A mysterious hand blocks FBI reforms

An anonymous Republican senator is using an arcane procedure to block a reform bill. Is the GOP taking revenge for the Dems' rejection of Pickering?

By Eric Boehlert
Published June 7, 2002 11:07PM (EDT)

Fixing the FBI has become a priority among members of Congress in recent weeks, as revelations of the bureau's intelligence breakdowns have mounted. But while many see an urgent, bipartisan need for reform, one effort is being checked by a hardball political maneuver.

Using a century-old procedural tactic, an unidentified Republican senator has placed a hold on the FBI Reform Act of 2002, making it virtually impossible for the legislation to reach the full Senate for a vote.

The bill is designed to address the lack of management accountability and other chronic FBI shortcomings, and it passed the Judiciary Committee by a unanimous vote in April. But just days after the vote, a hold was placed on the bill anonymously and without explanation.

Speculation on Capitol Hill suggests it may be Republican payback for the contentious defeat of conservative Mississippi District Court Judge Charles Pickering. Nominated to the federal Appeals Court by President Bush, Pickering was defeated in a party line vote eight weeks ago by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

At the time, some Republicans vowed revenge and threatened to delay Democratic legislation. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and voted against Pickering. He is also co-sponsor of the FBI Reform Act, along with Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley.

Thursday's hearing before the Senate's Judiciary Committee, featuring testimony from FBI Director Robert Mueller, as well as President George Bush's nationally televised address announcing the creation of a Cabinet-level homeland security office to supplement the FBI, were just the latest examples of a crusade to mend the bureau.

Despite previous threats, the hold came as a surprise, says Leahy spokesman David Carle. "Having been carefully vetted and unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee, he [Leahy] expected it to be overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, approved by the Senate," Carle says.

The need for FBI reform is "all the more apparent now," Carle adds, as stories emerge about bureaucratic breakdowns and missed chances to foil the Sept. 11 hijackers.

The Leahy-Grassley bill was the result of the Judiciary Committee's year-long series of FBI oversight hearings, which examined the bureau's mishandling of thousands of documents in the prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, the discovery of turncoat spy Robert Hanssen and other high-profile embarrassments.

Specifically, the FBI Reform Act would give FBI employees legal whistleblower rights, the same rights given to other federal employees by the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. It would also institute a counterintelligence polygraph program to ferret out spies; strengthen the role of the U.S. Inspector General in monitoring the FBI; modernize the FBI's information technology systems; and eliminate the disparity between disciplinary action among the FBI's senior managers and rank-and-file members, an ongoing conflict blamed for morale problems inside the bureau.

Perhaps most importantly, the bill seeks to "address the accountability problems that have plagued the FBI for years," Grassley said in April.

The bill was written in cooperation with the bureau, and according to Carle, the Bush administration never expressed an objection to the proposed reforms. Leahy, he says, has no idea who is blocking the measure.

In the sometimes arcane culture of the U.S. Senate, holds are considered a courtesy. Whenever legislation is scheduled to be brought to the floor for a vote, unanimous consent is requested. Party leaders poll their cloakrooms and if a single member objects, that senator informs his party leader privately and the bill is held back.

A year and a half ago, Senate leaders Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., moved to curtail the use of anonymous holds. They sent out a letter informing colleagues that when asking for such a hold, senators would have to notify not just their party leader, but also the chairman who has jurisdiction as well as the bill's sponsors. According to Senate staffers though, the proposed rules have not been enforced.

Recently, when Leahy tried once again to move the FBI Reform Bill to a vote, he was informed by Lott that the hold remained in place.

"The bill's fallen into legislative limbo and out of sight but the public deserves to know that these constructive steps are available [to fix the FBI] and can be done quickly," Carle says. "The public isn't aware of it and the press hasn't asked about it." That's partly because neither Leahy nor Grassley has publicly addressed the anonymous hold.

Their silence is not unusual, says Kris Kolesnik, director of the National Whistleblower Center and formerly Grassley's chief congressional investigator. "It's typical not to discuss the hold. It's sort of a mating dance. First you need to try to find out who's behind it and why they did it. Then if the senator gets really ticked off he starts a public campaign to try to smoke out whoever's doing it."

While it's possible the hold was put on the bill out of substantive concerns, said a Grassley spokeswoman, "generally speaking, the reason for the hold does not have anything to do with the matter at hand."

Several Capitol Hill sources suggest it was likely in retaliation for the Pickering vote. Following the judge's defeat in March, Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles, the GOP's assistant minority leader, vowed the party would do "whatever is necessary" to make sure Democrats hold confirmation hearings for President Bush's judicial nominees.

According to an Associated Press story at the time, Nickles' spokeswoman said the GOP would consider using procedural tactics to stall Democratic nominees and legislation. The fact that Republican Grassley is a co-sponsor may not be a deterrent, either. Because so many bills have bipartisan sponsors, the impact on Grassley might be considered unavoidable.

Also in the wake of Pickering's defeat, minority leader Lott blocked a Judiciary Committee request for $1.5 million to investigate the intelligence community's performance during the Sept. 11 attacks.

A spokesman for Nickles said the senator did not put a hold on the bill. Calls to Lott's spokesman were not returned.

For now, the congressional guessing game continues -- and the brinksmanship builds. In the end, Kolesnik predicts, the strategy will backfire. "Whoever's putting a hold on this is going to lose," he said, "because the public doesn't support opposition to reforming the FBI."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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