The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Interview with Griffin Bell
ROBERT MacNEIL: Good evening. The FBI announced today that it is firing two agents and disciplining four others alleged to have been illegally conducting wiretaps, break-ins and mail openings while investigating the Weather Underground during the Nixon administration. In addition to dismissing two supervisors, another will be demoted and a fourth suspended for thirty days; two street agents are to be censured. FBI Director William Webster also said that no action would be taken against fifty-nine other agents in the New York office involved in the alleged illegal actions. He said they had been merely following orders and had not been made aware of court directives making such actions illegal. Six months ago a grand jury indicted former acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray and two former aides, on charges that they authorized the alleged illegal measures.
How to discipline the FBI without wrecking its morale is just one of a number of controversies swirling around the Justice Department in recent months. There`s a growing dispute about the manner of selecting federal judges, as Justice faces the largest batch of new judgeships in federal history. People are asking why Justice didn`t investigate the People`s Temple before the Jonestown tragedy, and why Patty Hearst isn`t freed.
Tonight we discuss these and other questions with the man who runs the Justice Department, Attorney General Griffin Bell. Jim Lehrer is off tonight. Mr. Bell is with Charlayne Hunter-Gault in Washington. Charlayne?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Good evening, Mr. Attorney General. Welcome. Let me start by asking you something about what Robin just said, the FBI director moving to fire two agents and discipline four others in connection with the Weather Underground. Do you agree with this move on the part of Mr. Webster?
GRIFFIN BELL:I do. I went over his proposed action with him during the weekend, and then his action was relayed in a letter to me, which I received this morning. And I think it was a very wise disposition. I know a lot about those cases; they`re very difficult. That happened in another era, and it`s hard to excuse conduct that`s really illegal. But there`s enough fault to go around. These people were never really told what the law was; there were never any directives put out by the department or by the headquarters of the FBI. And in addition to that these are street agents who are given immunity in very broad terms: "The United States of America hereby grants you immunity," period.
HUNTER-GAULT: That`s the fifty-nine street agents.
BELL: Not all of the fifty-nine, but a large number of them. Just some get it.
HUNTER-GAULT: A large number -- are you saying of the fifty-nine agents were granted immunity?
BELL: Right, of the fifty-nine street agents.
HUNTER-GAULT: By what principle do you justify that action --the granting of immunity to the street agents?
BELL: That was to get them to testify. The lawyers who were on the case before I became Attorney General and stayed on for a little while after I came, had the idea that if they gave immunity to enough people that someone would finally talk about someone higher up. Well, that proved to be a singularly unsuccessful theory. But the immunity had been given. Now their argument is that immunity didn`t apply to administrative discipline, it was just immunity from prosecution for a crime.
HUNTER-GAULT: But you`ve decided not to go through with that, either.
BELL: Well, Judge Webster put it on another ground. He said that that bothered him a great deal but he would not use that as a reason not to go forward, not to excuse these people. So he put it on another ground. His report is well worth reading; I hope the public reads it, his report to me. And I of course answered back and thanked him for his report. It is a very wise and just resolution, in a sense. I should think "just" would be a good word, it`s judicious in tone, and I told my assistant on the way out here tonight that it`s the end of an era. The era didn`t end when Judge Webster came in as the new director, but this is during the end of his first year and this is the disposal of these cases, and it`s a time, almost, when the FBI is getting ready to go forward. It`s been going forward, but maybe the American people didn`t know it.
HUNTER-GAULT: Right. I think in a letter you wrote to Mr. Webster today you said -- and I quote -- "I know the strain the inquiry has put on the Bureau as an institution." What did you mean by that, and what impact do you think it`s going to have on...
BELL: Just that. When I came to Washington, that was about all the FBI was talking about. And when I indicted Kearney -- you remember the Kearney indictment, which I later dismissed -- that really upset the FBI all over the country; and then later, when I dismissed that indictment and indicted the three officials after I`d had an investigation of my own conducted...
