Freeh takes responsibility for lost McVeigh papers
By Ian Christopher McCaleb
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Outgoing FBI Director Louis Freeh told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday he would accept full responsibility for the consequences of the newly discovered bureau documents in the Oklahoma City bombing case, although he insisted the papers contain nothing to reverse Timothy McVeigh's conviction.
The bureau's probe of the bombing was a complicated, multi-faceted operation that tracked tens of thousands of leads and created millions of documents, Freeh told an appropriations subcommittee that was to consider the FBI budget for fiscal 2002.
Nevertheless, he said, the recent discovery of more than 3,100 pages of material that had not been archived by the investigation's central office in Oklahoma City was disturbing.
"They should have been located and released during [the discovery phase of the McVeigh trial]," Freeh said. "As director, I am accountable and responsible for the failure, and I will take responsibility."
McVeigh was convicted in 1997 of the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in downtown Oklahoma City that claimed 168 lives. McVeigh co-conspirator Terry Nichols was convicted later in 1997 of lesser charges and sentenced to life in prison.
At a Wednesday news conference, defense attorneys Nathan Chambers and Robert Nigh said they had met with McVeigh at the Federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
They said McVeigh was in good spirits in the meeting, but they were tight-lipped about their plans. "It's time to work, not talk," Chambers said.
The two attorneys did say that McVeigh was reviewing his options in the light of recent developments.
Attorney General John Ashcroft last week postponed McVeigh's scheduled execution, which had been set for today, until June 11 so the documents might be assessed and made available to McVeigh's defense team.
Freeh said Wednesday that neither McVeigh's nor Nichols' fate would be altered by the newly discovered documents.
"There is a protective order that prevents me from discussing the substance of the materials," Freeh said. "However ... nothing in the documents raises any doubt about the guilt of Mr. McVeigh or Mr. Nichols."
Wednesday's appearance by Freeh before the subcommittee was his second on Capitol Hill in as many days. Federal agency heads routinely testify before congressional appropriators at this time of year to make pitches for the coming year's budget, but sometimes the topics of discussion can range far afield from spending priorities.
Freeh will have to make a third showing on Thursday.
Members of the House panel expressed skepticism of the FBI's recent track record under Freeh, who is leaving in June to make room for a Bush appointee after eight years as director.
Aside from the McVeigh documents, panel members questioned Freeh about the Robert Hanssen spy case and other recent bureau developments.
"This is not an inquisition today," said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia -- the subcommittee chairman -- as the event got under way. "This is a congressional hearing."
Rep. David Obey, D-Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the full Appropriations Committee, took a harsher tone.
"I think we have today something close to a failed agency," he said. "We have seen a pattern of abuse of individual liberty in the organization ... that is well known in its history. It apparently hasn't stopped."
Obey said the Congress bears some responsibility for that and should have exercised more oversight over the FBI.
Freeh described how thousands of FBI agents conducted tens of thousands of interviews and followed millions of data leads, including hotel registrations, airline bookings and Ryder truck rentals in the days, weeks and months following the bombing.
All of the information was eventually compiled into a database by an FBI field office in Oklahoma City that was dedicated entirely to the bombing probe.
The office, which Freeh called the "Ok-Bomb task force," was in charge of placing every bit of evidence into a computerized database whose contents were eventually to be turned over to the National Archives.
The more than 3,100 pages unearthed recently from a number of other field offices did not match any of the materials in the database. The pages are contained within some 708 documents, he said.
All of those documents are now in the hands of the McVeigh defense team and the federal government's prosecution team in Denver, Freeh said.
Before McVeigh's trial, the "discovery" phase agreement between the federal government and the defense required more information be provided to the defense team than usual in a federal case.
Freeh said Wednesday the original discovery agreement was being adhered to in this latest instance. He said once these pages were discovered, however, he ordered a new "scrubbing" of field offices for any more outstanding pages. More have turned up, he said, and have been transmitted to the legal teams.
"The investigation and the prosecution of this case was a success story of significant accomplishment," Freeh said. "It pains me to have [this] overshadowed by the events of recent days."
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