Blazing New FBI Paper Trails

Outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh took a refreshing "I'm where the buck stops" stance this week concerning numerous foul-ups that occurred on his watch over the past eight years. But during this week's House subcommittee hearings, as Mr. Freeh recounted events that led to a failure to turn over to the defense numerous documents in the Timothy McVeigh case, a couple of disturbing threads appeared.

Most prominently, have some government agencies become too large for anyone to effectively manage them? The Oklahoma City bombing investigation was staggering in its scope: Mr. Freeh's statement that the FBI reviewed a billion pieces of information and collected 3.5 tons of evidence in the case prompts the question of how anyone could manage such a load. Altogether, the FBI maintains 6 billion pages of paper records, Freeh said, and a similar number of computer records - "a mountain growing bigger and bigger every day."

To help solve the problem, Freeh is establishing a separate office of records management and reportedly asking Congress for lots of money to upgrade the FBI's computer systems.

Yet in the McVeigh missing papers caper, it all seemed to come down to field offices failing to comply with his (and others') repeated (16 times) instructions to turn over all relevant documents.

That leads to a worrisome "we're the only game in town" culture at the FBI that may have contributed to not getting all the papers involved in the McVeigh case to the specially set-up "Okbomb" FBI command office. Freeh called that an "ongoing management problem." And then there's Freeh's, and Attorney General John Ashcroft's, assertions that no new information relative to the guilt or innocence of McVeigh was contained in those papers. That misses the point. Even the most minute of minutiae can be relevant, and it's up to the defense attorneys, and ultimately the judge in the case, not Ashcroft, Freeh, or the FBI, to make such determinations.

This latest blunder, Freeh says, "demonstrated that the mundane must be done as well as the spectacular." He's right, and the Bush administration should review his thoughtful testimony as it goes about hiring his replacement. These traits should top the bureau's most-wanted list: commitment, honesty, humility, and integrity. And understanding that in an increasingly techo-dependent world, there's no substitute for hands-on records checks, and a clear sense of the legitimate scope of one's job.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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