Today is the 20th anniversary of the killing of Vicki Weaver. Following is an article I wrote on this back in 1995, followed by the response from FBI director Louis Freeh, which claimed that I “grossly mischaracterized” the details of Vicki Weaver’s killing.
I wonder how much controversy such a killing would excite nowadays. It is amazing how much further government prerogatives have stretched in the past two decades. And it is perhaps even more amazing how much more docile many Americans have become towards unmitigated government BS.
The Wall Street Journal
January 10, 1995
No Accountability at the FBI
By James Bovard
FBI Director Louis Freeh last week announced that no FBI agents would be fired or severely punished for their role in the botched attack on Idaho white separatist Randy Weaver and his family in 1992, which led to the death of Mr. Weaver’s son and wife. The announcement, which drew denunciations from both the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association, is the conclusion of a patchwork of deception that has continued for more than two years.
Mr. Freeh, in his statement on Friday, declared that “the [Randy Weaver case] crisis was one of the most dangerous and potentially violent situations to which FBI agents have ever been assigned.” But this is patent nonsense. Given the growing importance of this case, a review of the facts is in order.
Randy Weaver lived with his wife and four children in an isolated cabin on Ruby Ridge in the Idaho mountains, 40 miles south of the Canadian border. Mr. Weaver did not favor violence against any other race, but believed that the races should live separately. Because of his extreme beliefs, he was targeted for a sting operation.
In 1989, an undercover agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approached Mr. Weaver and pressured the mountain man to sell him sawed-off shotguns. Mr. Weaver at first refused, but the agent was persistent and Mr. Weaver eventually sold him two shotguns — thereby violating federal firearms law. A court official sent Mr. Weaver a notice to appear in court on the wrong day; after Mr. Weaver did not show up on the correct date, a Justice Department attorney (who knew of the error) got a warrant for his arrest. Federal agents then launched an elaborate 18-month surveillance of Mr. Weaver’s cabin and land.
David Nevin, a defense lawyer involved in the subsequent court case, noted later: “The U.S. marshals called in military aerial reconnaissance and had photos studied by the Defense Mapping Agency. . . . They had psychological profiles performed and installed $130,000 worth of solar-powered long-range spy cameras. They intercepted the Weavers’ mail. They even knew the menstrual cycle of Weaver’s teenage daughter, and planned an arrest scenario around it.”
On Aug. 21, 1992, six heavily armed, camouflaged U.S. marshals sneaked onto Mr. Weaver’s property. Three agents threw rocks to get the attention of Mr. Weaver’s dogs. As Mr. Weaver’s 14-year-old son, Sammy, and Kevin Harris, a 25- year-old family friend living in the cabin, ran to see what the dogs were barking at, U.S. marshals killed one of the dogs. Sammy Weaver fired his gun in the direction the shots had come from. Randy Weaver came out and hollered for his son to come back to the cabin. Sammy yelled, “I’m coming, Dad,” and was running back to the cabin when a federal marshal shot him in the back and killed him.
Kevin Harris responded to Sammy’s shooting by fatally shooting a U.S. marshal. Federal agents falsely testified in court that the U.S. marshal had been killed by the first shot of the exchange; evidence later showed that the marshal had fired seven shots before he was shot himself.
After the death of the U.S. marshal, the commander of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team was called in, and ordered federal agents to shoot any armed adult outside the Weaver cabin, regardless of whether that person was doing anything to threaten or menace federal agents. (Thanks to the surveillance, federal officials knew that the Weavers always carried guns when outside their cabin.)
With the massive federal firepower surrounding the cabin — the automatic weapons, the sniper rifles, the night vision scopes — this was practically an order to assassinate the alleged wrongdoers. Four hundred government agents quickly swarmed in the mountains around the cabin. Most important, the federal agents at that time made no effort to contact Mr. Weaver to negotiate his surrender.
The next day, Aug. 22, Randy Weaver walked to the little shack where his son’s body lay. As he was lifting the latch on the shack’s door, he was shot from behind by FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi. As he struggled back to the cabin, his wife, Vicki, stood in the doorway, holding a 10-month-old baby in her arms and calling for her husband to hurry. The FBI sniper fired again and hit Vicki Weaver in the temple, killing her instantly. (Mr. Horiuchi testified in court that he could hit within a quarter inch of a target at a distance of 200 yards.)
Reuters reported on Aug. 25, three days after the shooting: “FBI Agent Gene Glenn said that the law enforcement officers were proceeding with extreme care, mindful that Weaver’s wife Vicki and three remaining children . . . were also in the cabin. ‘We are taking a very cautious approach,’ he said in a statement to reporters.” An internal FBI report completed shortly after the confrontation justified the killing of Mrs. Weaver by asserting that she had put herself in harm’s way, the New York Times reported in 1993.
Though federal officials now claim that the killing of Vicki Weaver was an accident, the Washington Times’s Jerry Seper reported in September 1993: “Court records show that while the woman’s body lay in the cabin for eight days, the FBI used microphones to taunt the family. ‘Good morning, Mrs. Weaver. We had pancakes for breakfast. What did you have?’ asked the agents in at least one exchange.”
Neither Randy Weaver nor Mr. Harris fired any shots at government agents after the siege began. Mr. Weaver surrendered after 11 days. An Idaho jury found him innocent of almost all charges and ruled that Kevin Harris’s shooting of the U.S. marshal was self-defense. Federal Judge Edward Lodge condemned the FBI and issued a lengthy list detailing the Justice Department’s and FBI’s misconduct, fabrication of evidence, and refusals to obey court orders.
Justice Department officials launched their own investigation. A 542-page report was completed earlier this year that recommended possible criminal prosecution of federal officials and found that the rules of engagement “contravened the Constitution of the United States.” Yet Deval Patrick, assistant ttorney general for civil rights, rejected the findings last month and concluded that the federal agents had not used excessive force.
FBI Director Louis Freeh concluded that there was no evidence to show that Mr. Horiuchi intended to shoot Mrs. Weaver. Yet Bo Gritz, the former Vietnam War hero who represented the government when it finally negotiated Randy Weaver’s surrender after the death of his wife, declared that the government’s profile of the Weaver family recommended killing Mr. Weaver’s wife: “I believe Vicki was shot purposely by the sniper as a priority target. . . . The profile said, if you get a chance, take Vicki Weaver out.”
Mr. Freeh justified the FBI shooting of the Weavers because sniper Horiuchi “observed one of the suspects raise a weapon in the direction of a helicopter carrying other FBI personnel.” But other federal officials testified at the trial that no helicopters were flying in the vicinity of the Weavers’ cabin at the time of the FBI sniping.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Mr. Freeh’s slaps on the wrist last week is his treatment of Larry Potts, Mr. Freeh’s pick as acting deputy FBI director. Mr. Potts was the senior official in charge of the Idaho operation and signed off on the shoot-without-provocation orders. Despite the finding by the Justice Department that the orders violated the Constitution, Freeh recommended that the only penalty Mr. Potts face be a letter of censure — the same penalty Mr. Freeh received when he lost an FBI cellular telephone.
The Weaver case is by far the most important civil-rights/civil-liberties case the Clinton administration has yet resolved — and it resolved it in favor of granting unlimited deadly power to federal agents. If the new Republican congressional leaders let the Justice Department and the FBI get away with what may have been murder, they will be accomplices to a gross travesty of justice.
Mr. Bovard writes often on public policy.
The Wall Street Journal
Copyright (c) 1995, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Thursday, January 26, 1995
Letters to the Editor: No Coverup at the FBI
On Jan. 10, you published an editorial-page piece by James Bovard entitled “No Accountability at the FBI” concerning my decision to discipline FBI employees for their actions associated with the crisis at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992. I am disappointed that Mr. Bovard would write an article that contained misstatements and distorted facts.
