Judging Louis Freeh

The Clinton-era FBI chief was seen as a straight arrow who prepared the bureau for the demands of a new century. Now critics question whether he left the nation vulnerable to attack.

Topics: FBI, Bill Clinton, Homeland Security,

Judging Louis Freeh

Twelve months ago FBI director Louis Freeh left his post on a triumphant note. Appearing alongside Attorney General John Ashcroft at a June 21 press conference, he announced the indictments of overseas terrorists suspected of killing 19 American soldiers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, when their barracks were bombed during the summer of 1995.

“This investigation,” Ashcroft said, “exemplifies the leadership, the integrity and the compassion that Louis Freeh has delivered for America during the past eight years of his service as director of the FBI.”

Clearly gratified, Freeh told reporters: “It certainly will be my last director press conference, and I’m leaving very satisfied and very pleased.”

Today, though, the bureau is under intense criticism for its failure to heed terrorism warnings from agents in Phoenix and Minneapolis in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and suburban Washington, D.C. And while critics have focused on the performance of current FBI director Robert Mueller, Freeh’s responsibility for the bureaucratic breakdowns is likely to come under close scrutiny during congressional hearings that open this week.

Freeh was expert in political survival, some say, forging an alliance with top Republicans after he’d turned against the president who appointed him. And though he still wins strong grades from some lawmakers and analysts, the critics say his eight years on the job may have left the agency — and the nation — vulnerable.

“If people are looking for a scapegoat, I’d nominate Louis Freeh,” says Ronald Kessler, author of “The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI.”

It’s no secret the FBI suffered a series of embarrassments during Freeh’s tenure, some of them deadly. They include the botched handling of the investigations into Waco and Ruby Ridge; the bombing at the Atlanta Olympic Village and the heavy-handed tactics used against Richard Jewell; the breakdown of the FBI crime labs; the inept pursuit of suspected atomic spy Wen Ho Lee; the belated discovery of turncoat agent Richard Hanssen; and the failure to deliver thousands of documents to defense attorneys during the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

The FBI fiascoes seemed to come like clockwork under Freeh, and they continue to roll out to this day. A recently uncovered March 2000 memo reveals that agents mistakenly destroyed evidence gathered in an investigation involving Osama bin Laden.

Yet Freeh has remained largely unscathed.

An episode just last summer showed the continuing esteem he enjoyed on Capitol Hill. During confirmation hearings for Mueller, Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, continued to heap praise upon Freeh, “an extraordinary public servant” who, he said, “accomplished a great deal during his tenure to modernize and restructure the FBI so it can handle the challenges of the future.”

And while Mueller took over as director only a week before Sept. 11, critics and press accounts have focused on his role. Freeh has managed to avoid the spotlight. Currently a senior vice chairman for credit card giant MBNA Bank, he has stayed away from the press since September, and he did not return calls seeking comment. Nor did three of his former deputies.

“Freeh is being smart by keeping a low profile. He doesn’t want to get involved,” says Kessler. “But people who follow the bureau know Mueller is trying to rectify his [Freeh's] problems.”

Freeh did speak publicly over the Memorial Day weekend, but it was a decidedly low-key affair at the Camden, Maine, public library for a small forum on the ethics of war. Asked by a reporter afterward about the recent FBI revelations, Freeh said simply: “Someone needs to get all of the facts first to see what really happened. I don’t rely on the newspapers for my information.”

It seems unlikely, though, that Freeh will be able to remain in the background as his former bureau is poked and prodded by investigators. And with Congress about to begin hearings examining American intelligence failures, and specifically the missteps of the FBI, Freeh may soon be addressing a slightly more contentious audience than he did at the library.

“He’s been a major player in counter-terrorism for the better part of the last decade, so Congress will want to hear what he has to say for himself,” says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy group.

“He should be asked to testify as well as the rest of the ranking officers,” adds I.C. Smith, a retired FBI special agent in charge and 25-year veteran of the bureau. “I’m not a Mueller and Ashcroft fan, but this didn’t happen on their watch. It was Louis Freeh’s team in place when the [9/11] terrorists were setting up their infrastructure and exploiting the system. He can’t avoid that.”

Detractors blame Freeh for a leadership style that featured arrogance, cronyism and micromanagement. Since 1994, all new FBI agents have to take a polygraph test, but Smith says Freeh left office without ever submitting to one. He tried to promote to deputy a friend implicated in the Ruby Ridge killing. And he personally approved the use of photographic suspect lineups during the Oklahoma City bombing investigation, a decision usually left to field agents.

Yet thanks in part to his high-profile fights with Clinton, Freeh managed to skate by as director and was never held accountable by the Republican Congress or the Beltway press, two influential groups that today seem indifferent to revisiting Freeh’s troubled reign in search for clues to what’s gone wrong at the FBI.

