Freeh at Last: Revenge and Revisionism at the FBI
On Sunday night, former FBI head Louis Freeh introduced his salacious new Clinton tell-all book, My FBI, on CBS 60 Minutes. For Freeh, the book is an opportunity not only to cash in, but to lash out. Scolded by the 9/11 Commission and savaged by the critics of his tenure at FBI, Freeh is now getting a chance to tell his side of the story. It's too bad he doesn't seem to be telling the truth.
Even in advance of the arrival of My FBI, much of Freeh's tale can be gleaned from a fawning May 2001 piece in the New Yorker. "Louis Freeh's Last Case", written by Elsa Walsh prior to the September 11 attacks, portrays a heroic Freeh fighting both Saudi intransigence and a feckless Clinton administration to get to the bottom of the 1996 Khobar Towers attack that killed 19 Americans. In the Walsh piece, a determined Freeh seeks to punish the Iranian perpetrators of Khobar, while President Clinton, afraid of war with Tehran, shrinks from confronting the Saudi regime holding all the suspects - and all the cards. But as we'll see shortly, Freeh's revisionist history is just that.
What also emerges in Freeh's 60 Minutes segment and the New Yorker piece is a picture of sanctimonious, self-serving, self-righteous and insecure Louis Freeh. Fiercely protective of his mob-busting, crime-fighting vision of the FBI, Freeh was suspicious of the Clinton team, "politicals" (as Richard Clarke relates) who could not be trusted. Fixated on the moral failings of his boss, Freeh's relationship with President Clinton was stormy at best, the two not speaking to each other for a four-year stretch during his tenure. Of Clinton's people, Freeh boasted, "they are terrified of me."
Freeh's Dark Alleys, Empty Wells
Terrified to be sure, but not for the reasons Freeh assumed. As Richard Clarke, 9/11 hero John O'Neill, the 9/11 Commission and others describe at length, it was Freeh's incompetence, political machinations, limelight grabbing and rigidity that horrified his colleagues.
Clarke summarized this consensus view of Freeh in his 2004 book Against All Enemies:
Freeh should have been spending his time fixing the mess the FBI had become, an organization of fifty-six princedoms�without any modern information technology to support them. He might have spent more time hunting for terrorists in the United States, where Al Qaeda and its affiliates had put down roots�Instead, he reportedly chose to be chief investigator in high-profile cases like Khobar, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, and the possible Chinese espionage at our nuclear labs. In all of those cases, his personal involvement appeared to contribute to the cases going down dark alleys, empty wells. His back channels to Republicans in Congress and to supporters in the media made it impossible for the President to dismiss him without running the risk of making him a martyr of the Republican Right and his firing a cause celebre. (p. 116)
Freeh's March on Atlanta
The bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics provides a microcosm of Freeh's misguided leadership at the FBI. As Clarke describes, the Clinton administration mounted a major anti-terrorism efforts well before the Atlanta games, involving thousands of federal personnel across a myriad of agencies, including teams from the Secret Service and Customs as well as the departments of Defense, Energy, Transportation and HHS. Clarke's preparations went well beyond preventing a repeat of the 1972 Munich disaster; the Clinton NSA was concerned about small planes being used by terrorists as flying bombs.
Despite those elaborate preparations, the Atlanta games were bombed, with one person killed and over 100 injured. As Clarke details (p. 109), it was Louis Freeh who over the objections of his own Atlanta office led the rush to judgment against security guard Richard Jewell. A source described the unfolding investigation to Clarke, saying, "Atlanta doesn't like this guy for the bomb. But don't say we don't know who did it, 'cuz Louis has decided."
Freeh, of course, was doubly wrong. Richard Jewell was not responsible for the Atlanta bombing. Jewell was not only vindicated but went on to sue the FBI for Freeh's bulldog pursuit of him. It was instead the radical right extremist and anti-abortion terrorist Eric Rudolph who was behind the Atlanta attack. The FBI's embarrassment was compounded as Rudolph eluded the Bureau for years in the backwoods of North Carolina. Freeh, dispatching hundreds of agents and FBI helicopters, went to North Carolina to lead the search for Rudolph. Only in 2003 was Rudolph apprehended by local police.
