The official in charge of the FBI's anthrax probe was accused of misconduct and recommended for discipline for his role in a flawed review of the deadly Ruby Ridge standoff, but a Justice Department official later concluded that punishment was unwarranted, according to newly revealed information about the case.
Van A. Harp, a 32-year FBI veteran who now heads the bureau's Washington field office, allegedly "committed misconduct" by helping to prepare an incomplete report on the 1992 Ruby Ridge siege that had the effect of protecting high-level FBI officials, according to a confidential 1999 report by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility.
The report by Justice Department attorney Richard M. Rogers recommended a letter of censure or suspension for Harp, but Stephen R. Colgate, then the assistant attorney general, rejected that recommendation in January 2001, sources said. As has been disclosed, Colgate also declined to issue penalties against others, including then-FBI Director Louis J. Freeh. Harp's role in the investigations of Ruby Ridge had not been previously reported.
Harp was put in charge of the Washington field office in July 2001, an influential position that thrust him into the spotlight when the office took the lead in the probe of last fall's deadly anthrax mailings. He previously was head of the FBI office in Cleveland. He worked in the Buffalo office at the time of the Ruby Ridge probe.
In a written statement, Harp said that leaks about his role in the Ruby Ridge inquiries violate "all sense of propriety" and ignore reviews that exonerated him.
"Actions such as this impugn not only my integrity but also the judgment of FBI and DOJ [Department of Justice] officials in the decision-making progress," Harp wrote. "My actions have been scrutinized at the highest levels of the FBI and DOJ, and no wrongdoing was found. . . . I firmly stand on my record."
FBI spokesman Mike Kortan said it is clear that Harp and others were exonerated. "The decision on any proposed discipline was ultimately made by senior Justice officials, who in this case determined no wrongdoing on the part of these individuals," Kortan said.
But in a letter Thursday to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, the National Whistleblower Center alleged that the lack of punishment for Harp and others underscores a "perverse culture" at the FBI in which senior managers protect each other from fair scrutiny.
"The wrongdoers keep rising to the top," said the letter from Kris Kolesnik, the center's director, and Frederic Whitehurst, a former FBI chemist who revealed problems at the bureau's crime lab. "Meanwhile, those who refuse to look the other way face a dead-end in their careers."
Kolesnik and Whitehurst urged Mueller, who was named to head the FBI eight months after the Ruby Ridge sanction decisions were made, to release internal documents about Ruby Ridge and its aftermath. They contended that disclosure would "help restore the public's confidence that was eroded because of misconduct in these investigations."
Rank-and-file FBI agents have long complained that senior officials cover for each other during controversies, while lower-level agents shoulder the blame.
In the Ruby Ridge case, the Justice Department's inspector general's office opened a probe last year into allegations that senior FBI officials retaliated against agents who uncovered flaws in the bureau's handling of the siege. That probe is not expected to be completed before fall, sources said.
The standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, began with a shootout on Aug. 21, 1992, that resulted in the deaths of U.S. Marshal William Degan and Sammy Weaver, the young son of white separatist Randy Weaver. The next day, an FBI sniper killed Weaver's wife, Vicki, as the result of unprecedented "shoot-to-kill" orders that were later ruled illegal by a federal court.
Most of the FBI supervisors who conducted a series of flawed inquiries into the case faced no disciplinary action and were promoted to senior jobs throughout the bureau, according to watchdog groups and others familiar with the case.
A case in point, according to the whistleblower group, is the 1993 investigative team that included Harp and was led by FBI Inspector Robert E. Walsh. Seven senior members of the team were later promoted despite serious questions about their inquiry, Kolesnik's group charged in the letter to Mueller.
A Senate subcommittee investigation found that Walsh's report, issued in 1994, was tilted to justify the shooting of Vicki Weaver. Later investigations found that the shoot-to-kill orders were issued by then-Assistant Director Larry Potts, and that the official who supervised the case from FBI headquarters, Danny Coulson, knew about the orders.
A follow-up inquiry by Rogers alleged that Walsh and Harp failed to ensure that their inquiry was complete, and were "motivated by a desire to counterbalance the perceived bias" against the FBI and "thereby protect some subjects of the investigation," the report read, according to sources with access to the findings.
"The Walsh report was drafted in a way that tended to direct attention away from Potts and Coulson," said the Rogers report, which was completed in June 1999.
The report recommended discipline for Harp, but not for Walsh, who had retired, sources said. The Rogers report also condemned a review conducted by Charles Mathews III, now head of the FBI's office in Portland, Ore., and recommended discipline for him. Investigators said Mathews should have recused himself because he was a friend of Coulson; Mathews could not be reached for comment.
Walsh, reached in Chicago, where he now runs an investigative consulting business, said the Rogers report's criticisms of him and others, including Harp and Mathews, were unfounded. He and Harp were limited in what they could investigate and were not allowed to interview federal marshals or prosecutors, Walsh said.
Walsh, who was a friend of Potts, also denied allegations that the report was "skewed" to protect senior FBI officials.