Bell's Indictments

FOR ONCE, Atty. Gen. Griffin Bell and his beleaguered Justice Department seemed to be fulfilling their legislated mandates when the indictments of former FBI Director L. Patrick Gray III and two of his former top-level aides came down last week. The felony charges stemmed from an illegal wiretapping and break-in operation conducted without court warrants against the Weather Underground in the early '70s by the FBI's New York field office. A federal grand jury apparently concluded that Gray and two of his high-ranking assistants, W. Mark Felt and Edward S. Miller, had authorized the unlawful surveillance activities; and the Criminal Division in the department elected to proceed with the prosecution of the three principals with the full approval of President Carter. Yet another relic from the Watergate era had bitten the dust, offering some cause for reassurance that the blindfold of Justice was back in place--at least at first glance.

But upon closer examination, the circumstances surrounding the Justice Department's FBI investigation raise a few nagging doubts about the criteria and motivations behind the unprecedented indictments of three former top executives of the bureau. For example, the decision to prosecute the hapless Gray may have merely represented Bell's rebuttal to the five Justice Department attorneys who resigned from the FBI probe four months ago in protest over Bell's alleged foot-dragging on the case.

Within days of announcing the indictments, the accusers have now become the accused. The events of last week also brought charges by J. Wallace LaPrade, head of the besieged New York field office, that the FBI was still conducting the same type of illegal break-in practices under Bell which drove a grand jury to indict Gray and his two aides. LaPrade himself is open to charges of ax-grinding: though unindicted, he was a major target in the FBI probe, and his refusal to tender a requested resignation brought his prompt removal as head of the New York office. In any case, his accusations warrant a thorough airing, and they compel the American people to withhold a hearty round of applause for the judgment shown by Bell and his department. The verdict is still out on Gray and his fellow defendants, and the same should hold true for their prosecutors.