HUNTER-GAULT: You mean Mr. Gray and Mr. Felt and the others.
BELL: Right, and Mr. Miller and Mr. Felt, that was another trauma, and it`s just taken a while to reach the end of the investigation; this is a difficult investigation. In addition to the lawyers working on it, two and a half years after I referred these cases to the director for administrative proceedings, his staff looked at more than 100,000 pieces of paper just in an additional investigation of their own. This is a very complex matter. I hope this is going to be the end of it.
HUNTER-GAULT: Do you think that this end will leave the morale of the department high, or just what do you think will happen with respect to that?
BELL: Well, I think that the average agent will be glad to have this behind him or her. And in that sense I think the morale will be improved. I`m certain it`ll be improved in six months, because it takes a little while, as you know, in life for things to run their course. It`ll take about six months for this to run its course and the trials to be over with.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right, thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Mr. Attorney General, turning to the question of federal judgeships, President Carter when he was campaigning said it was time to get this out of political patronage and on a merit basis; and he has now by executive order asked for the setting up of commissions around the country to recommend candidates. But a number of Senators want to continue doing it the old way, by which they named candidates and the Senate virtually approved them. Can you stop them from doing that and insist on the new procedure?
BELL: No, we cannot. The Senators have a constitutional base, because they advise and consent; and we have to be careful we don`t end up in an impasse. So we anticipated that by regulations, which Congress told us to issue. And we set up an alternative procedure which we call the open process: anyone can apply to the Senators, and the Senators are to consider all who do apply and to use some type of screening method. So there is an alternative method, and some of the Senators are using that. I think it`ll probably end up, with this current batch of judges, about fifty-fifty.
MacNEIL: I see. Does that mean that the fifty percent who are selected through this alternative method will continue to be selected largely by political patronage and thus open to what Mr. Carter was criticizing in the campaign?
BELL: No, I would not say that. Some of the names I`ve seen on a list where that method was used are not patronage people; some of the people are not even known to the Senators. I`ve just been over lists from three or four states in the last few days where they have not used a commission, and I know in one state where they had ten judges that some of the people had not been known to the Senator. And they were selected on an open process and then screened out by committees that he set up.
MacNEIL: So are you satisfied that the new system with the President`s initiative, whether half of them are selected under this alternative method or not, will raise the standard of federal judges and remove it, largely, from political patronage?
BELL: Oh, there`s no question. I visited a Senator about two weeks ago who has refused to use a commission.
MacNEIL: Which Senator is he, sir?
BELL: Well, I`m not going to say that because it wouldn`t be fair for me to say that about him. But when I got into his office he had 132 names on a tablet that he was considering. And what had happened is, rather than appoint someone that he had on his list, he decided that he had better go into an open process and start really opening it up, to consider everyone that might be qualified. So we`re raising the level. Just the fact that the President set up these commissions for circuit judges last year commenced a raising of the level, I think.
MacNEIL: Under the new Omnibus...
BELL: In fact, the Senators who are not using commissions are at pains to pick good people, I notice.
MacNEIL: I see. Under the new Omnibus Judgeship Act, the President
needs to appoint, I believe, 152 new judges by April and fill ten vacancies in the federal courts. Senator Kennedy, who`ll be the new head of the Judiciary Committee, wants this committee to hold intensive hearings on these. Will you be able to meet that April deadline if he holds those hearings?
BELL: Well, I think so. The deadline was mine.
MacNEIL: I see.
BELL: I promised the Chief Justice in the Judicial Conference of the United States during the fall, at a meeting of the Supreme Court, that I would try to have eighty percent of the judges confirmed by April 1. My staff tells me that I never should have agreed to that. But I find that in the government you do better by setting deadlines. Last week, for example, I got clearance on sixteen judges, which is a little over ten percent; and they are being investigated now by the FBI and by the American Bar Committee. So I think we can make the deadline. Eighty percent, that is, not a hundred percent.
MacNEIL: Do you think the hearings, the intensive investigations that Senator Kennedy wants to undertake, are necessary in view of the screening process you`ve already set up?
BELL: I think so. If the Senate`s going to carry out its constitutional role to advise and consent, then they ought to have meaningful hearings. That doesn`t mean they`re going to have their own investigation; I think Senator Kennedy has made that clear. But they`ll have some questions to ask and they`ll go over the papers that we file with them. We`ll have much background material. We`ve put in a new system now where we require physical examination, for example -- never been required before; financial statements of disclosure -- all of those things will be available to the Senate, to the Senate staff; and I think they`ll have meaningful hearings. I think that`ll be good.
MacNEIL: I`ve seen you quoted, Mr. Attorney General, as saying early in the administration that merit meant merit within the Democratic Party. Were you accurately quoted, and do you still believe that?
BELL: (Laughing.) I don`t remember saying that, but I may have been trying to respond to the fact that most everyone we`ve appointed happens to be a Democrat. It`s gotten to the point that I asked the FBI not to in quire about a person`s politics because it just happens that nearly everyone turns up saying they`re a Democrat. It might be because the administration is Democratic right now. I wonder where all the forty-five percent of the people who are Independents have gone; I`m not running across any of them. But the other day one newspaper had an editorial critical of what we`ve done, said we`d only appointed one Republican out of sixty-two people. And I asked the press office to notify the paper that they`d made a hundred percent error: we had appointed two. (Laughs.)
MacNEIL: Three justices of the Supreme Court have come out today in support of your proposal for a new national appeals court. And presumably the appointment of so many new judges, especially appeals judges, would make a lot more work for the Supreme Court. Can you say how that new court would work in relation to the Supreme Court?
BELL: Well, I don`t favor that court.
MacNEIL: You do not. I beg your pardon.
BELL: No, I do not favor it. This has been kicked about for ten years, the idea of having a court in between the courts of appeals, the eleven courts of appeals we have now, and the Supreme Court. It`s an old idea; it hasn`t gone anywhere.
MacNEIL: Do you believe it`s unconstitutional?
BELL: No, no. It`s not unconstitutional, but I think it would create more work for the Supreme Court instead of less, and we have some other things that we are promoting over at the Department of Justice, I think, that would give the justices some relief. I sympathize with their problem, and we`re trying to help as much as we can.
MacNEIL: What do you propose to give them some relief?
BELL: Well, we would cut down on some of the appeals of right to the courts of appeals and have such a route to the courts of appeals which would tend to cut down on the next step of going to the Supreme Court; we`re going to take away all the mandatory appeal jurisdiction in the Supreme Court and make it completely discretionary, that`s one of the bills we`re pushing. We would put some of the special-type cases like tax cases in a new court -- we`d consolidate the court of claims and the court of customs and patent appeals, make it into more of a national court; we might put the environmental cases and some of the special-type cases there, and hopefully those cases would end at that level.
MacNEIL: I see.
BELL: It`s a series of small things, but I think overall it would give the Supreme Court some substantial relief -- which we are much in favor of.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Attorney General, let`s move to another area now. You have come under attack from Cuban President Fidel Castro for your policy of reviewing on a case-by-case basis all entries of Cubans into the United States, including the 3,000 political prisoners he`s now releasing. The release of these prisoners has been fundamental, has it not, to the argument of this government for many years in terms of normalizing relations with that country. Aren`t you in effect endangering that effort by insisting on dragging your feet through this whole bureaucratic process?
