Last Tuesday at a House hearing on Puerto Rican clemency, a draft letter from FBI Director Louis J. Freeh undercut the Justice Department. On Wednesday, a team of FBI agents told a Senate committee that Justice Department attorneys had stymied their campaign finance investigation. On Thursday, at her weekly briefing, Attorney General Janet Reno fielded questions that kept returning to the same unpleasant theme--the unusually hostile relations between Justice and the FBI.
A healthy tension always animates the relationship between the nation's premier law enforcement agency and the lawyers who handle their wiretap requests and decide whether to prosecute their suspects. But last week seemed different to longtime observers of the two institutions.
"This town seems to be dividing up between supporters of Reno and supporters of Freeh. I think that is unfortunate," said Tim Lynch, a criminal justice expert at the Washington-based Cato Institute.
For years, there was widespread regard around the country for many of Reno's decisions on independent counsels, including her repeated requests for special prosecutors to probe Clinton administration figures that enraged the White House and delighted Republicans. But now, it is almost if those judgments never happened. In the eyes of her most acidic critics, Reno and the lawyers who work for her have morphed into untrustworthy scoundrels at worst, or incompetent bumblers at best.
The climate was brought on by new revelations about the FBI's 1993 Waco siege. For six years, FBI and Justice officials told Congress and the public that during the final assault on the Branch Davidian compound no devices had been used that could have caused the fire in which scores of sect members perished. But when both agencies had to admit last month that potentially incendiary devices had been used, a new season began. And since then, Reno and the Justice Department have ended up on the losing end of nearly every political and policy skirmish, as Republicans have blamed the attorney general relentlessly and left Freeh and the FBI virtually untouched.
With several House and Senate committees launching new investigations of the Justice Department, the political hits that Reno and her department are now taking may well continue throughout her term.
The rift between Justice and the FBI traces to a watershed event--Reno's decision in late 1997 not to seek an independent counsel to investigate campaign finance abuses by the Clinton-Gore campaign. Many Republicans feel that Reno supported inquiries into lesser figures--Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman and others--but wouldn't support an independent campaign finance inquiry that led to the White House.
Since then, Republicans have been deeply suspicious of the attorney general and convinced that politics unduly influences her decision-making about law enforcement matters. (Even Reno's subsequent approval to expand independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation into the Monica Lewinsky matter failed to assuage GOP doubts.) In contrast, support for the FBI among congressional Republicans soared when they learned that Freeh had supported an independent counsel for the campaign finance probe.
Tensions between Justice and the FBI have flared up on occasion ever since--for example, when bureau agents complained that Justice had not supported their requests for wiretaps in their investigation of suspected nuclear spy Wen Ho Lee--but it was the Waco revelations that brought the conflict to a head.
President Clinton has continued to express confidence in Reno, and her recent decision to appoint former Missouri senator John C. Danforth to investigate the Waco affair has drawn bipartisan support. Still, congressional Republicans have stepped up calls for Reno's resignation.
Days before Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) became the highest-ranking Republican to call for Reno to step aside earlier this month, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) said the attorney general had lost her way and ought to resign.
"Senator Gramm simply views the attorney general as the last person to know, in instance after instance, where something was found to be wrong in the Justice Department," said Larry Neal, Gramm's spokesman. "It was the cumulative weight of all those failures that finally brought him to the conclusion that she should step aside."
Asked whether her credibility has been damaged so severely by Waco that she can no longer lead the Justice Department effectively, Reno replied, "I don't think the American people like people who identify a problem and then run from the problem and say . . . 'I'm out of here.' " She says she will await the outcome of Danforth's investigation.
Congressional Democrats, for their part, have tried to shift the spotlight to Freeh. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) characterized GOP calls for Reno's resignation as "duplicitous."
"If you are going to have an honest investigation, it has to include not only Janet Reno but also Louis Freeh," Durbin said. "Fairness requires that both agencies and probably others be held accountable."
But not all Democrats have been so supportive of Reno. "The Justice Department should be an island of stability in the otherwise turbulent world of politics. It has instead become the eye of the storm," said Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.). "The president needs to meet with Janet Reno and assure himself of her continued ability to manage the department."
Inside Justice, some officials say Reno has not done enough to rein in Freeh, who technically reports to her as the nation's top law enforcement official. Many at Justice cheered quietly when Reno dispatched U.S. marshals to seize new evidence in the Waco matter from FBI headquarters several weeks ago. But while it mollified critics inside Justice, it also angered some FBI officials.
On top of the Waco disclosures, Justice took unexpected hits on a series of other matters last week. After the House Government Reform Committee chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) issued subpoenas asking for information about Clinton's controversial decision to offer clemency to 16 Puerto Rican nationalists, the Justice Department tried to stop the FBI's views on clemency from reaching the panel. But Freeh, through a draft memo and the testimony of a senior FBI official, made it clear that he had strongly opposed the terrorists' release. Once again, Reno drew harsh criticism.
"It would be unconscionable for the Justice Department to try to muzzle the FBI on matters pertaining to terrorism," Burton wrote to Reno last week. "Unfortunately, though, that would be fully consistent with your practice over the past several weeks. . . . Once again, Attorney General Reno, it appears that you are acting not as a servant of the people, but to protect the president."
The other contretemps last week took place when Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, listened to three FBI agents and a former agent testify that their pursuit of campaign finance abuses involving Democratic fund-raiser Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie had been limited by Justice Department officials.
"I would not rule out the possibility of obstruction of justice at the Justice Department," Thompson said.
The Justice Department dismisses such charges as groundless. "The attorney general's job is one that puts her squarely in the cross hairs virtually every time she makes a decision," said spokesman Myron Marlin.
While remaining stoic in public, Reno has confided to friends that she feels anguished about Waco. But as for derogatory critiques of her performance and calls for her resignation, she's used to them.
"It is hard to overstate how little effect these attacks have on Janet Reno," said Walter Dellinger, a friend of Reno, partner in the law firm of O'Melveny and Myers and former solicitor general. "She simply does not respond to what the nation's capital understands to be the basic incentive system for ambition for higher office or fear of public criticism."