Beverley Lumpkin: Halls of Justice

DIGGING FOR SECRETS

At the end of last month the strange saga of former Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee took an even stranger turn when officials acknowledged the FBI was preparing to search the Los Alamos landfill in hopes of finding the tapes containing highly classified nuclear secrets that Lee claims to have thrown out.

The story seemed absurd but now there’s an even more amazing turn: the dig has been fruitful; beyond all imagining, tapes have been found!

You’ll recall that when Lee reached his plea bargain with the government, he was required to submit to debriefing sessions during which he was to recount everything he could about his making of the tapes and what had happened to them.

Sources say during those sessions, the last two of which are scheduled for next week, Lee told agents that he had discarded the tapes in the regular Los Alamos lab trash. The sources say he also named the month and year when he had thrown them away; that’s believed to be in 1995.

Well, the Los Alamos landfill has a special section just for lab trash. And the FBI has a bright young agent whose undergraduate degree was in archaeology. So they were able to determine very specifically where the trash from that month in 1995 had been deposited.

They dug down through the layers and, according to two officials, have so far actually retrieved several tapes. The tapes are currently in the FBI lab where experts are trying to determine if they are indeed the coveted Lee tapes. And the agents are still digging, hoping for more.

PELTIER CLEMENCY BID IGNITES FBI FEARS

Leonard Peltier is the American Indian Movement leader who’s been locked up ever since his conviction for the murders of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, in 1975.

During that time he has managed to convince a huge constituency that he is innocent and was railroaded by corrupt government agents.

Just a few of those who have supported his bid for clemency: civil and human rights leaders Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Amnesty International, entertainers Robert Redford, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Winona Ryder, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.), Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

Recently President Clinton said he would give Peltier’s clemency petition “an honest look-see.” This has caused real pain but also some rather intense hysteria at the FBI. Never exactly known as a PR genius, FBI Director Louis Freeh chose to make his plea to the president not to grant clemency by writing letters to Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno that were immediately made public by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The letter to the president, just more than a page in length, briefly urges him to consider that agents Ron Williams and Jack Coler “were grievously wounded during an overwhelming ambush as they searched for a bank robbery suspect. While disabled they were executed at point blank range. Both were shot in the head, agent Williams as he held up his hand in a desperate attempt to shield his face from the blast.”

Freeh goes on to plead that “there is no issue more deeply felt within the FBI or more widely shared within the law enforcement community than the belief that this attack by Peltier was nothing less than a complete affront to our cherished system of government under the rule of law.”

The letter from Freeh to Reno is rather peculiar in that it clearly was not drafted to be a message from the director to the attorney general. It does not employ the usual language of an agent to a prosecutor, either.

It quotes lengthy passages from various court rulings upholding Peltier’s conviction, but the excerpts are frequently repetitive. It reads as both a hurried attempt to recite the main pieces of evidence against Peltier (they are impressive), and to persuade the ignorant, and also as a rallying point for the faithful agents who seem to be Freeh’s actual intended readers.

Those agents, the rank and file, are so alarmed at the prospect of Peltier’s release that they are planning a demonstration in front of the White House, Dec. 15. Needless to say, a public demonstration by FBI agents is exceedingly rare. The rally is technically not sanctioned by headquarters, and the agents who participate will be taking leave to do so, but there’s no question the top ranks will be giving moral support to the demonstrators.

John Sennett, president of the FBI Agents’ Association, said the purpose of the rally is to draw the attention of the president, “and frankly the media,” to the reality of the murders of the two agents by Peltier, and, “to offset what we regard as the misinformation and disinformation regarding the guilt of Leonard Peltier.”

They are aware of the intense lobbying effort under way by Peltier’s supporters and are concerned there may be some basis for the supporters’ optimism.

One agent said there probably wouldn’t be signs or banners because that wouldn’t be “dignified.” Another, when asked what the demonstration would look like, responded, “it will be a very dignified and quiet gathering of a couple hundred people in raincoats.” They plan on leaving a letter signed by a large number of agents at the White House gates.

One senior Justice official told me that Justice thinks Clinton was just “pandering” and has no real intention of granting Peltier clemency.

The department long ago made its recommendation to the president against it, and, this official said, Justice people would be “shocked” if the president were to commute his sentence.

FIRST FEDERAL EXECUTION

Speaking of clemency…it’s almost a sick joke for Juan Raul Garza: the good news is President Clinton has granted you a six-month reprieve; the bad news is, George W. Bush will likely be president when that time runs out.

Garza was convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 under the federal kingpin statute for three murders committed as part of a drug-trafficking organization based in Brownsville, Texas.

Reno really agonized about this one, according to several officials. At her weekly briefing Thursday morning, regarding the clamor for a moratorium on all federal executions, she reiterated, “I have not seen a basis for supporting it thus far.”

And she made clear she wanted to review all the additional information, mentioned here last week, that’s being collected from the U.S. attorneys’ offices on crimes that could have been charged under death penalty statutes but were not.

With Garza’s scheduled execution looming Dec. 12, Reno was still insisting she wanted to review all that information before making a final recommendation to the president.

Late Thursday afternoon, she and Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder went over to meet directly with the president, his chief of staff, and his counsel.

I’m told that Reno and Holder laid out for Clinton four basic options and the rationale for each: (1) to proceed with the execution; (2) to impose a moratorium; (3) to commute Garza’s sentence on the grounds that the jury that convicted him was not told it could have imposed a sentence of life in prison without possibility of release. Although the law did not require at that time that the jury be so informed, it now does, and some at Justice thought that sufficient grounds for granting clemency.

The fourth option is what the president finally chose, and what I’m told Holder at least favored: another temporary reprieve until a final report on the racial, ethnic and geographic disparities can be prepared.

Clinton’s statement stayed the execution until June 2001. He said, “I have simply concluded that the examination of possible racial and regional bias should be completed before the United States goes forward with an execution in a case that may implicate the very questions raised by the Justice Department’s continuing study. In this area there is no room for error.”

He asks the attorney general (whoever he or she may be) to report to the president by next April on the results of the analysis.

In some respects the decision is classic Clinton in that it pleases virtually no one. Those who have been urging a moratorium are disappointed; some of them, including civil rights leaders Joseph Lowery and Julian Bond, met this morning and expressed their displeasure to Reno and Holder.

Garza’s champions cannot be assuaged by the pyrrhic victory of escaping execution at Clinton’s hands only to be delivered (apparently) to Bush’s tender mercies. They cannot be optimistic the latter would grant clemency that the former eschewed. And finally, closure is put off yet again for the families of Garza’s several victims.

Beverley Lumpkin covers the Justice Department for ABCNEWS. Halls of Justice appears every Friday.

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