BELL: (Laughing.) I`m sorry that Premier Castro is displeased with my conduct. I`m doing the best I can. When somebody in another country whom you`ve not had exactly friendly relations with for a long time says, we`re going to give you a large number of prisoners, we`re going to empty our jails, your first inclination is wondering maybe we have people they`d like to have, too, if we empty our jails. But a lot of these people are political prisoners, most of them are; and we want to be certain that they are political prisoners. We want to be certain that we are not getting some subversives mixed in, who are coming over here to subvert our system; we want to be certain that we aren`t getting just common criminals, as distinguished from political prisoners. When we started out I told the FBI and INS to be very slow with the first batch, that I wanted to be certain and wanted to look at them myself. Now once we set up a pattern now, a system, we`ll be able to go faster. We even at one point were told that we couldn`t interview them in Havana. But we did interview them in Havana and we will continue to do that.
HUNTER-GAULT: But you don`t think that the perception by President Castro that you are moving at a snail`s pace in this is going to endanger the efforts of the President to better the relationship...
BELL: I don`t think so. If you saw my statement last week, I said that I would give a priority to the ones who are in jail. A large number of these people, it turns out, are not in jail; and I said that I would assume that everyone in Cuba was getting their human rights, and therefore we ought to take the ones out of prison first -- we`ll take the ones that are in prison first, and then the ones out last. We`ll work that out, that`s not any great problem. But when you get into something like this that`s a new matter, you have to `be careful about what you`re doing. I think the American people would expect me to examine this matter closely. I think I`m doing that. I haven`t had any complaints from anybody in the United States so far.
HUNTER-GAULT: I think I read one place where it said at the rate you`re going it would take seventy-six years to get all of those prisoners admitted.
BELL: (Laughing.) I don`t think it`ll take very long.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. How about this policy as it relates to other refugees from other countries, for example the boat people and others from Southeast Asia? Do you have that same one-on-one review policy, or...?
BELL: No, we do not. Not to the extent that we`re doing it with the Cuban prisoners. I put them in a different category. The South Indochinese, the Lebanese I put in a different category. Nobody has told me that they are in jail and to go open the jails. But there must be a number of countries where they have a lot of political dissidents in jail, and I would expect that Cuba is not the first and not the last to say, We`re going to empty our jails and send them to America.
HUNTER-GAULT: Right. In terms of ...
BELL: And wherever that happens we`re going to make a careful examination.
HUNTER-GAULT: In terms of the Southeast Asians and the boat people, can we accommodate all of those who are attempting now to get in?
BELL: We think so. That`s a very serious problem, and it conflicts with our immigration policy, which is to let in, I think, 360,000 people a year. Here we are letting in thousands under the refugee policy, with full authority of the Attorney General. But on the other hand, our country has always been a haven, and we don`t want to lose that; that`s probably the height of compassion in our country. So I`m letting in as many as we can; the churches are working to make places for these people. Mr. Egan, Associate Attorney General, and Mr. Newsom from the State Department are going to Geneva next week and have a meeting with some other countries and hopefully share the problem, get a better sharing than we have now. But we`ve not turned our backs on these people.
HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Mr. Attorney General, on the deaths and the mass suicide and the murder of Congressman Ryan, the People`s Temple story in Guyana, your department has said that Justice could not have investigated that in advance because it would have violated the freedom of religion. If there were grounds for Congressman Ryan to go and investigate alleged deprivation of human rights there, why were there not grounds for the Justice Department to do the same?
BELL: Well, we have to go by the statute. I assume the Congressmen have a roving commission and can, go about doing good and investigating anything that comes to his or her attention. We can`t do that; that`s why we had the FBI break-in problem. We have to go by the statutes, and the only statute we have, the only jurisdiction we have now is to investigate the death of a Congressman. I would be very loath to start our investigators checking on religious groups, or so-called religious groups. If I heard that there was violence, a crime of a type that we had jurisdiction over, I`d not hesitate to investigate. But we never were told that.
MacNEIL: The New York Times reports today that the Justice Department -- the FBI -- has secure sealed arrest warrants against ten members of the People`s Temple in connection with the Congressman`s death. Is that so, and when will they be arrested?
