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Ruby Ridge report blasts U.S. officers

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND

WASHINGTON, Dec. 21 -- As expected, a Senate report released Thursday comes down hard on federal law enforcement officials for their actions surrounding the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. But Republican and Democratic senators praised FBI Director Louis Freeh for making substantial changes in the bureau's approach toward a crisis, though they criticized him for making a controversial promotion. The Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and government information held hearings on the siege in September and October. In announcing the release of the committee's report Thursday, its chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., acknowledged white separatist Randy Weaver was partly responsible for the tragedy at Ruby Ridge. However, Specter blasted the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for what he called false reports that Weaver was a suspect in a bank robbery and had an arrest record prior to the siege. Specter promised new hearings in 1996 'on whether the (ATF) should remain in existence.' He said the FBI's 'rules of engagement' during the siege, which constituted 'shoot on sight (rules)...were in violation of the United States Constitution.' A large part of the controversy surrounding Ruby Ridge is whether special 'rules of engagement' -- allowing agents to depart from the FBI's deadly force policy and shoot on sight those within the compound resisting a federal warrant -- were approved by high-level FBI officials, and whether such alleged approval was kept from a subsequent bureau investigation. The FBI was called to Ruby Ridge in August 1992 after U.S. marshals staking out the Weaver compound were caught up in a firefight.

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The marshals had been ordered to the remote site by a U.S. judge after Weaver failed to appear for trial on federal weapons charges brought by the ATF. Deputy U.S. Marshall William Degan and Weaver's son Samuel, 14, were killed in the gunfight. The next day an FBI sniper, firing a second shot at a figure he said was trying to get a better firing position after aiming a weapon at a government helicopter, sent a round through the Weaver cabin door and accidentally killed Weaver's wife Vickie. Thursday's report criticizes the second shot taken by the sniper as unconstitutional, although Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., indicates she disagreed with that conclusion in a footnote. The report also agreed with the FBI that Vickie Weaver's death was accidental. A high-level FBI official, Larry Potts, was censored by Freeh for improperly supervising the siege from Washington. But Freeh later promoted Potts to be the FBI's No. 2 official. Though Potts has since been demoted and suspended pending a criminal investigation into whether officials helped cover up who approved the Ruby Ridge 'rules of engagement,' Specter and the report criticized Freeh for promoting Potts in the first place. Specter also slammed Attorney General Janet Reno for allowing the promotion to go through. 'The attorney general has the authority to approve or disapprove, and is not supposed to be a rubber stamp,' Specter said. Most of the senators joining Specter in releasing the report were even-handed in their comments. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., said, 'Randy Weaver caused this whole trouble,' although law enforcement made many mistakes after that. He also commended Freeh for restructuring the FBI's approach to using deadly force. But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, took aim solely at federal law enforcement and depicted the Weavers as victims. He called Ruby Ridge 'a tragedy caused by our federal government' and 'a tale of federal law enforcement violating and harassing an American citizen and (his) family.' The report itself places some blame on Weaver, but said, 'While Randy Weaver made mistakes, so did every federal law enforcement agency involved in the Ruby Ridge incident.' The report said the siege caused a drop in public confidence in law enforcement. At Ruby Ridge and in Washington, 'law enforcement officers demonstrated a disturbing lack of willingness to take charge...and then accept responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions,' the report said. The Senate panel's report also said, 'We question whether any of these agencies can fairly and objectively investigate and criticize itself in a case of this kind.' FBI Director Freeh issued his own statement after the release of the report, saying it 'represents another important step in this ongoing process of evaluating and learning from the events of Ruby Ridge.' Freeh conceded mistakes and said 'I have changed virtually every aspect of the FBI's crisis response capabilities as a result...The FBI today is vastly better prepared for achieving peaceful resolutions to volatile situations like Ruby Ridge.'

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