Sins of Omission
unlike the memoirs of his nemesis, Bill Clinton, Louis Freeh’s book is selective and self-serving in its telling.”
— I. C. Smith
Louis Freeh, who has been virtually silent since his resignation as
director of the FBI on June 25, 2001, finds his voice, of sorts, in My FBI: Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill
Clinton, and Fighting the War of Terror (St. Martin’s Press). Freeh centers the importance of his story on
an incident involving Bill Clinton—a curious one that pits Freeh’s credibility against Clinton’s. Given
their past histories, that’s not a difficult contest to win. I wan not one of Freeh’s cronies, but I have
no doubt that he believes the tale and has some basis for it.
Still the story is unsettling. It
has its beginnings on June 25, 1996, in Saudi Arabia. On that morning, members of the radical group Hezbollah detonated
an explosive-laden tanker truck near a housing complex known as Khobar Towers. The explosion killed 19 American servicemen
and wounded scores more. Freeh became fixated on it, not only because he felt deeply about the loss of life, but also
because he believed a successful investigation would result in an expansion of the FBI’s jurisdiction abroad.
Freeh immediately traveled to Saudi Arabia and learned a valuable lesson: one can have jurisdiction, expertise, and
will, but without host country cooperation, no investigation can be successful. Initially, the investigation proceeded
rather well, but was stalled by the Saudis’ refusal to allow FBI personnel direct contact with various suspects in Saudi
custody. Finally, on September 24, 1998, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah (now King Abdullah) visited Clinton at the White
House. The FBI asked Clinton to press Prince Abdullah on the issue. But Freeh writes that Clinton made only a half-hearted
approach. Clinton told the prince that he “certainly understood” the Saudis’ reluctance to cooperate
and then, according to Freeh, “hit Abdullah up for a contribution the to still-to-be-built Clinton presidential library.” This
information came t Freeh “from ‘usually reliable sources,’ as the say in Washington….”
On October 16 of this year (2005), Freeh appeared on Meet the Press. Host Tim Russert immediately bored
in on Freeh’s claims.
are these ‘usually reliable sources’?”
Freeh: “Well the usual reliable sources in this case, Tim, are senior people
who had firsthand knowledge of the meeting, who have identity with the principals of the meeting. They’re not second-hand
sources. They’re not hearsay people. I did confirm it with them after the book came out because some of the
questions, and I feel very confident on their information.”
Russert: “Were they in the meeting?”
not going to identify my sources, obviously, but I think you have to look beyond that September….”
In effect, Freeh ducked the question.
Freeh’s statements on this subject are interesting on several
levels. If Freeh didn’t use “second hand sources,” that presumably means the information came from
someone in the room when the conversation occurred. Besides Clinton, Abdullah, and a translator, others present likely
included Sandy Berger and Prince Bandar and a couple of other people. To determine Freeh’s source wouldn’t
be difficult if one knew exactly the list of people in the room. Freeh also commented in the Russert interview that “Dale
Watson, the head of my counterterrorism division…will confirm the information about the source….” This
reference to the “source” contradicts the implied references made by Freeh to multiple sources, i.e., “sources,”
“people,” and “them.” Finally, Freeh noted he had confirmed the information with “them”
after the “book came out.” One would think information as explosive as this would have been confirmed before
the book was published.
In an audacious move emblematic of Freeh’s relationship with Clinton, Freeh
reached out to former President George H.W. Bush, who also was meeting with Abdullah. Freeh, not getting anywhere with
Clinton, asked Bush to raise the issue of access to suspects with Abdullah. Freeh writes that Bush agreed, and in a few
weeks, permission was granted for FBI agents to have direct access to the suspects. Freeh also admits a “sin of
omission” by not revealing his contact with Bush when he testified before the Joint Intelligence Committee in October
2002. He does not explain why he withheld that crucial bit of information.
Subsequent news reports
confirmed that the Saudis made a contribution to the Clinton library. Columnist Robert Novak reported in October 2002
that Clinton had received a $750,000 speaking fee for traveling to Saudi Arabia in January of that year, but also returned
with a “hefty pledge for his presidential library.” But Novak (and other news accounts) have also reported
that former President Bush, too, received a gift of at least $1 million from the Saudis for his library, which is not
noted by Freeh in his book.
Certainly the Saudis made a large contribution to Clinton’s
library, but Freeh’s attributing that gift to the White House conversation between Clinton and Abdullah is troublesome. Freeh
admitted as much when he stated on Russert’s show that “it’s what we would call circumstantial evidence…it’s
very powerful circumstantial evidence.” Powerful or not, it remains circumstantial and that is unsettling.
Freeh’s moral repugnance for Clinton jumps out at the reader. That is ironic, for it was Clinton who uttered
the words most often associated with Freeh. With typical hyperbole, Clinton called Freeh at his nomination announcement
a “law enforcement legend.” Freeh had a brief career as an FBI agent and a somewhat longer stint as a prosecutor. But
the exploits he outlined in his book are not the stuff of legends.
The problem with his book, though,
isn’t so much the stories he tells, but the ones he doesn’t tell. The incompleteness of some stories and
the actual omissions of important events are simply disappointing.
For example, Freeh never mentions
Gary Aldrich’s book, Unlimited Access, though that book caused a very real crisis early in Freeh’s tenure. Aldrich
submitted the book for pre-publication review to the FBI, but Freeh’s chief counsel, Howard Shapiro, the first non-agent
to hold that position, provided White House Counsel Jack Quinn a copy of Aldrich’s manuscript, with Freeh’s approval. Congressman
Bob Livingston complained about that and four other such issues that involved Bernard Nussbaum, also at the White House; Freeh
treats these complaints as ridiculous. But there were plenty in the FBI who did not consider the charges ridiculous and
were simply concerned at the perception, if not the fact, that Shapiro, an outsider to the FBI, was currying favor at the
White House and with Nussbaum.
Freeh owed his nomination to Nussbaum, then White House counsel and
Bill and Hillary Clinton confidante, whom Freeh described as having a “well-deserved reputation as both a brash and
brilliant litigator and a man of the highest integrity.” On July 20, 1993, the day Clinton introduced Freeh to
the public, FBI agents were prepared to search David Hale’s office in Little Rock, Arkansas, as part of the Whitewater
investigation. That evening, Vince Foster was found dead at Marcy Park. That same evening, Nussbaum, Patsy Thomasson,
and Maggie Williams were observed going through Foster’s White House office, while denying FBI and Park Police investigators
access to continue their investigation.
In the following days, as Nussbaum continued to block the office,
Philip Heyman, the deputy attorney general, called Nussbaum and asked, “Bernie, are you hiding something?” This
disgraceful act, which included a law enforcement witness observing Williams taking documents from Foster’s office to
the Clintons’ living quarters, is never mentioned by Freeh. Instead, Freeh laments Nussbaum’s departure from
the White House, noting that none of his successors had Nussbaum’s “depth and high integrity.”
Then there is the espionage investigation of Robert Hanssen, the FBI employee who spied for the Soviet Union (and,
after it crumbled, Russia). Glaring omissions and mistakes pepper Freeh’s account of this investigation. Freeh
writes, “Even though the information [Hanssen] provided was very good, it offended their professional pride not to know
who they were dealing with.” This sentence is consistent with a statement Freeh made at the time of Hanssen’s
arrest that “the FBI learned of his true identity before the Russians.” But it is clear that the KGB knew
where Hanssen worked. And in my view, as well as a number of seasoned counterintelligence professionals, it is likely
that the KGB had a good idea of his identity.