In Sunshine And In Shadow

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Louis Freeh’s FBI reflected his New York provincialism (a provincialism not unlike that captured in Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover): if information didn’t involve New York itself, it was of diminished significance. Freeh admitted, while referring to Clinton, “I had insufficient appreciation for the nuanced life of southern politicians.” And added, “I never learned to do good ol’ boy.” He was right and the FBI suffered from his inability to look beyond the Hudson River with any regularity.
Before becoming director, Freeh’s experience with the FBI was narrow. He had been an FBI agent assigned to New York, near his home and family, for about six years. He was transferred to FBI Headquarters where he resigned in a snit, according to accounts. Freeh became a prosecutor in New York and then was appointed to a federal judgeship, again in New York, by President George H.W. Bush. After a couple years, he was approached by Nussbaum about the FBI job.
Freeh, though, omits the fact that he once tried to return to the FBI before the Nussbaum call. As related to me by Joe Davis, former head of the Legal Counsel Division, Freeh, as a prosecutor, wrote that he would return to the FBI and the Legal Counsel Division, but only in a senior position. Freeh’s request was rejected by Davis, and when Freeh did return as FBI director, one of his first acts was to eliminate Davis’s position. He filled the hole with Howard Shapiro.
Freeh concludes his book with chapters that are uncomfortable reading. He begins with unabashed praise for the owners of MBNA, the credit card giant, which hired him after he resigned from the FBI. He even lists by name more than 40 members of MBNA’s senior management team, though they had nothing to do with the book. He then lists all of his cronies at the FBI.
Sprinkled throughout are gratuitous and silly asides. Senator Pat Leahy is “one of the finest leaders” in Washington; Freeh has “tremendous respect for Al Gore”; he writes of sharing a hymnal with Hillary Clinton and “Condi was a breath of fresh air.” He even quotes Little Rock Federal Judge Susan Webber-Wright, though he misspells her surname.
Freeh doesn’t mince words about Richard Clarke, the former White House National Coordinator for Security and Counter-terrorism. He writes that “here’s what I remember about Dick Clarke: almost nothing of significance.”
Freeh takes issue with Clarke regarding FBI agent John O’Neill, who left the FBI and took a security job at the World Trade Center and died in a tower on 9/11. Freeh acknowledges that Clarke and O’Neill were close. But Freeh said Clarke was wrong when he asserted that O’Neill “didn’t quit the FBI in disgust after our alleged temerity in fighting terrorists.” So why did O’Neill retire? Freeh leaves the matter hanging.
I find such omissions startling. Freeh’s old friend and colleague, the colorful Jim Kallstrom, is mentioned on only one page and the mammoth TWA 800 investigation that Kallstrom headed is noted only in passing. There is no mention at all of Michael Kehoe, the agent Freeh promoted to head the Jacksonville, Florida FBI office and who later served a prison sentence for his role in the Ruby Ridge debacle. He fails to mention the scandals involving the FBI’s organized crime program in Boston.
Freeh dismantled a great deal of the expertise at FBI Headquarters, and this ended up costing the agency hugely in the Wen Ho Lee case. Freeh writes about the episode obtusely. He does not acknowledge that one of the single most accomplished agents in dealing with Chinese matters, who had been caught up in Freeh’s ill-advised reduction program, had warned investigators not to concentrate on Lee alone. His advice was ignored by his successors, who knew very little about either China or Chinese counterintelligence. Freeh merely says, “We made mistakes of our own along the way.”
Why Freeh bothered to write such an incomplete book is perplexing to me. “I decided to write My FBI to tell the story of very special heroes: the men and women of the FBI,” he writes in the preface. A reading of the book does not allow one to reach that conclusion. A more revealing motive was exposed in his interview with Tim Russert. Near the end of the interview, Russert was discussing Mark Felt. Freeh commented that he would have never spoken to the press as freely as Felt had with his Deep Throat revelations. Russert retorted, “But you have in this book….”
Freeh responded, “Well, you know Tim, it’s my story. I didn’t write my story and you can’t tell your story when you are a public official. I wanted to tell the story about the FBI because I’m so proud of them. And I actually—to be honest with you, I got tired of reading other people’s books. You know, they’ve got you in meetings you never attended. They’ve got you saying things you never said.”
Make no mistake; this is not a book about the exploits of “special heroes” in the FBI. This is a story about Louis Freeh, both incomplete and selective in its telling. Freeh, throughout his tenure as director (and in his book), seldom had anything good to say about J. Edgar Hoover. On one occasion, in an apparent attempt at humor while giving a speech, he joked about Hoover wearing a dress, an allegation that is discredited. Instead of laughing at him, Freeh should have taken his sage advice—advice inscribed on a wall in the courtyard of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building: “The FBI can be effective only as long as it has the trust and confidence of the American people.”
When Freeh left the FBI in June 2001, public confidence in the agency, according to a CBS News poll reported in the New York Times, had plummeted to 24 percent, down from 43 percent a year earlier.
Freeh is obviously a moral man with strong Catholic beliefs. But his moral sense does not override his unwillingness to admit his mistakes. The result is a book that is not unlike that of his nemesis, Bill Clinton. It doesn’t tell the full story and is, in its own way, equally self-serving.
Published in The American Spectator, December 2005/ January 2006