Former Clinton administration officials say they recognized the problem. But Clinton, crippled by the self-inflicted wounds of a sex scandal, refused to take action against the FBI director.

“We viewed Freeh as a guy who was wholly incompetent but who held on to power by making himself useful to the press and Republicans on the Hill,” says one Clinton White House aide. “He was a political opportunist who played Clinton, and he’s managed to escape the judgment of history for his mismanagement of the FBI.”

Former agent Smith is less pointed, but he draws a similar conclusion. “I like Freeh — he is bright, a quick study. But he probably didn’t have the broad intellect to be FBI director. He just wasn’t prepared. His view of the world centered around a pizza connection [mob investigation] or two. He didn’t have an appreciation of the intelligence business.”

As for his often admired ability to dodge political bullets while director, “that helped Freeh, but it didn’t help the FBI,” says Kris Kolesnik, who worked for Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and who, as the chief investigator of Grassley’s Judiciary subcommittee, oversaw several inquiries into the FBI.

“He survived, but the FBI never learned its lesson and too many problems piled up,” says Kolesnik, now the director of the National Whistleblower Center.

Defenders, however, see a more effective administrator. Freeh oversaw a 65 percent rise in the FBI’s budget, they say, and opened up dozens of offices overseas to fight terrorism. “I hope his reputation is not in danger,” says Bob Blitzer, the FBI’s former head of counter-terrorism who left the bureau in 1998. “His work ethic was incredible. He busted his ass every day. And I do think he made a lot of contributions to the FBI.”

“Freeh’s legacy is not in danger within the FBI,” adds Nancy Savage, president of the FBI Agent Association. “He prioritized investigative matters. People say he put the ‘I’ back in the FBI. And he showed tremendous foresight on terrorism. He was beating that drum relentlessly. It was his passion.”

One of Clinton’s former advisors once told the Washington Post that the president often lamented the fact he’d rejected the best advice White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum ever gave him — to fight the naming of an independent counsel to investigate Whitewater — but accepted Nussbaum’s worst advice — to select Freeh as FBI director. “Clinton would just as soon welcome Ken Starr into his home today than Louis Freeh,” one aide says now.

Freeh came to the job in 1993 with a reputation as straight arrow. A native of Jersey City, N.J., Freeh is a devout Catholic and the father of six, a former FBI agent, and a federal judge in the Southern District of New York. He was only 43.

“There was no doubt about his dedication, or that he had the best interest of the bureau at heart,” says Robert Heibel, former FBI intelligence analyst and director of the Research/Intelligence Analyst Program at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Penn. “He seemed a logical answer to the bureau’s problems. But he could not cure them.”

One of Freeh’s first acts was to slash FBI headquarters personnel. “He was an FBI street agent for six years and he never supervised a case, so he had a street agent’s aversion to management,” says Kessler. “He thought everybody at headquarters was lazy and irrelevant, so he slashed supervisors and left no experienced people left to manage sensitive cases, like Wen Ho Lee.”

“Freeh cut 300 bodies, which frankly didn’t help,” agrees former counter-terrorism chief Blitzer. “He got bad advice from guys he trusted when he was in the FBI in the ’80s. He listened to them and didn’t listen to the professional managers who’d done a pretty good job by the FBI. I don’t know why he did that.”

Those old Freeh friends also persuaded him to structure senior management so that the director was supported by just a single deputy along with a dozen or so assistant directors. The result, says Blitzer, was the director and deputy being inundated with data. “That was just too much information for two people.” (Mueller has since created several positions for executive assistant directors to ease the senior workload.)

The lean staffing, combined with Freeh’s micromanagement of big cases, lead to crippling mismanagement, critics say. “It’s the old business of not seeing the forest through the trees,” says former special agent in charge Smith. “The FBI director cannot wallow in minutia. But that’s what Freeh felt most comfortable doing.”

In his book, Kessler reports Freeh ordered Richard Jewell to be read his rights during an FBI interview. Local agents objected, arguing Jewell had appeared voluntarily and was not a suspect or about to be arrested. After hearing his rights, Jewell effectively ended the interview, which may have added to the FBI’s bungling of the case.

“That’s like calling balls and strikes from Washington,” says Kolesnik. “The first rule of law enforcement is you can’t do that from headquarters.”

But Blitzer supported Freeh’s eagerness to jump into high-profile cases, especially terrorism cases. “It’s not a frickin’ bank robbery,” Blitzer says. “There are usually multiple deaths and serious national security implications, like going to war. What’s the director supposed to do?”

And Savage at the FBI Agent Association insists headquarters in some ways performed better under Freeh’s watch. “People have forgotten how headquarters was unresponsive to criminal investigations,” she said. “Louis Freeh brought in people who’d make things happen and be responsive to the field.”

But the front-page FBI embarrassments began to accumulate, and Freeh made regular pilgrimages up to Capitol Hill to take responsibility.

