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Freeh Says FBI Actions at Ruby Ridge Were 'Flawed'

By George Lardner Jr.
The Washington Post

FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said Thursday that the bureau's performance during the standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and in its aftermath was "terribly flawed," but he doggedly refused to denounce the shot that killed Vicki Weaver as unlawful or unconstitutional.

"I am not saying that I approve of it," Freeh said of the shot by FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi. "I am not trying to justify it. I am not saying I would have taken it. ... I am certainly not saying that in a future similar set of circumstances, FBI agents or law enforcement officers should take such a shot."

But "on careful balance," the FBI director said in testimony before the Senate subcommittee on terrorism that he believed Horiuchi's shot "was constitutional." And "under all of the circumstances" Horiuchi faced on Aug. 22, 1992, Freeh added, "I do not believe that it was unlawful in that time and place for him" to fire.

Freeh's stance on the last day of the hearings led to lengthy sparring with subcommittee members that overshadowed an extraordinary public confession of errors by an FBI director. He said his outlook would become even worse if allegations of a coverup concerning Ruby Ridge, now under Justice Department investigation, are sustained.

Vicki Weaver was killed, with her baby daughter in her arms, while holding a cabin door open for her white separatist husband, Randy Weaver, and two others fleeing for cover after Horiuchi's first shot. Horiuchi took the Fifth Amendment before the subcommittee last month. He testified in 1993 that he was not aiming at Vicki Weaver, but at the last man running into the cabin, Kevin Harris.

The bullet struck Vicki Weaver, killing her, and then wounded Harris, landing near his heart. Horiuchi said he was trying to protect the occupants of an FBI helicopter that he heard-but did not see-moments before he fired his first shot, which wounded Randy Weaver.

Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) said he was troubled because the problem involved not just the past but future uses of deadly force. He said it was clear to him "those people running into the house did not pose a threat to anybody" and that Horiuchi fired because controversial rules of engagement at Ruby Ridge told the snipers they "could and should" shoot any armed adult male seen in the vicinity of the Weaver cabin.

The rules, however, were "clearly wrong" and so, Thompson argued, Horiuchi "had to ... take the position" that he fired his shots "under the standard deadly force policy of the FBI," permitting its use to prevent "imminent threat" of death or bodily harm to oneself or another.

"Agent Horiuchi was in a bind," Thompson said, "and it's unfortunate ... but I think it's a little bit more of a problem when the director of the FBI says that he can't pass judgment on those circumstances."

Freeh disagreed, pointing out that he accepted Horiuchi's testimony while Thompson was challenging it. "My judgment clearly is that it was a constitutional shot," Freeh said. "That doesn't mean that it was a good shot."

Good or bad, it was apparent at Thursday's hearing that new uniform rules on the use of deadly force promulgated this week for the FBI and all other Justice and Treasury department law enforcement agencies would not prevent such a shot from being made again.

Freeh said new training would emphasize use of lesser force wherever feasible. He said that "given everything we know now," such a shot would not be taken. But he emphasized that he was speaking with the benefit of hindsight, and not of the split-second decisions made by Horiuchi.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the subcommittee chairman, said he doubted that even the new rules would pass constitutional muster because they permit the use of deadly force in the face of an "imminent" rather than an "immediate" threat.

Despite the disagreements, Freeh won high praise for the steps he has taken to change the FBI's crisis management structure and to adopt other policies that he said would address "the flaws and shortcomings" of the FBI's response at Ruby Ridge.

The FBI snipers at Ruby Ridge were members of the bureau's military-style Hostage Rescue Team. Freeh said he felt the HRT was needed, but he indicated he would not have sent it to Ruby Ridge had he been director at the time.

Freeh said the inquiry is expected to take eight months. He gave little detail about the allegations but said they would, if proven, "shake the very foundation of integrity upon which the FBI is built."