Out of Sight, Out of Hand?

The FBI flunks the character issue.


By most accounts, the "character issue"–whether a candidate is honest, trustworthy, and morally principled–failed to engage voters during Campaign '96. As Time's Margaret Carlson half-jokingly put it, "Character has lost its attraction as an issue now that it no longer means sex. Once the press and the candidates realized that harping on sexual indiscretions ran the risk of Mutual Assured Destruction, the character issue was reduced to the impossible–and tedious–task of weighing one man's soul against another's."

But during the waning days of a rather torpid election season, another governmental character issue floated to the surface, one that may well grab the public imagination with full force. In late October, FBI Headquarters Manager E. Michael Kahoe–suspended with pay since last year–pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. His crime: shredding an internal FBI critique of the agency's disastrous 1992 siege against white separatist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

When the smoke lifted from that melee, Weaver's wife and 14-year-old son, along with a federal marshal, were dead. A jury later found Weaver guilty of failing to appear for trial but, citing governmental misconduct, acquitted him and accomplice Kevin Harris on murder charges. Last year, the government agreed to pay Weaver and his family over $3 million to settle a wrongful-death suit.

Kahoe, charged court papers, did not merely destroy all copies of a report which he himself prepared; he also ordered a subordinate "to make it appear as if the Ruby Ridge after-action critique never existed." Kahoe is expected to implicate other agency colleagues in an ongoing Justice Department probe into a variety of unresolved issues regarding Ruby Ridge.

Chief among these is who was responsible for issuing rules of engagement authorizing agents to shoot on sight–a practice that, according to an earlier Justice Department inquiry, "departed from the FBI's standard deadly force policy…[and] contravened the Constitution of the United States."

In statements given before the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Government Information, two commanders who were at Ruby Ridge fingered former FBI deputy director Larry Potts, at the time of the siege head of the FBI's criminal division. Potts, who like Kahoe is on paid suspension, told Congress that he never issued or signed off on such orders. Besides Potts, the Justice Department is focusing on Danny Coulson, former deputy assistant director for the criminal division, and Gale Richard Evans, the former director of the violent crimes unit under Kahoe. According to Newsweek, Justice's investigation will soon be supplemented by a new round of Senate hearings, once again chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). That the FBI–an agency with a disturbingly weak history of respecting civil liberties–is either incapable or unwilling to police itself bespeaks a character issue of the most serious sort.

The character issues surrounding the Ruby Ridge disclosures are, to be sure, of a different sort than those aired during a political campaign. In a campaign, people typically have all the facts they need to make an informed decision–candidates have a track record of promises made and promises kept, scandals weathered and "lessons learned." When Bob Dole, for instance, accused Bill Clinton of breaking his word on a middle-class tax cut, or of filching his best policy ideas from Dole's own GOP, voters could easily decide not only whether the charge was accurate, but whether it was relevant.

Most of electoral politics takes place at a visible, measurable level, and citizens have various avenues of recourse, including recall, impeachment, and, perhaps most important, the simple withholding of support in a future election. In this sense, politicians are like merchants: They must satisfy their customers by giving them what they want, lest they go out of business. They can cheat and swindle voters from time to time but, by and large, politicians do not rule contrary to their constituencies' desires any more than merchants are able to force unwanted goods on their customers.

In contrast, the character issues surrounding Ruby Ridge and the FBI–Which feds are lying? Which are telling the truth?–are much more chilling because the basic facts are so much more difficult to dope out. An authoritative reconstruction is all but impossible, especially since a key player has already admitting to burying evidence. In law enforcement, events almost always happen outside of public purview. If police are to have any legitimacy, we need to be able to know that agents who work out of our sight can be trusted to do the right thing–especially when they can get away with doing the wrong thing. The recent–and one assumes, with history as an infallible witness, forthcoming–revelations of higher-level FBI misconduct should send a chill down the spine of every American. We know only this much already: Federal agents have betrayed the most basic public trust that they, too, will obey the law even as they enforce it.

In a representative government, who watches the watchers is neither a rhetorical question nor an easy riddle to solve. Although outside groups can exercise some oversight, the unsettling truth is that, to a considerable degree, the watchers must be able to watch themselves. The failure to do so–and the FBI is hardly alone in this dereliction of duty–points to the real significance of the character issue: the loss of public confidence in governmental institutions. Until the FBI can demonstrate that its own house is in unambiguous order, it will rightly have little legitimacy and inspire little trust as it surveils the lives of private citizens.