Although this crisis occurred before I became director, I have made it a priority to ensure that all the allegations of misconduct by the FBI and its employees were examined and all necessary remedial action taken. Contrary to Mr. Bovard’s opening canard, there has been no “patchwork of deception” at the FBI. That I publicly announced that FBI employees had exhibited errors of judgment, neglect of duty, inadequate performance and failure to exert proper managerial oversight — within two weeks of completion of the administrative review I ordered on Oct. 31, 1994 — belies Mr. Bovard’s allegations that the FBI has sought to cover up any wrongdoing by the FBI or its employees.
The deaths of Deputy United States Marshal William Degan, Vicki Weaver and Samuel Weaver are undeniably tragic. Sadly, Mr. Bovard compounds the tragedy by mischaracterizing the circumstances surrounding these deaths.
Deputy Marshal Degan was shot and killed as he and fellow marshals were withdrawing from the area of the Weaver cabin after conducting a surveillance preparatory to executing the arrest warrant outstanding for Randall Weaver. Mr. Degan and his colleagues were acting under explicit orders not to engage the Weavers during the surveillance. Contrary to Mr. Bovard’s assertion, the deputy marshals did not try to provoke a confrontation; their intent was to retreat from the area without violence and they attempted to do so. Mr. Bovard’s unfair omission of facts misleads the reader and seeks to diminish the enormity of a tragedy that did not have to happen.
The circumstances of Vicki Weaver’s death are also grossly mischaracterized. Her death was accidental. The FBI sniper was firing at a person he reasonably believed had, only seconds before, threatened to shoot at a helicopter carrying fellow law enforcement officers. The shot was fired to prevent the armed subject from gaining the protective cover of the cabin from which it was believed that he and others could fire upon the law enforcement officers on the scene. Vicki Weaver was standing unseen on the cabin porch behind the outwardly opened door. Mr. Bovard fails to note that the bullet that wounded its intended target and that also accidentally struck and killed Vicki Weaver was fired along a path parallel to the front of the Weaver cabin and not at or into the cabin. Mr. Bovard’s inference that her death was intentional is clearly refuted by the conclusion of two offices within the Justice Department that Vicki Weaver’s death was accidental and not criminal conduct.
I support the public’s right to know about the workings of its government and the integral role the press plays in ensuring an informed public. The FBI should be held accountable for its actions. I do not believe, however, that articles such as Mr. Bovard’s, which ignore or twist the truth, further the important objective of public accountability.
Louis J. Freeh
Federal Bureau of Investigation
The Wall Street Journal
Monday, February 27, 1995
Letters to the Editor: The FBI Should Face the Facts
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh, in his Jan. 26 Letter to the Editor, denies the allegations from my Jan. 10 editorial-page article that the FBI has engaged in a coverup regarding its actions at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992. Unfortunately, Mr. Freeh’s comments indicate that his agency is not yet willing to face the facts.
Regarding the shooting of the U.S. marshal, Mr. Freeh asserts that “the deputy marshals did not try to provoke a confrontation; their intent was to retreat from the area without violence and they attempted to do so.” This is the same explanation that U.S. marshals on the witness stand first offered to the Idaho jury. After hours of cross-examination, a U.S. marshal admitted that the conflict began when a marshal shot and killed one of the Weaver’s dogs. Most American dog-owners would consider the shooting of their dog a provocation. And this is a peculiar way to “retreat from the area without violence.” Mr. Freeh does not even attempt to refute the fact that a U.S. marshal shot 14-year-old Sammy Weaver in the back as the boy was running away from the scene of the clash with the marshals.
Regarding the FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi’s killing of Vicki Weaver, Mr. Freeh asserts that the death was accidental and that “the FBI sniper was firing at a person he reasonably believed had, only seconds before, threatened to shoot at a helicopter carrying fellow law-enforcement officers.” The only thing that the FBI’s “helicopter rationale” for the shooting of Randy Weaver lacks is a helicopter. This was the same argument federal prosecutors made at trial in Idaho and it was thrown out of court by the federal judge. Other federal officials testified at the trial that no helicopters were flying in the vicinity of the Weavers’ cabin at the time of the FBI sniping. Chuck Peterson, an Idaho lawyer who was part of Mr. Weaver’s defense team, observed, “The Federal judge threw out the [federal charge that Weaver aimed at] the helicopter because it was so incredibly weak — it was not supported by anything.”