“The [Hanssen] espionage case, of course, we regret,” he said.

“Ruby Ridge was a great tragedy,” he said.

“With respect to practices in the laboratory, yes, we’ve had tremendous problems,” he said.

The mea culpa routine began to wear thin, even among law-and-order legislators. The Los Angles Times reported in March 1997 that, “when Freeh testified before the House subcommittee, he came under sharp fire by Republicans angry over his leadership of the FBI.”

And then, just like that, “Freeh’s fortunes changed almost overnight,” wrote Daniel Franklin in a recent American Prospect story:

On June 4, 1997, he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the issue of FBI oversight, ordinarily a contentious issue between Congress and the bureau. Not on this day. There have been serious problems within the FBI, Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah said, “but I would be remiss if I did not mention the positive leadership of Director Louis Freeh.”

What happened between March and June 1997 to change Republican opinion of Freeh? In May 1997 news leaked that he had urged Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate whether Chinese operatives sought political influence through illegal campaign contributions to the ’96 Clinton-Gore team.

Reno refused, but any thought the Clinton administration had of firing Freeh for incompetence was dashed. With the FBI investigating the White House and Clinton soon enmeshed in impeachment, Freeh, with powerful Republican allies suddenly at his side, became untouchable.

“Freeh was adept,” concedes one former Republican congressional investigator. “He picked a side knowing he’d have enough strength on the Hill that Clinton couldn’t run him off.”

In doing so, “he politicized the bureau, and it hurt the reputation of the FBI,” says Kolesnik, who worked for Republican senator Grassley. “If Freeh had stood up and said what he had to say, then he would have had more credibility, and Republicans would have had more credibility.”

He notes two Republicans in particular shielded Freeh with a passion: Hatch and Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla. “They used to tell us, ‘The FBI gets what it wants,’” says Kolesnik.

The press too, seemed reluctant to hold Freeh and the FBI accountable. Part of that may have been institutional. As Alicia Munday noted in Editor & Publisher magazine, “It’s a Washington disease: To cover the FBI, you have to be trusted by the FBI, so, for the most part, reporters don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.”

Pundits not hampered by working the daily FBI beat, though, suddenly became enamored with Freeh, and cast him as the do-gooder battling the corrupt White House. “The best spectacle in Washington these days is Louis Freeh’s defiant ride as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” cheered a 1997 New York Times editorial.

And look at how Freeh was portrayed by conservative Times columnist William Safire. Over the years the director has gone from goat, to hero, to suddenly invisible. On the heels of the Travelgate scandal, Safire took a swipe in 1996 for “the failure of F.B.I. Director Louis Freeh to protect the confidential files of citizens from political snoops” and letting “the bureau become a doormat for White House aides.”

That hostility evaporated in 1997. Suddenly Freeh, now referred to by Safire as a “former Federal judge,” was a “grim” stand-up guy, and also “the man best in a position to know” how to conduct Clinton scandal investigations fairly.

Fast-forward to 2002, and Freeh has simply vanished from Safire’s political radar. As the cracks in the bureau Freeh left behind grow more glaring, Safire won’t mention the former director by name. Instead, in his May 27 column Safire zeroed in on current director Mueller for intelligence failures, and tried to paint his FBI fall guy as an old Friend of Bill, even though Bush nominated Mueller to the post at Ashcroft’s request.

Safire is not alone in refusing to ‘fess up to the Freeh problem. In the spring of 1997 the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page rode to the director’s defense, chastising Grassley for even questioning Freeh’s leadership: “Senator, wake up. The last law enforcement soldier holding the line in Washington doesn’t need carping from Republican Senators; he needs air cover.”

Last Friday the paper ran a lengthy editorial, “An Accountable FBI,” documenting past failures such as Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Hanssen spy case, Sept. 11 — and called for Mueller to resign. Guess who the Journal editorial never mentioned? Louis Freeh.

The New York Times editorial page, which applauded Freeh as he pushed for additional Clinton investigations, is suffering from similar amnesia. It has not mentioned Freeh by name once since Sept. 11, despite having published several editorials documenting the FBI’s shortcomings.

“There’s an unholy trinity of Democrats, Republicans and the press that wants to forget Louis Freeh ever existed and screwed all of this up,” explains the former Clinton aide. “We could have fired him. But we kept an incompetent man in charge of the most important agency in the world and we did it out of political fear. That’s the reality. It’s not pretty, but it’s the truth. Republicans have to admit they helped Freeh keep his job. And the New York Times [has] to understand its complacency for what passed [at the time] as news coverage of Louis Freeh.”

Whether the former director will be asked to answer for the FBI’s performance between 1993 to 2001 remains to be seen. But for now, Freeh’s decision to exit two years before his ten-year term officially expired appears to have be been a shrewd one. Says Pike at GlobalSecurity.org: “It looks like he got out while the getting was good.”

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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