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Cloud Over the FBI

THE Federal Bureau of Investigation's recent suspension of a Hispanic agent on undisclosed grounds raises anew troubling questions about racial and ethnic discrimination within the nation's top law-enforcement agency. Early this month the FBI placed agent Fernando E. Mata on administrative leave and took away his security clearance. Citing the confidentiality of its investigation and Mr. Mata's own privacy rights, the bureau has refused to identify the suspicions that cloud the agent's future. Early news leaks suggested that the Cuban-American agent had been ``approached'' by Cuban intelligence operatives, but these are unconfirmed. No one, it seems, is even hinting that Mata actually spied for Castro.

Any suspicion of a mole in the FBI is serious, and one ordinarily would give the agency the benefit of the doubt - but for a documented record of bias against black and Hispanic employees.

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It's a striking coincidence that Mata, a decorated FBI veteran, also played a prominent role in a successful bias suit brought by most of the bureau's 439 Hispanic agents in 1987. Last year a federal judge, finding that the FBI had discriminated against Hispanic agents in assignments and promotions, ordered the FBI to revamp its promotion practices. Mata testified against the agency in the trial.

FBI agents have also been accused in recent years of discrimination against black workers. Last year the agency settled bias suits brought by a black agent and a black clerical worker. A suit by black agent Donald Rochon claiming harassment by white agents in Omaha and Chicago is still in litigation, but an administrative panel has sustained Mr. Rochon's Omaha claims.

The panel found, among other things, that Rochon was disciplined in retaliation for complaining about discrimination against himself and his family. Similarly, the judge in the Hispanics' case ruled that the FBI wrongfully obtained a subpoena to harass the main plaintiff.

Soon after he took office in 1987, FBI Director William Sessions overhauled the agency's personnel department and bolstered its equal-opportunity program. But critics say that the actions, while praiseworthy, didn't go far enough. In particular, they say, FBI efforts to recruit minority agents still are half-hearted.

The Mata case shows why the FBI must lay to rest, once and for all, all questions about its commitment to civil rights within its own precincts. The FBI's strong denial that its action against Mata was a retaliatory warning may be valid. But in light of the agency's recent lapses, how can the public be sure?

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