Khobar: With Friends Like These...
Atlanta was a sideshow compared to Freeh's role in the investigation of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. As with the Atlanta case and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, Freeh personally led the investigation. And in Freeh's telling, it was an exercise in frustration, as a cowardly Clinton administration refused to bring justice to the victim's families or to the Iranian security services behind the blast. Again, the reality was vastly different.
In the Khobar case, as in previous terrorist attacks against Americans on Saudi soil, the royal family refused to turn over suspects to the United States or unfettered access to American interrogators. As it became clear that Tehran was involved, Saudi apprehension increased. Both the New Yorker piece and Clarke's book detail that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp's Qods forces were behind Khobar, having trained Hezbollah groups in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In Freeh's telling, the Saudis were terrified that they would provide the information leading to an American war on Iran. Clarke's more nuanced discussion, though, shows that while some Saudis feared the military and political backlash from a U.S. war against Iran, others feared the U.S. would not finish the job against Tehran.
Freeh saw his close relationship with Prince Bandar, Bush family friend and Saudi ambassador to the U.S., as his path to prosecuting the Iranian agents involved in Khobar. (After a March 2001 meeting of Bandar with newly inaugurated President George W. Bush, a Bandar aide said, "happy days are here again.") According to Freeh, Bandar confided in him that "we have the goods, God damn it. But I'll be honest with you. Politically, we don't want to pursue this. We don't want to be accused of pushing you to go to war."
Freeh grew increasingly angry about what he perceived as a lack of support from Clinton, the NSA and the State Department. In December 1997, Freeh met with the families of those killed in the Khobar attacks and presented his evidence, telling furious families "I am not a politician. I am a policeman." Later, after the release of the Starr report, Clinton, Gore, and others Americans met with Bandar and Crown Prince Abdullah in Washington. Clinton, Freeh claimed, grew teary at Abdullah's sympathy for his Lewinsky plight, but did little to press the Saudis on Khobar. Incensed, Freeh without Clinton's knowledge took the unprecedented step of asking President George H.W. Bush to intervene directly with his close friends in the Saudi royal family. Clinton, Freeh believed, has missed his chance to bring the killers to justice.
But it was Freeh, not Clinton, who missed the point throughout the Khobar investigation. Freeh's myopia started with but did not end with his relationship with Bandar. Bandar, Clarke notes (p. 114), "charmed Freeh at frequent meetings at the Saudi's Virginia estates." Agent John O'Neill, later taken off the 2000 Cole investigation and killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, told Clarke (p. 114) "he was struck by the contrast between the fawning protocol the Saudis showed Freeh and the mendacity whenever the conversation got around to the investigation. Freeh, according to O'Neill, did not seem to detect the duplicity"
Much more important that Freeh's seduction by Bandar was his total lack of insight into the Clinton administration's aggressive military, intelligence and political plans for Iran in response to Khobar. While the administration did probe the more moderate Iranian president Khatami elected in May 1997 regarding a thaw in relations, Clinton's preparation for covert action and war went forward.
Clarke is unambiguous on this point. "In actuality," Clarke wrote (p. 117), "Clinton had been pursuing the opposite path to what Freeh imagined." Clarke noted (p. 118) "while Freeh had been pursuing the Saudis, the White House had been preparing for war." President Clinton was adamant that action against Tehran had to be overwhelming and total, fuming (p 118) that "I don't want any pissant half-measures." In July 1996, Joint Chiefs Chairman John Shalikashvili presented a plan for Army and Marine divisions to invade and occupy Iran. Shalikashvili, Clarke concluded simply, "was talking about all-out war."
As it turned out, an American invasion in response to terrorist provocations by the Iranian secret services was not necessary. During the same NSA sessions regarding Iran war planning, the Clinton team decided to proceed with a large covert action campaign against the Iranian secret services while preparing to move on to direct military confrontation if necessary. As Clarke noted (p. 129), the U.S. proceeded with the covert campaign. Iranian-sponsored attacks against American interests came to an end.
Freeh and the 9/11 Commission
A major motivation for Freeh's revisionist history in My FBI no doubt was the admonishment of the 9/11 Commission. The FBI in general and Freeh in particular were upbraided for a host of organizational, technology, communications and strategic failures that helped the September 11 attacks succeed.
