WASHINGTON -- The latest joke making the rounds at the White House: It's September 1993, and President Clinton is swearing in Louis Freeh as the new FBI director at a ceremony in the Rose Garden. Among the onlookers is White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum, Freeh's mentor. Brimming with pride, Nussbaum whispers to a deputy, "We really hit a home run this time, didn't we?" The deputy mumbles something in reply, drives out to the country and blows his brains out. The deputy's name: Vincent Foster.
Perhaps only those who have endured the endless conspiracy theories surrounding Foster's death would appreciate this attempt at dark humor. But it indicates the ill regard in which Freeh is held since his bid to get an independent prosecutor to probe alleged fund-raising abuses by Clinton and Vice President Al Gore fell flat on its face last week.
Since then, the official White House posture toward Freeh has been one of strained civility. "The president has great confidence that Louis Freeh is leading the agency as best he can," said White House spokesman Michael McCurry. Privately, Freeh is regarded by White House aides with the contempt reserved for perceived traitors and cowards.
"The country would be better served by a cross-dressing J. Edgar Hoover in pumps than by Louis Freeh," a senior White House aide told Salon.
Sources at the Justice Department say Freeh and his supporters at the FBI are equally unhappy and suspicious of the White House. They are said to believe that illegalities involving Democratic Party fund-raising amounted to a conspiracy aided and abetted at the highest levels of the Clinton administration. Freeh also has six more years to go in his 10-year appointment; White House aides as well as sources close to both Attorney General Janet Reno and the FBI say he packs the potential to become a powerful ally of Republican congressional investigators who are trying to nail Clinton and Gore for campaign-finance abuses.
"Freeh is very mindful of what his appropriators think," a former senior Justice Department official told Salon. "To a very large degree, he measures the bureau's progress in its funding. In some respects, Louie relates to Congress as the bureau's board of directors. And right now, that board is Republican."
Last spring and summer, those senators and congressmen publicly savaged Freeh, in a series of hearings, for the FBI's sloppy forensics work and treatment of Atlanta bombing suspect Richard Jewell and for handing over confidential files of leading Republicans to the White House. They even criticized Freeh for the Waco and Ruby Ridge fiascoes -- events that occurred before Freeh took over the FBI but whose aftershocks raised questions about his management of the bureau. Freeh acknowledged his mistakes and promised to improve the bureau's performance.
Ever since, his critics say, Freeh has been trying to stay on the good side of Republicans, to the point of supporting their call for an independent counsel to investigate Clinton and Gore. They also believe that Freeh's underlings would follow his lead. "Most of Freeh's agents are Republicans, or think like them, or at least don't like Democrats," said one of the critics.
The White House is said to be particularly incensed over leaks from a confidential memo Freeh sent to Reno just before Thanksgiving in which he laid out his case for the appointment of a special prosecutor. Stories quoting from the memo, which included evidence from ongoing FBI investigations, appeared in both the Washington Post and the New York Times. It is widely believed in the White House and the Justice Department that Freeh himself was the source of the leaks.
"To leak a memorandum which clearly recites and reflects evidence in the investigation of a criminal case is totally inappropriate," one Justice Department source said. "There's a limited degree to which Freeh can say he doesn't know where it's coming from when this stuff is very personal to him."
A White House aide was less circumspect. "What Freeh did was underhanded and unprofessional. It was the ultimate CYA" (Cover your ass).
Last week, Reno, on the advice of senior Justice Department lawyers, rejected the call for an independent counsel on the grounds that Clinton and Gore had broken no laws. Incensed Republicans are demanding that Reno turn over Freeh's memo, a demand she has rejected. Said one former Justice official: "It's bad enough the memo was leaked. She now cannot ratify that by turning it over to Congress. I don't care if it already appeared word-for-word on the front page of the Washington Post. She cannot anoint that kind of behavior. It's just wrong."
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who has subpoenaed the Freeh memo, has summoned both Reno and Freeh to appear Tuesday before his House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, which is investigating campaign fund-raising. If Reno resists the subpoena, she could face contempt of Congress charges. And if, as is likely, the highly partisan Burton continues to focus on the rift between Freeh and Reno, expect to hear a fresh wave of Republican charges about a Clinton administration "coverup" of its campaign finance dealings.
Throughout the controversy, Freeh has managed to keep himself out of public view. Through a spokesman, he declined an interview request from Salon but issued a statement, citing his "strong and amicable relationship with the Attorney General." Reno herself has expressed her confidence that Freeh will resist any effort to politicize the FBI and will not let himself "be used to attack me or President Clinton."
But the jokes keep cropping up, some of them now from Freeh's supporters. Following Reno's decision to reject the recommendation for an independent counsel, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., quipped, "The Department of Justice cannot survive half slave and half Freeh."
The betting, at least in the White House, is that the latter half will have to be sacrificed.