On July 30, 1996, the media descended on Richard Jewell, the security guard at Centennial Olympic Park hailed for discovering a bomb, then suspected of planting it. That week Ann Woolner wondered whether Jewel might be innocent. Attached is her resulting opinion column
Senate: Committee questions intelligence heads over how best to prevent future espionage. ‘I don’t think there’s any silver bullet,’ one senator says.
March 01, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER
WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders on Wednesday demanded to know how the FBI failed to catch a suspected Russian spy in its ranks for 15 years and what steps authorities will take to prevent a recurrence of the worst spy scandal in the agency’s history.
At a three-hour closed-door briefing with the heads of the FBI, the CIA and the Justice Department, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee mulled possible spy-catching remedies that included more aggressive use of polygraph tests, financial audits and computer surveillance of FBI agents to detect suspicious activity, officials said.
Some critics wonder, however, whether the FBI director has gotten a free ride from Congress in the wake of this latest scandal.
In his eight years as director, Freeh has emerged largely unscathed despite a series of controversies that included the FBI’s handling of the Branch Davidian standoff, the Richard Jewell-Olympic bombing investigation, the Wen Ho Lee espionage investigation and now the Hanssen case. He has remained popular among Republicans in large part because he sought an outside counsel to probe campaign fund-raising abuses during the Clinton administration.
Author Ronald Kessler, who wrote a critical column this week about the Hanssen case in the Washington Post under the headline “Fire Freeh,” said in an interview that he believes the FBI director has learned how to control his media image to his advantage. But he said that “when people begin to tie together” the Hanssen case and some of Freeh’s past failings, “I think they’ll start thinking differently about his situation.”
On Saturday, July 27, 1996, a terrorist’s bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park at the Atlanta Summer Games, killing two and injuring 111. The toll would have been far higher if not for security guard Richard Jewell, who discovered the bag holding the bomb and helped clear the area. Yet within hours, praise of his heroism turned to vicious accusations. Jewell would be hounded for months by investigations and the media. Eventually, the FBI would capture and convict Eric Robert Rudolph for the crime. Judging Jewell revisits the scene in Atlanta where Richard Jewell, a man simply doing his job, lost the one thing he valued most — his honor.
Attorney General Janet Reno asked the FBI to investigate whether its agents had mishandled the Atlanta bombing probe after top Justice Department officials in Atlanta and Washington raised concerns about whether suspect Richard Jewell’s constitutional rights had been violated.
Following a conversation Reno initiated with FBI Director Louis J. Freeh on Sept. 27, the two agreed to open an internal inquiry to determine whether Jewell had been questioned improperly, a senior federal official said.
Reno disclosed at her weekly news conference Thursday that she had inquired about Jewell’s interrogation. Asked why the FBI internal inquiry was necessary, she said, “If there are any questions raised, then we try to pursue them to make sure we are held accountable; that if something wrong was done, we know who did it and try to take appropriate action.”
The Justice Department officially advised Jewell last Saturday that he is no longer a suspect in the July 27 bombing of an Olympic park that left two dead and more than 100 injured. After 88 days in the spotlight, that left Jewell absolved, but now attention has shifted to those who pursued him.
At issue are highly unusual tactics used by FBI agents who questioned Jewell when the security guard was a prime suspect. According to federal officials, the agents allegedly tried to trick Jewell into surrendering his rights to legal counsel and to remain silent by telling him that their interrogation was a kind of make-believe event for use in a “training video.”
“To me the bullies are in the government,” said G. Watson Bryant, Jewell’s attorney, who found Jewell while he was being questioned at FBI headquarters and urged him to get out of the building before the interrogation could be completed. Bryant first publicly discussed the details of the FBI interrogation this week.
The heavy-set Mr. Jewell, with a country drawl and a deferential manner, became an instant celebrity after a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in the early hours of July 27, 1996, at the midpoint of the Summer Games. The explosion, which propelled hundreds of nails through the darkness, killed one woman, injured 111 people and changed the mood of the Olympiad.
Only minutes earlier, Mr. Jewell, who was working a temporary job as a guard, had spotted the abandoned green knapsack that contained the bomb, called it to the attention of the police, and started moving visitors away from the area. He was praised for the quick thinking that presumably saved lives.
But three days later, he found himself identified in an article in The Atlanta Journal as the focus of police attention, leading to several searches of his apartment and surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and by reporters who set upon him, he would later say, “like piranha on a bleeding cow.”
The investigation by local, state and federal law enforcement officers lasted until late October 1996 and included a number of bungled tactics, including an F.B.I. agent’s effort to question Mr. Jewell on camera under the pretense of making a training film.
In October 1996, when it became obvious that Mr. Jewell had not been involved in the bombing, the Justice Department formally cleared him.
“The tragedy was that his sense of duty and diligence made him a suspect,” said John R. Martin, one of Mr. Jewell’s lawyers. “He really prided himself on being a professional police officer, and the irony is that he became the poster child for the wrongly accused.”
The hero-turned-alleged-prime suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park explosion has now become a classic case study in media ethics.
An Atlanta newspaper’s naming of security guard Richard Jewell in an extra edition three days after last month’s bombing quickly made him an international Exhibit A on television and in newspapers.
But the supposed “focus” of a federal investigation has yet to be charged with any crime. Meanwhile, questions about media and law-enforcement responsibility, First Amendment rights and Jewell’s legal recourse have taken center stage. Some worry that Congress inevitably will step in if and when the public says, “Enough.”
“This is just another nail in the coffin that’s being built for press freedom in this country,” said Dr. Robert Blanchard, who teaches a media-ethics course at Trinity University in San Antonio. “The media rely on a certain public support, and I think it’s just eroding.”
CNN President Tom Johnson, whose all-news network was the first to follow the lead of the Atlanta Journal, said he is “having second thoughts” on what has become a “major journalistic ethical issue.”
“We are guilty of more of a frenzy than is justified,” Johnson said. “I’m hopeful we’ll apply just as much effort now to try to show Richard Jewell is innocent . . . I may choose to put in a policy here where we will not name suspects, period. But we’ll see.”