Freeh's rigid fixation with the FBI's traditional crime-fighting and mob-busting roles was one such failing. Clarke was not alone in this conclusion. In Daniel Franklin's January 2002 piece in the American Prospect ("Freeh's Reign"), FBI veterans went on record regarding Freeh's aversion to intelligence and counter-terrorism missions. Former agent I.C. Smith related, "we had done a great deal of work preparing talking points about the FBI's role as the lead counterintelligence agency and Freeh basically ignored everything." John Lewis, former assistant director in charge of national security for the FBI, described the schism in Freeh's FBI:
"The crime guys used to refer to foreign-counterintelligence and counterterrorism guys as 'fern-loving, quiche-eating, chardonnay drinkers. The criminal-division guys were the 'red-orchid-loving, linguini-eating, Chianti drinkers."
Freeh, Franklin concluded, "was a linguini man through and through, and it showed in his approach to counterterrorism." The 9/11 Commission agreed completely. Its final report noted that while Freeh recognized terrorism as a major threat, "Freeh's efforts did not translate into a shift of significant resources to counter-terrorism." Despite publishing a five-year plan in 1998 identifying "national and economic security" as its top priority, FBI counter-terrorism spending "remained fairly constant between 1998 and 2001. In 2000, there were still twice as many agents devoted to drug enforcement than counter-terrorism."
The 9/11 panel did not end its scathing assessment there. A new division created to provide analysis failed from the beginning. In addition, Freeh's FBI "did not have an effective intelligence effort" with poorly trained agents and limited collection of data from human sources. Making matters worse, "the FBI's information systems were woefully inadequate." Freeh's FBI, the 9/11 Commission concluded, "lacked the ability to know what it knew."
The Right's Man at the FBI
Freeh's colleagues in the Clinton administration thought little of him and the 9/11 Commission even less. But among one group Louis Freeh will always have friends: the conservative right.
The timing of My FBI couldn't be better for conservatives. With President Bush plummeting in the polls, the Republican Party awash in scandal and the conservative base in revolt over the Miers nomination, Freeh's salacious new book brings Bill Clinton's peccadilloes back into the limelight. Fox News, the Drudge Report and other members of the conservative amen corner alike anxiously await the book from Freeh, a man who gave $20,000 to President Bush and the GOP in 2004.
But Freeh courted and received support from the conservative media and the Congressional GOP long before his tell-all book. As Franklin noted in the American Prospect, "Freeh's relations with congressional Republicans were hard won because, for much of the first few years of his tenure, his standing was diminished by various bureau mistakes."
Eager to improve his image tarnished by the Ruby Ridge cover-up and the Richard Jewell Atlanta bombing fiasco, Freeh became a reliable servant and source of leaks for Republican committeemen in Congress. In the FileGate case, Freeh became an outright water carrier for the GOP. While the Clinton administration claimed this was merely a bureaucratic snafu (a conclusion backed four years later by a three judge panel), Freeh played the martyr, claiming, "the FBI and I were victimized." In 1997, Freeh's FBI leaked information to the Washington Post about Chinese contributions to Democratic campaigns and even went so far as to brief Congressional Republicans.
By the summer of 1997, Freeh's prostitution to his Republican allies was paying dividends. During Senate hearings, Orrin Hatch cooed "I would be remiss if I did not mention the positive leadership of Director Louis Freeh." Senator Arlen Specter added his desire to "compliment you on a job well done." It's no wonder, as Franklin reported, that one Republican Senate Judiciary Committee staffer crowed, "It was useful to have someone more to your way of thinking from a policy perspective than Reno's Justice Department."
Freeh's Republican "way of thinking" - and disdain for Bill Clinton - was perhaps best expressed in a note he sent Whitewater special counsel Ken Starr upon the latter's departure. Freeh praised Starr, saying "we have all been greatly impressed with your sacrifice, persistence, and uncompromising personal and professional integrity."
To claim to know the full story from the former head of the FBI, one will have to read Louis Freeh's book. But you don't have to invest the time or the money to know that Louis Freeh's is just getting something off his chest, not clearing the air.