FBI 'friend' pushing hearings on 'Abscam'

Rep. William J. Hughes (D) of New Jersey is a quiet, workmanlike congressman who has always regarded himself as a friend of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

He worked closely with the agency during 10 years as a county prosecutor in Cape May, N.J. Since elected to Congress five years ago, he has consistently fought within the House Judiciary Committee for more money for the FBI.

Thus, it was a little jarring to find himself to have been targeted -- unsuccessfully -- in the FBI's "Operation Abscam," which has implicated eight of his fellow lawmakers in allegations of taking bribes from undercover agents posing as wealthy Arabs.

Now Congressman Hughes is one of the driving forces behind upcoming congressional hearings into the controversial tactics the FBI used.

"The matter has been so badly mishandled that it raises great concerns" about everything from protecting constitutional rights to plugging press leaks, he said in an interview.

Concerns such as his are not confined to congressmen, but are echoed by civil libertarians and even some of the severest critics of Capitol Hill ethics.

The American Civil Liberties Union warns of "a kind of runaway operation." Congressional watchdog Ralph Nader finds the orchestrated publicity "offensive."

Inside and outside Congress, the FBI "sting" operation is being stung by criticism on these grounds:

* Instigation of crime. Many ask whether, by forsaking the traditional "sting" practice of luring persons who already have committed crimes and instead offering bribes of up to $50,000 to congressmen who had broken no law, the FBI might have been fomenting crime that otherwise never would have occurred.

Assistant Attorney General Philip B. Heymann terms the switch "a relatively natural evolution," but others are skeptical.

"It would appear that here we had covert operatives who actually manufactured a crime," Representative Hughes says. "As far as I can tell so far, there was no principal motivating crime."

Adds a senior Republican colleague, Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. of New York: "Most congressmen don't dare criticize [the FBI] openly, but without knowing more about the facts there is some hard muttering going on about the lavish expenditures made to tempt the weak rather than to ensnare the already guilty."

* Manipulation of innocent outsiders. Other criticism surrounds the FBI's use of unwitting private citizens to try to gain access to congressmen -- legitimate business associates, friends, and, in the unsuccessful case of House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D) of New Jersey, his son-in- law -- and the resulting damage they might suffer.

Congressman Hughes, for example, was approached by a bogus representative of wealthy "Arab" interests through a businessman neighbor of his back home in New Jersey. He declined a meeting, but now worries that his so-far-unnamed neighbor might be unfairly ostracized.

"He was duped," he says. "His reputation would be tarnished."

* Premature release of information. The simultaneous leaking of detailed data to television networks and major national newspapers long before any lawmaker was charged with a crime -- or any evidence even had gone to a grand jury -- is roundly deplored.

The Department of Justice, the FBI's bureaucratic parent, describes it as "shameful" and is conducting an internal probe.

"Reputations have been seriously damaged in a manner not consistent with the standards of American jurisprudence," says Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska.

Mr. Hughes suggested last week that hearings be held on the FBI "sting" "to see what the facts are, and if they comport with basic constitutional rights." A House Judiciary sub- committee will conduct such hearings later this month.

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