The Culture Of 'Yes Men'

FBI Director Louis Freeh couldn't have been more emphatic. "I am not here to ... make excuses," he stated as forcefully as he could.

This was not the way Freeh wanted to make his exit. Just two weeks ago, the stern and morally upright director had announced his resignation to a swoon of praise from Capitol Hill, especially among Republicans who still love him for his take-no-prisoners approach to the Clinton White House.

But instead of a swan song, Freeh came to Capitol Hill today to offer up the first public accounting of one of the biggest FBI disasters in years-how more than 3,000 pages of documents on the Oklahoma City bombing had remained buried in FBI field offices until last week. A furious Attorney General John Ashcroft was forced to put off convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh's execution-which was supposed to take place today-for at least a month.

It was, Freeh acknowledged with something of an understatement, a "serious error." As all involved in the OKBOMB case understood, the FBI had an "unquestionable obligation" to identify every conceivable document in the case and, under a unique arrangement entered into by federal prosecutors, turn them over to McVeigh's lawyers prior to his 1996 trial.

But as the low-key, "just the facts, ma'am" Freeh told the story to a House subcommittee, a familiar pattern began to take shape-one that has been seen repeatedly in FBI mishaps and disasters over the years. Freeh himself had given the right orders. Indeed, he said, more than four and a half years ago-on Nov. 15, 1996, to be precise-he personally sent a "strongly worded priority Teletype" to FBI field offices directing that all materials on the case be sent "promptly" to the Oklahoma City command post.

For some reason they weren't. The field offices "misunderstood" what they were supposed to do or "misinterpreted" their instructions. But now that the problem has been called to his attention, Freeh explained, he has once again taken charge. Last Friday evening Freeh said, "I ordered a complete shakedown of the FBI," telling all his field directors to drop everything they were doing and once again scrub the files. And of course, Freeh emphasized, he told his field directors he was holding them "personally responsible."

The bottom-line message: The FBI screwed up-big time, as Dick Cheney might say. The first federal execution in 38 years has had to be delayed. The families of the Oklahoma City bombing victims have been put through an emotional wringer.

But it wasn't Louis Freeh's fault.

Rep. David Obey said he had heard it all before. Giving Freeh a rare tongue lashing, the Wisconsin Democrat clicked off what he called a "truly astonishing" litany of FBI failures in recent years-from Ruby Ridge to Waco to Wen Ho Lee. In each of these cases, he said, the FBI had been "undisciplined and sloppy," covering up embarrassing documents and cutting corners.

But Freeh-a man whose moral probity nobody questions-always remains insulated from the bad news until it was too late.

"You can't afford to have a culture of yes men in your agency," Obey told Freeh.

It was an admonition that, in this case, seemed particularly incisive.

As Freeh outlined the chronology today, FBI officials in Oklahoma City first spotted the problem as early as last January when a Dec. 20, 2000, archivist's memo to field offices turned up an envelope of OKBOMB documents that had been previously unaccounted for. That was followed by a Jan. 30, 2001, directive from the OKBOMB task force to field offices directing that "everything remaining anywhere in the field" be sent in-so it could be matched up with computer databases that was supposed to have recorded everything that had been turned over to the McVeigh defense lawyers.

Beginning in late January, the documents trickled and then flooded in-more than 100 boxes of materials in all consisting of FBI interview reports, Teletypes, photographs and the like. Most, if not all of them, amounted to nothing-bum leads or extraneous call-ins that in no way contradict the verdict that McVeigh planned and carried out the bombing of the Murrah building that led to the deaths of 168 people. But that wasn't the point; the documents were supposed to have been turned over and they weren't.

By early March, an FBI analyst in Oklahoma City notified Danny Defenbaugh, the FBI director in Dallas and the chief of the OKBOMB task force, about the potential problem. She's got a bunch of documents that don't appear to match up with what's in the bureau's computer database. Yet another directive, dated March 15, 2001, goes out to the field telling them to send everything in.

That was followed, Freeh said, by "several weeks of additional research." It's not until last Tuesday, May 8, that Defenbaugh-a seasoned agency veteran well-known to the director-finally notifies astonished federal prosecutors about the missing documents. And it's not until two days after that, last Thursday, that anybody bothers to tell Freeh.

Now at the Bush White House and at the Ashcroft Justice Department, one question stands out: How is that possible? What is the mindset and culture of an agency where, in the midst of a screwup of truly monumental proportions, everybody is afraid to tell the boss?

At the FBI, it appears, the culture of yes men still prevails.