Louis Freeh’s tenure as FBI director was perhaps the most disagreeable since the iron-fisted rule of J. Edgar Hoover. It is easy to see why. He seemed to want to prove that despite only a few years of prior experience as an agent he was big enough for the directorship, tackling it with the same zealotry he does his religion.
He purged the bureau’s old guard almost immediately and replaced it at headquarters with assistants who had little understanding of the institution and its traditions. He treated many senior agents with disdain. Among his first acts was to embarrass the special agent in charge of the New York field office, the bureau’s largest, firing him summarily only a few days before he was to retire, allegedly for breaking a gag order by disputing allegations of bureau negligence. He sent a team of agents to New York to escort the longtime veteran out of his office. It was a harbinger for the next seven or so years of his rule.
Now he is running around promoting his book, “My FBI,” at the expense of his former boss, Bill Clinton, making allegations he knows full well can’t be proved or refuted. He charges, among other things, that Clinton solicited financial support for his presidential library from Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah at the time he was supposed to be pressing him to allow FBI access to jailed figures in the bombing of the Khobar Towers that killed 19 Americans in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
In an appearance on “Meet the Press,” he also said the Clinton White House was informed that the Iranian government was responsible for the bombing and took no immediate action, with Clinton only writing a letter to Iran’s president asking for cooperation in ferreting out the truth. He said that would be like the U.S. attorney general writing John Gotti a letter asking for him to cooperate in the prosecution of his “capos.” All this, of course, has been hotly disputed by Clinton’s office and by his former national security adviser, Sandy Berger.
Almost from the beginning of his reign at the bureau, Freeh was at odds with the president and his aides. That friction became more and more public with Freeh, a devout Catholic and moralist, hardly hiding his disdain for Clinton. Clinton also made no secret of his growing dislike for the former judge to whom he had given the job with no strings attached.
The immediate perception of the book is that it is typically Freeh, self-serving and self-righteous. Every time the bureau was nailed for a failure, including the refusal to realize the potency of the terrorist threat, he blamed the problems on someone else. He met every crisis by demanding more money and more agents. His empire building was notorious. He fomented turf wars as he launched numerous efforts to expand the bureau’s reach and power, taking his agents into explosives and drugs and other responsibilities that lacked the urgency of counter terrorism. Communications with the CIA and other federal agencies were at an all-time low, and Freeh’s FBI claimed jurisdiction over territory long held by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America, the bureau under Freeh has been criticized again and again by investigating panels and commissions in and out of Congress. But his legacy has made it far more difficult to reform the bureau, to wean it away from a reactive mode to a proactive one and to refocus attention away from garden-variety crime to anti terrorism efforts.
He did take responsibility for leaving the bureau’s computer technology in the dark ages, admitting that the communication lapses were enormous. Even then he tried to soften the situation by claiming that FBI men and women had done well despite their lack of modern technology. Since his exit, the FBI has been struggling to correct that situation, but spent $170 million on a plan that ultimately didn’t work and couldn’t be fixed.
This is a book Freeh would have been better off not writing. His own gaffes severely damage his credibility. For instance, he personally ran the Atlanta bombing case, insisting security guard Richard Jewell was the culprit despite being informed otherwise by ATF experts. The incident was just one of many embarrassments the bureau suffered under his direction.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)