The FBI called off plans to deliver a letter Wednesday to the Rev. Jesse Jackson asking about his dealings with Libya on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization after a series of telephone calls between the White House and the Justice Department.
An FBI spokesman said last night that the change in plans was made routinely by a supervisor who decided it was not the bureau's job to deliver such a letter."We didn't know anything about any calls from the White House," the spokesman said.
The incident raises questions, however, about why White House officials called the department on behalf of a popular black leader who has been campaigning for President Carter.
White House counsel Lloyd Cutler said last night he called an official in the office of Deputy Attorney General Charles B. Renfrew to find out what was going on after Jackson had called White House chief of staff Jackson Watson to say an NBC-TV reporter told him he was about to be subpoenaed. "I called through the proper channels," Cutler said. "I think I'm entitled to a call. He [Jackson] isn't someone close to the president like his brother [Billy Carter]. I gave no direction of any kind."
The inquiry on Jackson's dealings with Libya and the PLO grew out of the investigation that resulted in Billy Carter registering as a foreign agent for Libya, and is considered routine, Justice officials said. The FBI was asked to deliver the letter because an attempt to deliver it to Jackson in Chicago by registered mail a month ago failed, they said.
There were reports during the summer that U.S. intelligence agencies had learned that Jackson was among the American leaders trageted by the Libyans in an influence-buying scheme. Some sources said last night that the Justice Department letter was based on indications that Jackson had received money from Libya, but that there was not evidence enough yet to force him to register as a foreign agent.
Jackson told NBC reporter Brian Ross, who broke the story, that he had not received any money from the Libyans. A year ago, Jackson traveled to the Middle East and met with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
Paul Michel, the Justice official who received Cutler's call Wednesday, said last night that he did not consider the call improper because he had heard from Jackson himself and was trying to find out what was going on. "I didn't do anything different," he said.
Some other department officials, however, expressed dismay that the White House had made any inquiries about a potential investigation. "It may have been an innocent query, but it can also be viewed as raw political interference," one attorney said.
The Justice Department has prided itself in recent years on cutting off contacts between the side of the department that handles criminal investigations and the White House. During the Billy Carter case, the only exception was Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti's controversial discussion of the case with President Carter. r