It seems the Justice Department just can't shut down the Federal Bureau of Investigation's legendary "Siberian exile."
Under J. Edgar Hoover, the Butte, Mont., field office was notorious for being the exile post for agents who fell out of favor with the director. In a highly publicized case in 1970, agent John F. Shaw resigned rather than accept a transfer to Butte after he had criticized the FBI under Hoover's leadership.
Last week, on recommendation of the FBI, outgoing attorney general Edwin Meese III wrote Montana's members of Congress of plans to transfer most of the work of the Butte office to the Salt Lake City field office. The plan would turn Butte's "field office" into a "resident office," cutting almost all of the 29-member administrative staff and moving two of the five agent slots out of Butte, Justice Department spokesman Pat Korten said.
"It's minuscule. It's not big enough an office to justify its status as a full-fledged field office," said Korten.
But the Montana congressional delegation, which has fended off repeated attempts to close the FBI office over the last two decades, protested.
Plans to downsize the Butte office amount "to downgrading the whole state," insisted Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.)
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the FBI, agreed with the Montana delegation that the committee should not finance the reorganization plans, Melcher said. "We did the normal thing; we asked the appropriations committee not to reprogram the money, and they agreed," Melcher said.
Last Wednesday, after a call from Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Hollings met with FBI Director William S. Sessions. And that afternoon the plan was effectively withdrawn -- the Justice Department must formally notify Congress before it acts, and there are no plans to do so, Korten said.
This was not the first time the FBI has targeted the Butte bureau. When then-FBI Director William H. Webster was up for Senate confirmation as CIA director in 1987, Melcher said he held up the nomination until Webster promised to review a proposal to close the office in Montana.
"We are trying to make sure they treat Montana like it's the fine country that it is," said Melcher. "Hoover was not very familiar with Butte and Montana."
According to an FBI memo recounted in "The Boss," a recent biography of Hoover, the director tried to punish Shaw, a seven-year agent, with a transfer to Butte in hopes that he would resign, said Athan Theoharis, a Marquette University history professor who is coauthor of the book. Shaw's offense? He had written a memo critical of the FBI to his professor in a master's degree program.
In an interview, Shaw, now the Immigration and Naturalization Service assistant commissioner for investigations, described Butte as "a sinkhole office of disciplinary assignment, the Devil's Island of the bureau."
"They couldn't establish the basis for firing me, so they did the next best thing -- send me into exile," Shaw said.
The Butte office, which covers Montana and Idaho in a territory amounting to 233,695 square miles, concentrates on policing seven
Indian reservations as well as white supremacist groups based in the area.
In recent years, the office has become a choice assignment for outdoorsmen.
"People here as a matter of preference by far outnumbered the few here as a matter of supervision. I came here because I like to hunt and fish," said Robert Dawson, a 23-year agent who transferred from Washington to Montana in 1968 and is now retired.
Could any field office ever replace the legendary "Siberia"?
"Maybe the Washington field office in August," suggested Justice Department spokesman John Russell.