WASHINGTON -- The FBI came under broad attack Wednesday for a "fortress mentality" that blocks any outside scrutiny, as congressional leaders sought to rein in a once-vaunted agency they said appears to be spinning out of control.
"The image of the FBI in the minds of too many Americans is that this agency has become unmanageable, unaccountable and unreliable," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said at a Senate hearing examining the bureau's recent string of embarrassments.
The indictment of the FBI by lawmakers and prominent witnesses was all the more remarkable because of how quickly the bureau's status has sunk. Just a year ago, many members of Congress were still giving Director Louis J. Freeh rave reviews and urging that the FBI be allowed to take over expanded responsibility for drugs and guns from other federal agencies.
But those plans were declared dead on Wednesday, and instead the FBI faced a blizzard of reform efforts aimed at making the bureau more accountable for its mistakes.
Attorney General John Ashcroft on Wednesday ordered a comprehensive review on "reforming and improving the FBI," while two senators proposed an unprecedented top-to-bottom outside review of the agency aimed at accomplishing that same end. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee approved a measure Wednesday from chairman Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., to create an inspector general post as a watchdog over the FBI, an oversight role that the bureau has generally resisted. A similar idea was proposed in the Senate.
The reforms are considered particularly critical with the FBI's pending changeover in leadership as Freeh prepares to depart.
During nearly three hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, lawmakers from both parties slammed the 11,000-agent FBI over what Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., called "a litany of embarrassing blunders."
Drawing the biggest headlines in recent weeks have been the FBI's failure to uncover the alleged espionage activities of former agent Robert P. Hanssen and its failure to disclose 4,000 pages of materials in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation -- a blunder that forced a one-month delay in Timothy J. McVeigh's execution.
But senators and law-enforcement officials who have dealt with the FBI also lit into the bureau over a series of other serious missteps in the last few years.
These included misleading statements concerning the Branch Davidian standoff outside Waco, Texas; the use of mob informants by agents in Boston; evidence of widespread ineptitude in the FBI lab and botched investigations into nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was cleared of spying allegations; and the case of security guard Richard Jewell, cleared as the prime suspect in the Olympics bombing in Atlanta.
This week, an FBI security expert in Las Vegas who had access to informant identities and witness lists was charged with selling secret FBI information to organized crime figures and others under investigation.
"Sometimes you owe it to a friend to look him in the eye and tell him the hard truth," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a longtime supporter of the FBI and friend of Freeh's. "The hard truth is that the FBI has made mistake after mistake after mistake."
But the expert witnesses appearing before the judiciary committee said the FBI has been unwilling to own up to its mistakes because of a "culture of arrogance" that resists self-scrutiny and seems to perpetuate a mistrust of outsiders.
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