Copyright 1995 The Washington Post
The Washington Post
September 23, 1995, Saturday, Final Edition

LENGTH: 629 words

HEADLINE: Ruby Ridge: The Story Was Waiting


In response to questions from callers about why "the media" did not focus on federal wrongdoing in the Ruby Ridge/Randy Weaver incident far earlier, Ombudsman Geneva Overholser declares: "A big part of the answer is, the media couldn't. Law enforcement officials in this case, as in many, were virtually the only sources available" ["Ruby Ridge: Getting the Whole Story," Sept. 10].

This is ludicrous. Many publications had the story long before your paper. The real issue is why your paper chose to be spoon-fed by federal law enforcement on a story that was of great concern to millions of Americans.

The Weaver case -- involving the death of a U.S. marshal, the killing of 14-year-old Sammy Weaver by a U.S. marshal and the killing of Vicki Weaver by an FBI sniper as Weaver stood on the doorstep of her Idaho cabin holding her 10-month-old baby -- has probably spurred as much distrust of Washington as the Waco debacle.

In October 1993, Edward Lodge, the chief federal judge in the state of Idaho, issued a 17-page statement detailing federal abuses during the case. The trial transcripts clearly showed that the U.S. marshals had repeatedly changed their version of events, that FBI officials contradicted themselves and that key evidence had been tampered with or destroyed. Several competent and credible defense attorneys were involved in the case; one of them, David Nevin, wrote an excellent op-ed piece for your paper on July 15, 1993. Yet the observations of the defense attorneys seemed to vanish from your paper's collective memory.

Consider how the story was covered in other publications:

From the beginning of the incident, the Idaho Statesman and Spokane Spokesman Review provided excellent coverage of the details of federal misconduct in this case. Reason Magazine, in August 1993, published a long article on Ruby Ridge (later reprinted by the Sacramento Bee) by Alan Bock, a columnist for the Orange County Register and author of the new book "Ambush at Ruby Ridge." On Nov. 25, 1993, the New York Times ran a damning 2,700-word front-page article by David Johnston headlined "FBI Shaken by Inquiry Into Idaho Siege." The Washington Times followed a few weeks later with the first of numerous incisive articles on the Weaver case. Daniel Klaidman revealed several key elements of the coverup in his articles earlier this year for Legal Times.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has published two of my own articles this year about Ruby Ridge, "No Accountability at the FBI" on Jan. 10 (which FBI Director Louis Freeh attacked in a lengthy letter published Jan. 26) and "Ruby Ridge: The Justice Department Report" on June 30. And I have also written articles on the Weaver case for Playboy, the American Spectator and the Washington Times.

Overholser neglects to mention that your paper's hard-hitting series on Ruby Ridge was not published until after the Justice Department paid more than $3 million to Randy Weaver to settle his wrongful death claims against the government. Though late is better than nothing, why did your paper wait until after the government had confessed guilt before seriously investigating federal conduct. The Justice Department confidential report, with all its chilling details, had been available on the Internet (thanks to Legal Times) for more than two months before your paper chose to give it proper respect.

The lesson of your paper's coverage of Ruby Ridge is not for journalists to be more deferential to law enforcement officials in the hope of getting precious nuggets of news earlier. Instead, the lesson is for reporters not to depend passively on federal officials with an interest in keeping the truth out of print.

-- James Bovard

James Bovard is a Washington