If a one-month delay in Timothy McVeigh's execution were the only consequence of the FBI's failure to turn over promised evidence to McVeigh's lawyers, it might be chalked up as an oversight. So, too, might the blunder be overlooked, if it were unique.
Unfortunately, neither is the case.
The FBI's failure to turn over 3,000 pages of documents from its Oklahoma City bombing investigation adds to a record of incompetence that fuels anti-government fanaticism akin to McVeigh's while undercutting the agency's crime-fighting ability. The past decade's record reads like militia-movement propaganda:
• Ruby Ridge: In 1992, FBI agents killed an unarmed woman holding her baby, withheld evidence about the incident and then agreed to pay the woman's family millions.
• Waco: In 1993, a standoff with a cult ended in a massive fire and dozens of deaths. The FBI denied using incendiary grenades during the siege, only to admit it years later.
• FBI Crime Lab: The Department of Justice inspector general found inaccurate testimony based on flawed science at the FBI lab used in major cases across the country.
• Wen Ho Lee: After charging the nuclear scientist with 59 criminal counts related to giving weapons secrets to China, the case fell apart last year, leaving only one charge.
• Robert Hanssen: The FBI is revamping internal security after revelations last year that one of its top counterintelligence officials sold secrets to Russia for a decade.
It is not entirely fair to view the FBI solely through the lens of its most colossal failures. The FBI is a sprawling organization with more than 10,000 agents and worldwide responsibilities, most of which are carried out with precision. But each public incident of bumbling, often followed by a coverup, seeds doubts about every other act of the FBI, no matter how perfectly performed.
Fallout from FBI fumbles has grown so bad that the FBI and its overseers at the Department of Justice don't even trust each other. When former attorney general Janet Reno heard that the FBI had withheld evidence of its activities at Waco, her distrust had grown so much that she sent in federal marshals to take custody of the evidence.
When current FBI chief Louis Freeh found evidence of Iranian involvement in a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, he refused to reveal it to the Clinton administration because he doubted the political leadership at the Department of Justice would fairly prosecute the case.
The combination of repeated scandals and rampant distrust defines a dysfunctional agency. That's why President Bush should make the ability to rebuild the broken bureau a priority in finding new FBI leadership.