WASHINGTON -- A Senate subcommittee will begin shining the spotlight today on critical issues flowing from the government's 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
One of the biggest is: Have the judgment and competence of U.S. law enforcement officials been compromised in cases involving people who hold strong anti-government views?
The hearings come on the heels of recent House hearings into the 1993 Waco tragedy, the ill-fated Texas standoff that occurred six months after the Ruby Ridge siege. The Senate panel will explore how white separatist Randy Weaver was first confronted by federal agents, what led to efforts to arrest him, and whether mistakes, miscalculations and a lack of professionalism by federal marshals and FBI agents preceded their fatal shooting of Mr. Weaver's wife, Vicki, and 14-year-old son, Sammy, after a U.S. marshal was killed.
Three weeks of scheduled hearings into the shootout at Mr. Weaver's small cabin on a remote northern Idaho mountainside may be troubling to federal officials on another score, too.
Top Justice Department officials have strenuously objected to the timing of the hearings, occurring in the midst of their own internal, criminal investigation. Prosecutors are seek- ing to determine whether some FBI executives destroyed or concealed records and lied about an illegal relaxation in their rules governing the use of deadly force. Five FBI officials have been suspended.
The relaxation in rules led to the shooting death of Mr. Weaver's wife as tensions ran high after William Degan, a decorated member of the U.S. Marshals Service, was killed in the siege.
Last month, in a tacit acknowl- edgment of mistakes, the government paid $3.1 million to Mr. Weaver and surviving family members to settle claims that agents had wrongfully killed his wife and son.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a GOP presidential hopeful who will chair the hearings, has rejected Justice Department requests that he postpone them pending the conclusion of their criminal inquiry into cover-up allegations against the FBI.
Mr. Specter's pledge to tailor the sessions to avoid creating legal problems for department investigators has failed to satisfy Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick.
There were similar problems in hearings on the Iran-contra scandal of the Reagan administration. The issue of legal "taint" growing out of congressional hearings caused the U.S. Court of Appeals to throw out the convictions of former White House aides Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter.