The Justice Department churned out another set of "Guidelines" this week, this one governing the use of FBI undercover investigations.
Some Cabinet officers might not consider such compilations of bureaucratic standards much of a legacy, but Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti points to a recent series of these guidelines as his most significant contribution after 17 months as the nation's top law enforcement officer.
In an interview Civiletti bridled at a suggestion that his tenure as attorney general might be remembered most for the controversy he caused by lying to the press last summer about his chat with President Carter about the Justice investigation of Billy Carter's ties to Libya.
"Do you think after four years of work, they're going to think about one 30-second statement?" he said. "I think people on reflection will think in balanced terms."
Over the last four years, the low-key, silver-haired Civiletti has risen in the Justice hierarchy from head of the criminal division to deputy attorney general under Griffin B. Bell to the top job.In those positions, he was Bell's front man in handling such sensitive investigations as the South Korean influence-buying scandal in Congress, the alleged perjury of former CIA director Richard Helms, and illegal break-ins by FBI agents searching for the radical Weather Underground.
With this background, it was natural, the 45-year-old Civiletti said, that he work "to focus the government's crimnal prosecution efforts and to issue meaningful standards and guidelines."
So in the past year, he has issued guidelines setting limits for starting and handling prosecutions, priorities for white-collar crime investigations, standards for federal prisons, newsroom searches, the policing of government secrecy agreements, and three sets of rules for FBI investigations.
Philip B. Heymann, who inherited the criminal division job from Civiletti, said that "Ben regards as a major theme of his administration the rationalization of the immense discretion that is in the hands of federal prosecutors and investigators."
He said he and Civiletti agree that historically there has been little restraint on the powers of the "ground level" attorney or agent and thus little control at headquarters. Heymann emphasized that he didn't mean by this that prosecutors have run wild in the field. But he said the recent series of guidelines has added new levels of accountability for both the FBI and Justice attorneys.
John Hotis, an FBI attorney who has worked on the new FBI guidelines, said they are a natural outgrowth of the effort started in 1975 by then attorney general Edward Levi, and of the FBI's proposed legislative charger. "I don't think the new guidelines change anything the bureau is doing," he said. "But the rules we had before didn't set thresholds for starting certain cases. The guidelines do."
Both the Levi gudeline work and the proposed charter followed a string of revelations in the early 1970s about FBI spying on dissident groups in this country. Thus the first guidelines dealt with rules for conducting domestic security investigations.
Heymann noted that the most recent sets of FBU guidelines -- on informant and undercover operations -- are in key areas where few legal precedents have been established by the courts. He said, for instance, that the use of informants and undercover agents is especially important in the FBI's increased battles against organized crime, fraud and public corruption.
Complaining witnesses in these cases are few, Heymann said, so federal investigators are turning to innovative techniques such as undercover operations. "We're just starting to write the rules here," he said.
Jerry Berman, a lobbyist for the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his group was generally encouraged by the guidelines because "they are consistent with the charter." But he added he hoped the new Congress would pass a statutory charter for the FBI so the guidelines couldn't simply be changed by executive decree.
Civiletti met last week with his designated successor, William French Smith, to discuss the transition in department leadership. In the recent interview, the outgoing attorney general said he understood why President-elect Ronald Reagan would want a close friend like Smith as his top legal officer. "I think the motivation is a good one," Civiletti said. "At the same time, there comes with it in the post-Watergate era the risk that such close association will erode a perception of independence and fair, meritorious administration of justice."
Civiletti said he discounted some Reagan transition team statements about focusing federal law enforcement on street crime. "Everyone's interested in street crime," he said. "But we don't have the people of the jurisdiction to put a man on every street corner. That's the domain of state and local authorities."
He said he thinks the department's recent priorities -- white collar and organized crime, drugs, and public corruption -- are "nonpartisan" and should be carried over in the new administration. "To go back to a '50s approach of reacting to simple crimes that have no remedial effect would be a Neanderthal approach."