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Saturday, 12 May, 2001, 19:02 GMT 20:02 UK
McVeigh shows FBI 'in turmoil'
FBI agents sealing off property of spy Robert Hanssen
FBI's work is coming under closer scrutiny

By Katty Kay in Washington

The announcement that the FBI had failed to deliver thousands of documents in the Timothy McVeigh case was just the latest in a series of embarrassments for the American intelligence bureau.

Over the past decade the FBI has suffered one setback after another and now Americans are asking can the agency do anything right?

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh
McVeigh has admitted his role in the 1995 bombing
Still reeling from the recent discovery of a spy in its midst, the last thing the FBI needed was another mistake like the McVeigh missing documents case.

And although no one thinks these newly discovered papers will affect McVeigh's verdict of guilt, they will affect the already tarnished reputation of the FBI.

FBI image

That poor image is a problem the American Justice Department is well aware of.

At a press conference on Friday - announcing the delay of McVeigh's execution - US Attorney-General John Ashcroft was asked whether his confidence in the FBI had been diminished.

Mr Ashcroft gave what can only be described as a very lukewarm endorsement of the bureau saying: "I regret that these steps which I have taken are necessary."

FBI director Louis Freeh
FBI director stepped down two years before end of term
Mr Ashcroft's reticence reflects the agency's many recent problems.

From the allegations of an FBI cover-up after the 1993 fateful siege at Waco; to arresting the wrong man in the bombing of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics; to mis-handling the case against a nuclear scientist accused of selling secrets to China - the FBI has had more than its share of public relations disasters over the last decade.

In 1997 a massive review of the agency's crime laboratory came to the damning conclusion that the bureau was riddled with ineptitude and scientifically inaccurate testimony.

'Inefficient'

Most recently the FBI has had to face up to internal security problems.

In February the FBI announced that one of its own agents, Robert Hanssen, had been caught red-handed spying for Russia. The agency congratulated itself on catching Mr Hanssen but admitted that the spy had been giving away valuable information for 15 years before he was caught.

Investigations are still under way to find out how Mr Hanssen avoided detection for quite so long.

After the spy's arrest the FBI director, Louis Freeh, recognised that the agency had to do more to protect itself from espionage but suggested that poor technology at the bureau was partially to blame.

However Mr Freeh has his own share of critics who say that it is his poor management which has led to a breakdown in communications at the bureau.

Russia spy Robert Hanssen
Robert Hanssen had been spying for Russia for 15 years before being caught
"All of a sudden when Freeh came in there was one problem after another," says Ron Kessler, an author who has written in depth about the bureau. "Every six months some new scandal, some new screw-up. Every time you look at these problems you see Freeh made the poor judgement which led to them."

Earlier this month, before this latest embarrassment, Mr Freeh announced that he was leaving the agency two years before his posting is up.

It is not an easy job to fill.

The FBI's countless successes are outweighed in the American public's mind by the bureau's high profile mistakes and the director is held responsible.

Before he leaves office Mr Freeh will face congressional hearings on why his leadership has been beset by quite so many problems.

See also:

12 May 01 | Americas
Anger at McVeigh execution delay
12 May 01 | Americas
The best laid plans...
19 Apr 01 | Americas
McVeigh death banned from web
19 Apr 01 | Americas
Oklahoma marks bomb anniversary
11 Feb 01 | Americas
Bomber wants public execution
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