President Clinton and other top administration officials will try to reassure the nation and black ministers this weekend that every effort is being made to solve a rash of fires at Southern black churches.
Clinton told reporters Friday he would discuss the topic in his weekly radio address Saturday. Attorney General Janet Reno and other administration officials will meet Sunday at the Justice Department with civil rights leaders and some of the black ministers whose churches have been burned or des-e-crated."All I can tell you right now is we are working very hard to get to the bottom of this," Clinton said Friday.
Clinton was expected to announce that the Treasury would increase the number of agents assigned to the effort and to describe the investigation's high-level coordination, administration officials said.
Clinton and Reno planned to stress that a major investigation is under way by some 200 agents from the Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and from the FBI, the officials said. Federal-local task forces have been set up to expand investigative resources.
The work is being coordinated by Assistant Attorney General Deval L. Patrick, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division.
Stung by complaints from some civil rights figures that the fires are not being actively investigated, administration officials for a week or more have been seeking a forum to describe their efforts.
"One problem of perception is that each minister is seeing only a very small part of the effort, which is going on in a lot of different places," said one Justice official, who requested anonymity.
This week federal agents entered the investigation of a suspicious fire that destroyed an unused building on the grounds of the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church, a black church in Charlotte, N.C.
It was at least the 30th fire at a black Southern church since early 1995 and the second this week. Authorities said that was reason enough to describe Thursday's fire as suspicious.