The startling revelations that the FBI mishandled evidence in the Timothy McVeigh case raise new questions about an agency that once enjoyed almost mythic status in American culture for its integrity and efficiency.
After a series of embarrassments in high-profile cases - from the botched raid in Waco, Texas, to the bungled investigation of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee - the nation's premier law-enforcement agency faces growing pressure for more external oversight and more internal reform.
Already, as a result of the McVeigh case, President Bush's search for a new FBI director has taken on fresh urgency. The next head, to replace outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh, will face the delicate task of trying to restore public confidence in the agency and boosting morale among the rank and file. "Whoever it is will have his work cut out for him," says Oliver Revell, a retired 30-year veteran of the FBI. "But it is fixable."
The disclosure Friday that the FBI had found thousands of documents that it hadn't turned over to the defense in the McVeigh case is focusing attention on the bureau's record-keeping and investigative procedures in particular. It comes after a string of errors in recent years involving the withholding of evidence in major cases.
Two years ago, for instance, congressional leaders and defense attorneys accused the agency of failing to turn over internal memos suggesting that Mr. Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, had not handed over missile technology to the Chinese, as had been alleged. Most charges against Lee were later dropped amid misleading testimony by the FBI.
Six years after the 1993 Branch Davidian siege outside Waco, FBI officials disclosed that they had found internal documents referring to the government's use of military-style canisters in the raid. The FBI was forced to retract denials that it had used them. In recent years, defense attorneys have often complained that they were denied access to evidence from the FBI's once-revered crime laboratory that may have helped their clients.
A review of what went wrong in the McVeigh case focuses in part on the agency's computer system. It revolves around more than 3,100 pages of data that the FBI discovered just six days before Mr. McVeigh was scheduled to be executed for the Oklahoma City bombing. FBI officials have suggested that the documents, many of which involved witness statements, may have been lost during a major upgrading of the agency's computers.
While many critics outside the agency believe more than computer glitches were involved, the documents may not, in the end, change the outcome of the McVeigh case. Published reports indicate that those who have seen the documents do not believe they contain information that could lead to the overturning of McVeigh's death sentence.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for more FBI oversight. Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says it's time to change the "cowboy culture" of the agency. Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, says the bureau needs a tough new manager, not someone brought in just to burnish the agency's image.
Material from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor