A new movie about Richard Jewell is reminding Americans of one of the forgotten travesties of the 1990s. When he died in 2007 at age 44, his New York Times obituary was headlined, “Richard Jewell, Hero of Atlanta Attack, Dies.” But his heroism was recognized only after the FBI and the media sought to destroy him.
On July 27, 1996, a pipe bomb went off at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, where the world’s athletes and media were gathered for the Olympic games. The FBI decided that 33-year-old security guard Richard Jewell, who had found the bomb and helped clear the area and minimize fatalities, had also planted the bomb. FBI agents lured Jewell over to their Atlanta office and asked him to help them make a training film about detecting bombs. The ruse allowed the agents to question Jewell extensively without reading him a Miranda warning — without alerting him that anything he said could be used against him. As Investor’s Business Daily noted, “Jewell was the bureau’s top suspect, a fact that was leaked to the press in time for cameras to catch agents poring over Jewell’s home.” FBI leaks led to 88 days of hell for Jewell, who saw his life and reputation dragged in the gutter day after day. The FBI did nothing to curb the media harassment of Jewell long after it had recognized that he was innocent.
A Justice Department investigation concluded that the training-film scam violated Jewell’s constitutional rights. But in 1997 Senate testimony, FBI chief Louis Freeh denied that Jewell’s rights were violated because he did not incriminate himself. Who knew that only guilty citizens have constitutional rights? Freeh did tell the Senate committee that he had instructed FBI agents “not to use deceptive ploys in getting people to waive their constitutional rights.” His order was merely aspirational and did not prevent a tsunami of FBI entrapment and other schemes, including the bogus briefing on Russia that FBI agents gave the Trump campaign, as the Inspector General report revealed in December.
As a result of the Jewell debacle, two FBI agents were censured and one was suspended for five days without pay. But as the Washington Times noted, “No similar disciplinary action was recommended against senior FBI officials in Washington who oversaw the probe and were actively involved in the interrogation, including Mr. Freeh, who took part in the hour-long interview, even suggesting a question.” The Jewell debacle should have been no surprise, because the FBI Academy explicitly taught agents that subjects of investigations “have forfeited their right to the truth.”
Freeh admitted in congressional testimony in 1997, “We are potentially the most dangerous agency in the country if we are not scrutinized carefully.” But the vast majority of members of Congress continued giving the FBI far more adulation than scrutiny. Nothing had changed since 1993, when Congress responded to the FBI’s sending in the tanks for the disastrous final assault at Waco by giving a hefty budget increase to expand the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team.
James Bovard — G-Man
I blundered into the aftermath of the Jewell debacle in 2001 while vacationing in the mountains of western North Carolina. My wife at the time had the bright idea of going to a chalet inn she had seen in a tourist guidebook. The directions to the inn were lame and after roaming that zip code for half an hour, I pulled into a parking lot in front of a hardware store in Whittier to cuss and recheck the map.
I stepped out of my car and fired up a cheap cigar. Two minutes later, a big ol’ bald guy named Dennis came bounding out of the hardware store and asked in a booming voice, “What part of Maryland you from?”
“Rockville,” I replied. He started chatting me up at race-horse pace, telling me he was from Maryland, been living down here for twenty years, worked as a long-haul truck driver, and had lost $5,000 gambling last year at a nearby Cherokee Indian casino. I was raised in the mountains of Virginia so I wasn’t surprised by his palaver but something seemed amiss.
After about 15 minutes, he suddenly announced that he thought I was an undercover federal agent. Holy crap! With my scruffy beard, railroad cap, and “just a country boy” shtick, federal agencies often presume I’m a (harmless) redneck. And now the rednecks think I am a fed! I can’t get a break.
I asked Dennis why he suspected I was an undercover agent.
“Because you’re driving a black car with a Maryland license plate,” he replied without missing a beat.
Guilty on both counts — though I doubted that Ford Contours were standard undercover issue. I asked if there were other signs of federal agents.
“Ya — they have hidden tracking devices on the underside of the back of the car.”
“Feel free to check out my car.”
He and I walked to the back of my vehicle; he got down on his knees and pawed his big hands around the Ford’s underside and found no GPS tracker. After about a minute, he decided I wasn’t a G-man, got back up, and gave me a hearty handshake.