BELL: Our policy is not to comment on a pending investigation or anything to do with a criminal case until there`s an indictment. So I couldn`t comment on that.
MacNEIL: Could you say whether there are ever likely to be any prosecutions in the United States in connection with his death?
BELL: I wouldn`t want to say about that. I don`t know at this sitting. I know what we`re doing in the entire matter, but I don`t know to what point it`s progressed.
MacNEIL: I see. Does what you said a moment ago about the statutes limiting what you can do and not wanting to infringe on religion mean that religious cults could detain members against their will or practice physical abuse or whatever, and be immune from any at least federal law activity?
BELL: No. If we find that someone`s civil rights are being violated, for example -- you`re talking about practicing cruelty -- or if they`ve been kidnapped, we would look into that. That`s a specific crime. But to go around and surveil (sic) a religious group is what I have in mind; we couldn`t do that. And I don`t think anyone would expect us to do that. But if we get a report of a crime over which we have jurisdiction, we will investigate.
MacNEIL: Would you support any change in the law regarding religious cults which would make it easier for federal authorities to keep an eye on them?
MacNEIL: You would not.
BELL:I would not. See, we`ve been through that; we`re just working out of it, where we were surveilling all sorts of political groups, and I would say it`s just as bad to surveil a religious group as a political group. I would not support that.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Finally, Mr. Attorney General, the Justice Department is now actively considering a pardon for Patricia Hearst. What do you say to those who argue that she`s being made an example of because she`s rich and famous?
BELL: Well, I`m one of the ones, I think, that said that, so (laughing) I don`t know what to say about that. I know that we have an Office of the Pardon Attorney at the department, and apparently they report, and we`ll make a recommendation that you are to go through the Deputy Attorney General`s office, and it would go to the President. This pardoning power is the President`s power. I don`t know, whatever happens to Miss Hearst will be controversial. If she is commuted -- we use the term "pardoned" loosely. Most likely if she got relief, it would be to commute her sentence to time served. Now, if she got that kind of treatment people would say, Well, she got that because she was rich. On the other hand, if she`d been some unknown, nondescript person, maybe she wouldn`t have got as long a sentence anyway. The thing I would like to see is a comparison between how she was treated as against her kidnappers, the harassers. I`d like to see a comparison of that. The kidnapped and the kidnappers. But there`s more questions in it besides that.
HUNTER-GAULT: Both Miss Hearst and the Wilmington Ten -- you`re now involved in that case -- have been cited as examples of political prisoners; I think it was Andrew Young who cited Miss Hearst. Do you agree with that?
BELL: No. I don`t think that Miss Hearst is a political prisoner, I think she`s an unfortunate victim of a kidnapping plot, but it`s such a bizarre, convoluted sort of a thing, I don`t think you could work it back around and say she`s a political prisoner. She might be a victim, she might be a political victim; and doubtless she is, of the Symbionese Army.
HUNTER-GAULT: Right. And the Wilmington Ten?
BELL: The Wilmington Ten is a different thing. I wouldn`t classify them as political prisoners. They were sentenced in a court of law; the conviction has never been set aside, it`s been tested in all sorts of courts. I`m doing what I can, though, to make certain that they had a fair trial.
HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Mr. Attorney General.
MacNEIL: Mr. Attorney General, I`m afraid we`ve run out of time. Thank you very much for joining us. Good night, Charlayne. We`ll be back tomorrow night. I`m Robert MacNeil. Good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Interview with Griffin Bell
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- This episode features a interview with Griffin Bell. The guests are Griffin Bell. Byline: Robert MacNeil, Charlayne Hunter-Gault
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Interview with Griffin Bell,” 1978-12-05, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 30, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-sj19k46q35.
- MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Interview with Griffin Bell.” 1978-12-05. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 30, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-sj19k46q35>.
- APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Interview with Griffin Bell. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-sj19k46q35