Justice Department officials have recommended that Attorney General Griffin B. Bell seek indictments of low-level personnel involved in illegal burglaries as a stepping-stone to possible further prosecution of approximately six present and former FBI executives.
Informed sources said yesterday that this strategy, referred to as "indictments in sequence," has been urged on Bell by department attorneys who conducted an 11-month investigation into the burglaries committed in the New York area during 1972 and 1973.
The sources said it is not certain that this strategy, if pursued, would lead to prosecution of bureau executives whom Justice Department attorneys regard as the real targets of their probe.
They aslo declined to identify these targets. However, they are believed to include Mark Felt, retired former deputy director of the FBI; Edward S. Miller, retired former assistant director in charge of the intelligence division; John F. Malone, retired former head of the New York field office; J. Wallace La Prade, current head of the New York office; Andrew Decker, former head of domestic security investigations in New York and currently assistant director in charge of records management at FBI headquarters, and James Ingram, another former domestic security chief in New York, who currently is deputy assistant director of the FBI's general investigative division.
The sources said Bell has not yet made a decision about whether to approve the recommendation and seek indictments.
The burglaries, known in FBI parlance as "surreptitious entries," were security investigations and were aimed at obtaining information about fugitive members of the radical Weather Underground. In addition to the break-ins, the Justice Department probe is known to have uncovered evidence that the FBI also engaged in illegal wiretaps and mail openings.
Among prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers, the strategy outlined in the recommendation to Bell is often referred to as "using a little fish to catch a big fish." It aims at indicting the known underlings involved in a crime in hopes that such, action will trigger the plea bargaining, testimony and evidence required to prosecute the higher-ups.
From the outset of the probe last spring, Justice Department officials have made clear that they were mainly interested in those FBI executives who gave the orders for the break-ins or who concealed knowledge of them.
The sources said that if the department does try to get at the higher-ups by first going after the underlings, the initial targets of prosecution will be persons who were in middle-level supervisory positions in New York and Washington at the time of the burglaries.
Approximately 60 present or former FBI field agents, who had some role in the break-ins, have testified before federal grand juries in New York and Washington. However, in exchange for their testimony, all were given immunity that apparently bars any attempt to prosecute them.
Some sources said that the proposed Justice Department strategy is an admitted long shot that bears no guarantees of eventual success in obtaining indictments or convictions at the FBI's executive levels. However, the sources added, the department officials who recommended this approach have argued to Bell that the notoriety of the case demands that the government make the effort to reassure the public of its willingness to move against wrongdoing by high-ranking public officials.
The ivestigation was conducted by the department's Civil Rights Division under federal laws that prohibit police officers from using their powers to violate someone's civil rights or conduct searches without a warrant.
Former Assistant Attorney General J. Stanley Pottinger, who headed the division when the probe began, agreed to remain with the department temporarily until the investigation was completed. Pottinger supervised preparation of the recommendation made to Bell.