He explained that he’d been suspicious because the FBI had sent hundreds agents to that area to capture Eric Rudolph, who the FBI decided actually carried out the Atlanta bombing. The FBI arrived full of bluster, promising to speedily take down Rudolph. Dennis said many of his neighbors came to despise the FBI because they were heavy-handed and condescending. He said they showed up at a motel and decided to take it over; agents went around banging on doors and threw every guest out on the spot. Dennis had heard that some restaurants refused to serve FBI agents — insisting that they leave their guns outside, knowing they couldn’t do that.
The feds pulled out all their tricks to nail Rudolph. Blue Ridge Outdoors noted that the FBI came in “with bloodhounds, electronic motion detectors, and heat-sensing helicopters. They set up listening posts with cameras and hired local scouts to tromp through the woods with gridded maps,” in addition to putting a million-dollar bounty on
Rudolph. The FBI got nothing. The Los Angeles Times reported that Rudolph became “a local folk figure, earning him minor tributes on posters, bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing slogans such as ‘Eric Rudolph Ate Here’ and ‘Eric Rudolph: 1998 Hide and Seek Champion.’” Patrick Crosby, the spokesman for the federal task force, whined, “It’s incredibly difficult. You can’t see squat, and there are sudden cliffs and rocks, and you could get shot or blown up at any time. It’s hot as hell during the day and cold as hell at night. And once you’re in the woods, all bets are off. This is a guy who plants bombs … and now you’re on his turf.” The poor darlings.
Dennis became more at ease when I mentioned that I’d written about federal abuses at Waco and Ruby Ridge and had been publicly denounced by FBI chief Louis Freeh. I’m not sure he believed that last point, but he was far better informed on the details of FBI misconduct in those cases than was the typical Washington journalist who happily printed whatever hooey FBI agents fed him. We chatted for two hours outside that hardware store before Dennis invited us to spend the night at his house. I thanked him for the invite but said we wanted to head on to Asheville to hear some great fiddling.
Eric Rudolph was finally captured in 2003 by a local policeman in a small town about an hour from that hardware store. He pled guilty to the Atlanta bombing as well as multiple bombings of abortion clinics and a lesbian nightclub; he is now serving a life sentence in federal prison. Shortly after Rudolph was apprehended after more than four years in the mountains, the U.K. Independent pointed out that prior attempts to nail him illustrated “all the shortcomings of a hi-tech, militarized federal force unable to negotiate such alien, not to say hostile, territory.”
That was the lesson I took from Dennis and his story of FBI failures in his neck of the woods. FBI bosses can swagger in Washington and receive reverential treatment in the nation’s media. But far beyond the big cities and the coastlines, federal authority hinges largely on the consent of local citizens. Just because rural residents are mostly peaceful it doesn’t follow that they will be docile to imperious outsiders.
What would happen if, instead of fruitlessly seeking a single fugitive, a federal task force decides to seize all the AR-15 rifles in western North Carolina? The result would be like the classic bluegrass song about the “revenooer” who went up Rocky Top mountain and never came down. If innocent people were killed in the crackdowns on gun owners, the feds would very likely have to contend with the long-range .50 caliber armor-piercing bullets from Barrett sniper rifles, developed by a Tennessee boy a few decades ago. At that point, it would not matter how many editorial pages and cable news channels cheered on the G-men and howled for the blood of those defying government commands. The game would be over. Federal jurisdiction on that swath of America would be as illusory as the Afghan government’s control over the mountains of Tora Bora.
That new movie on Richard Jewell, produced by Clint Eastwood, received a few rave reviews and plenty of hostile responses from the media. The Washington Post, the hometown paper for the Deep State, fretted that the movie’s “vilification of reporters and the feds” amounts to “nearly a second railroading … of Jewell’s accusers.” But some FBI officials and some journalists deserved tarring for their abuse of Richard Jewell. The media’s reflexive rallying around the FBI in the Jewell case is a warning sign of how difficult it will be to spur support to rein in the FBI regardless of how many of its abuses are exposed.
The Founding Fathers wisely did not create a national police force. However, since Prohibition, federal law-enforcement agencies have multiplied like mushrooms. Congress has dismally failed to perform its duty in keeping an eye and a leash on federal agencies armed with massive firepower and even more deadly legal authority. The Richard Jewell saga is a reminder of how long things have been out of control.
This article was originally published in the July 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.