FBI chief disciplines agents for misconduct

The director of the FBI said yesterday he is imposing disciplinary sanctions against six FBI employees involved in a controversial investigation of a political group that opposed United States policies in Central America. Three of the employees were placed on probation and suspended without pay for 14 days. The other three were formally censured.

In his first public comment on the matter, William S. Sessions told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the investigation of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) was ``flawed'' and had ``clear deficiencies.'' Mr. Sessions became FBI director last November and was not at the agency's helm when the two separate investigations were going on, first in 1981 and then from 1983 to '85.

Sessions called the second probe an ``aberration.'' But he said he was putting in management safeguards and calling for a task force to draw up guidelines to insure that future investigations do not violate the constitutional rights of citizens and political groups.

He also said the review found ``no evidence'' that the White House had a hand in the probe, or that it was ``politically motivated or directed.'' He later added that William Webster, who headed the FBI at the time and now runs the Central Intelligence Agency, was not accountable for the named FBI agents' actions.

The Senate committee praised Sessions for his report, which took several months and $800,000 to complete.

Others found shallow solace in the director's statement. Michael Ratner, legal counsel for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that ``political spying ... was really part and parcel of the FBI's work and wasn't just a little mismanagement problem.'' Mr. Ratner called the procedural changes that Sessions was recommending ``totally cosmetic.''

The FBI first became interested in CISPES in September 1981, when it suspected that CISPES was acting on behalf of a foreign government without notifying the US. Upon finding no violation, it closed the probe three months later.

In March 1983, based on evidence of an informer, Frank Varelli, the FBI began a new probe. Mr. Varelli claimed CISPES was giving money to two leftist Salvadorean groups and preparing terrorist activities in the US for them.

But the agents in Dallas who handled Varelli, who allegedly had ties to military officials in El Salvador, did not adequately check into his background or the source of his information, Sessions said.

In October, the FBI sent out a teletype to all 59 field offices asking them to investigate CISPES activities in their areas. The investigation, Sessions said, continued to expand unchecked until June 1985, when the Justice Department put an end to it. The FBI had found ``no substantial link'' between CISPES and international terrorism.

Sessions appears before the House tomorrow.

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