When Attorney General Janet Reno got word Wednesday that the FBI had found in its files a never-disclosed videotape taken on the fiery final day of the 1993 Waco siege, what irked her most was learning that the FBI had discovered the tape on Saturday but waited four days to let her know about it.
"It was a deep sense of exasperation that after everything that had happened, they still were not taking her seriously," said one Justice Department official in detailing the events of recent days.
To get the FBI's attention, Reno ordered U.S. marshals to seize the tape from FBI headquarters as if the premier federal law enforcement agency was a criminal suspect who might destroy damaging evidence.
It was an extraordinary gesture on the part of an attorney general who has steadfastly backed the FBI and its director, Louis J. Freeh, in one controversy after another. But Reno's patience has been tried by a number of incidents stretching back more than a year. This week, she reached her boiling point, according to associates and aides. Indeed, her tolerance lasted too long in the eyes of several current and former top Justice Department officials who have long felt that Reno failed to exercise enough control over the FBI and is now paying the price.
"They have pulled end runs on her and they have shafted her politically, but Janet Reno has not been willing to buck the bureau," said an official close to the attorney general.
The jockeying that has taken place between Reno and Freeh and their respective subordinates now sets the context for a drama that could shape public perceptions of the federal criminal justice system for many years, as Reno prepares to establish an independent investigation into whether the FBI has attempted to cover up the circumstances surrounding the fatal fire that ended the 51-day siege of the Branch Davidian complex in Texas.
As part of the legacy left by its founder and longtime chief, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI has routinely exercised enormous autonomy for an agency that is a part of the Justice Department and answers to the attorney general. But officials in both bureaucracies acknowledge that the inevitable friction between the FBI and the Justice Department has grown more intense and problematical in recent years because of an extraordinary confluence of three personalities:
Freeh, a former FBI agent, prosecutor and federal judge, is a figure of independent stature within the federal criminal justice establishment and in Washington generally, and he has moved astutely to gain new powers and resources for the FBI.
Reno, a former county prosecutor in Florida, was a newcomer to federal law enforcement and to Washington, and has remained very much an outsider despite her long tenure, deciding difficult matters on her own with relatively little success at political consensus-building.
President Clinton, who has been the target of a greater variety of law enforcement investigations than any previous chief executive, has forced Reno and Freeh to make a series of decisions that were legally complex and politically sensitive and for which precedents offered no clear guide.
Under these circumstances, in Clinton's first term Freeh appeared to distance himself from Reno and other political appointees at Justice in what might have been a healthy effort to maintain the FBI's independence, according to current and former Justice officials. But since Clinton's 1996 reelection, Freeh has sometimes appeared to position himself at cross-purposes with Reno as a means of ensuring his position with the Republican majority in Congress, which holds the FBI's purse strings.
Freeh most notably cut himself loose from Reno in November 1997 when he handed her a lengthy memorandum arguing for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Clinton's campaign fund-raising in 1996 even though he knew that Reno had already decided against that course.
"The bureau's independence is supposed to be in the investigative realm, but by writing a memo that he knew would be leaked, Freeh was not merely expressing a difference of legal opinion, he was declaring a kind of bureaucratic independence from the Justice Department," said an official who was close to Reno.
Since then, congressional Republican leaders have consistently used Freeh's dissent as a club with which to strike at Reno, challenging not only her wisdom but also her competence. Moreover, Freeh, who has close relations with several influential Republican legislators, has left little doubt in his conversations on Capitol Hill that he believes there is sufficient evidence of possible malfeasance by the Clinton campaign that someone outside Justice should be investigating.
When the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee launched its campaign finance investigation, for example, the FBI and the Justice Department presented differing opinions as to the weight of the evidence indicating a plot by the Chinese government to influence the 1996 presidential election.
Although he was appointed to the 10-year term by Clinton, Freeh has studiously kept his distance from the White House, to the point that, by his own admission, he offered more information on the Chinese campaign fund-raising investigation to Republican investigators in Congress than to White House officials conducting diplomacy with Beijing.
More recently, when congressional committees were investigating allegations of Chinese nuclear espionage last summer, the FBI pointed the finger at Reno when questions arose as to whether Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, had been adequately investigated. Although the success of any espionage would have been a clear failing by the FBI, the bureau deflected any potential blame by arguing that Reno was at fault for denying it permission to seek a wiretap when the scientist was under suspicion.
"Recently, it has gone beyond an exercise of autonomy to the point that Freeh seems to have been advancing his own cause by damaging Reno," said a senior Justice Department official.
In each of these instances, FBI officials have insisted that Freeh and the bureau were merely exercising nonpartisan investigative judgments that are essential when sensitive political matters are in question. Freeh has repeatedly insisted that he defers as he must to the Justice Department on matters of law and policy but that the FBI must be able to pursue facts wherever they lead.
"Louis Freeh is a man of unbending principle, and when you are dealing with matters of such extraordinary sensitivity, there is bound to be friction," said a senior FBI official who noted that Reno has always indicated a desire to work out her differences with Freeh on a collegial basis. Moreover, officials in both agencies agree that, on a personal level, Freeh and Reno generally share a warm relationship.
For Reno, however, the stakes have now changed. As she herself has angrily noted, her own credibility has come into question as a result of the way the FBI handled Waco and its long aftermath.