when we spoke last week that he was unavailable.
In recent years we have seen case after case where the FBI has fallen short – and sometimes far short – of the high standards of professionalism and integrity that we expect of our nation’s premier law enforcement agency:
This list of failures and mistakes has seriously weakened public confidence in the FBI. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 38 percent of Americans have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the FBI, and 23 percent of those polled had very little or no confidence in the FBI. Confidence in state and local police is substantially higher, with about 60 percent of Americans having "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in these other law enforcement forces. This erosion of public trust threatens the FBI’s ability to perform its mission. Citizens who mistrust the FBI will be less likely to come forward and report information about criminal activity. Judges and jurors will be less likely to believe the testimony of FBI witnesses. Even innocent or minor mistakes by the FBI in future cases may be perceived in a sinister light that is not warranted. Since FBI agents perform forensic and other critical work for many law enforcement agencies on the federal, state and local levels, the repercussions of this lapse in public confidence in the FBI has rippled far beyond just federal criminal cases.
- Last month, a veteran FBI agent was indicted for allegedly selling some this country’s most sensitive classified information to the Russians. According to the indictment, his alleged spying went on for more than 15 years before the FBI detected the source of major security breaches and intelligence losses, despite numerous “red flags” that pointed to the defendant. According to the public complaint and indictment in the case, these “red flags” included a 1986 wiretapped conversation between the defendant and a KGB officer in the Soviet embassy; the confession of a convicted American spy, Earl Pitts, who warned about another “mole” within the FBI and specifically named the defendant; the report of an FBI analyst, who also warned of a “mole” within the FBI, but whose warnings were not credited; and the defendant’s own suspicious financial situation and use of FBI computers.
- We learned from press reports today that last week, a support employee of the FBI in Las Vegas was arrested for allegedly selling sensitive investigative material to organized crime for over a year.
- In the Oklahoma City bombing case, the FBI revealed only a few days before the defendant was scheduled to be executed that it had violated its discovery obligations by failing to turn over thousands of pages of documents to the defense. While the trial judge later ruled that this violation did not undermine the defendant’s conviction or death sentence, the trial judge noted that it was up to others to hold the FBI accountable for its conduct. Whatever question the belated document production raised about the efficacy of the FBI, the trial judge concluded that the integrity of the adjudicative process leading to the verdict and death penalty were sound. He said: “there is a great deal of difference between an undisciplined organization or organization that is not adequately controlled or that can’t keep track of its information – those are not the questions here. We’re not here for the purpose of trying the FBI.”
- The Oklahoma City bombing case is only the most recent one in which the FBI has violated its disclosure obligations. In 1995, a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, under the leadership of Senators Specter and Kohl, held hearings on the tragic events at Ruby Ridge. The subcommittee report, in which I joined, found that the FBI had “willfully and repeatedly failed to abide by discovery rules,” and had “irreparably damaged the government’s presentation of evidence at the criminal trial,” causing a federal judge to impose contempt sanctions against the government.
- We have also seen cases such as those of Wen Ho Lee, Richard Jewell and Tom Stewart in which the FBI has improperly leaked information about an ongoing criminal investigation. This is a deeply serious issue that troubles all who are concerned with protecting the integrity of our justice system and the constitutional rights of our citizens. More than that, these premature leaks about suspected criminals may focus attention on the wrong persons and allow the real culprits to escape detection, to the detriment of our public safety and national security. For example, the criminal who committed the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in July 1996, during the Summer Olympic Games, remains at large. On occasion, these leaks result in substantial verdicts against the government for which we taxpayers foot the bill. Tom Stewart was paid $6 million in damages last year as a result of the FBI wrongfully releasing damaging information that he was a criminal suspect. Wen Ho Lee’s lawsuit against the government is still pending.
- Serious questions have also been raised about the FBI’s use of informants. There have been cases in which FBI agents have allegedly leaked confidential law enforcement information to criminal informants, which the informants then used to commit crimes or to flee. In a case in Boston, the FBI allegedly allowed two innocent men to spend decades in prison for a murder that the FBI knew had been committed by one of its informants. In a case in New York, an FBI agent allegedly leaked information in a Mafia case about the imminent arrest of the confidential informant’s son, who then fled.
To many of us in Congress, this is a particularly troubling situation. For years, we have almost never said no when the FBI has asked us for new resources. We have allocated to the FBI millions of dollars in increased funding, because we all wanted to see it remain the world’s leading crime-fighting agency. It should be obvious now that simply throwing more money at the FBI is not the answer. The time has come when this Committee must exercise its oversight responsibilities and take a hard, thorough and nonpartisan look at the FBI to determine what has gone wrong and what can be done to fix things.
But as we go about this process, there are several things that we need to bear in mind.
First, our purpose in holding these hearings is to find ways to restore confidence in the FBI, not to tear it down. There are many irresponsible critics of the FBI who promote their conspiracy theories on Internet Web sites and in the popular media. Fortunately, the great majority of the American people have too much common sense than to believe them. The FBI is a vital national asset, and we need it to function effectively.
Second, we must not overlook the fact that the FBI is staffed by many brave, dedicated men and women who risk their lives protecting the interests of this country and the safety of its citizens. While we are constantly reminded of the cases where things have gone wrong, we often forget the far greater number of cases where the FBI does its job quietly, professionally and without public fanfare. Any constructive criticism of the FBI as an institution is not meant in any way to disparage its agents’ sacrifices on our country’s behalf.
Finally, our efforts must be, and I am confident will be, bipartisan. Over the past several weeks, senators on both sides of the aisle have expressed their concern about the present state of the FBI and discussed various legislative proposals to address the problems they have identified. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue. The future security of our country is far too important.
The question at the center of our first hearing is this: Who polices the FBI? Our focus is the mechanisms that currently exist for overseeing the activities of the FBI, and we intend to identify any gaps and problems that currently exist in FBI oversight, determine the status of oversight investigations that are currently underway and begin to formulate ways that oversight can be improved. We are extremely fortunate to have with us an outstanding panel of distinguished witnesses who have familiarity and expertise with different aspects of the oversight process. I look forward to hearing from them about how this process works now and how we can make it work better to ensure that mistakes are acknowledged, constructive recommendations for reform are adopted, and intentional misconduct is adequately punished. Our goal is to restore the luster, the effectiveness and the professionalism of the crown jewel of law enforcement agencies.
# # # # #