Mr. Freeh then states that the shot that killed Vicki Weaver “was fired to prevent the armed subject from gaining the protective cover of the cabin from which it was believed that he and others could fire upon the law-enforcement officers on the scene.” But Randy Weaver had never fired upon the FBI agents — he was merely a wounded man trying to struggle into his home and the arms of his family. Mr. Freeh’s doctrine essentially means that if a government agent shoots and wounds a private citizen, then the government agent must be presumed to have a right to kill the private citizen — because otherwise the citizen might shoot back at the government agent.
This is a peculiar guide for law enforcement in a free society, for a society in which lawmen are not supposed to be able to wantonly shoot private citizens based on mere suspicion.
Mr. Freeh mentions, regarding the shot that killed Vicki Weaver, that the shot “wounded its intended target and . . . also accidentally struck and killed Vicki Weaver. . . .” Mr. Freeh’s letter implies that the “intended target” was Randy Weaver; however, the sniper at trial claimed that he was shooting at Kevin Harris, a family friend staying in the cabin, who was near the door and was not even accused of aiming at the helicopter. Apparently, since he was in the vicinity of Randy Weaver, that was sufficient for the FBI to attempt to kill him. Mr. Freeh’s wording implies that the bullet first hit the “intended target” and then hit Vicki Weaver. However, the bullet first passed through Vicki Weaver’s head before hitting Kevin Harris. The sniper’s testimony at trial indicated that he may have thought that Vicki Weaver was actually Kevin Harris — but that is a lame excuse for shooting a mother who posed no threat to the federal agents.
Mr. Freeh seeks to justify the shot that killed Vicki Weaver by stating that she was standing (while holding her 10-month old baby) “unseen behind the outwardly opened door.” He claims that the shot was an accident, which others who have examined the case or were involved in the surrender negotiations deny. But what sort of hostage rescue team takes deadly shots by an open door of a single-room cabin occupied by a woman and children?
Mr. Freeh declares, “I support the public’s right to know about the workings of its government and the integral role the press plays in ensuring an informed public.” This is a fine sentence for a letter to the editor, but it is ironic that it comes just after a sentence in which Mr. Freeh invokes a confidential 542-page Justice Department report that he claims vindicates his agency. Why is the Justice Department refusing to allow the public access to its own review of the case? This confidential document reportedly concludes that the FBI rules of engagement “contravened the Constitution of the United States.”
In a case in which three people were shot dead, Mr. Freeh says he has taken “all necessary remedial actions” — i.e., “I publicly announced that FBI employees had exhibited errors of judgment, neglect of duty, inadequate performance and failure to exert proper managerial oversight. . . .” If this case was about how some city policeman’s negligence resulted in a major traffic jam, then Mr. Freeh’s action might be appropriate. But this is a case in which a federal judge and an Idaho jury basically found that the U.S. government was lying from top to bottom in the allegations it made in federal court. (The judge commented that 75% of the evidence that the U.S. government had presented at the trial had actually helped the defense.) Is it proper that FBI acting Deputy Director Larry Potts, the person in charge of the operation, received the same “penalty” (a letter of censure in his file) that Mr. Freeh himself received when he lost a cellular telephone?
Mr. Freeh claims there has been no “patchwork of deception” at the FBI regarding this case. But even the press statement issued on the day that Mr. Freeh announced the wrist-slaps on his subordinates contained false information. The FBI claimed that Mr. Weaver had been convicted of the original weapons violations charge. Actually, an Idaho jury ruled that Mr. Weaver had been illegally entrapped and instead convicted him only of failing to show up for the trial in 1991. The FBI claims to have been studying the Weaver case for more than two years — but still cannot even get the basic facts straight.
The American people look forward to learning the truth of the Randy Weaver case. Unfortunately, that truth will have to come from someplace other than the Federal Bureau of Investigation.