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Freeh's Self-Whitewash

By John Podesta
Sunday, October 16, 2005

During his tenure as director of the FBI, Louis Freeh presided over a series of blunders and failures that brought the bureau to a low point in its history. From the embarrassment of the Russian mole Robert Hanssen to the bungling of the Wen Ho Lee investigation to the wasting of hundreds of millions of dollars in a failed attempt to build a modern, computerized case management system, the bureau under Freeh's leadership stumbled from one blunder to the next, with little or no accountability. The nadir, as the nation knows too well, was reached in the astonishing string of failures that helped leave America vulnerable to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In the face of this record, Freeh has now published "My FBI," a book distinguished by its shameless buck-passing. Nothing, it seems, was ever Louis Freeh's fault.

Who was to blame for the fact that there weren't enough FBI agents working on counterterrorism? According to Freeh, it was Congress. But in testimony three years ago, Freeh declared that "Congress has shown great foresight in strengthening" counterterrorism efforts, tripling the FBI's counterterrorism budget from $97 million in 1996 to more than $300 million in 1999. Whose fault was it that the FBI remained incapable of basic file management? Congress's, Freeh contends -- it underfunded the bureau's technology program. But as the report of the Sept. 11 commission points out, Congress did not meet FBI requests in the late 1990s because the bureau had squandered so much money already. Equally appalling is Freeh's recent claim on "60 Minutes" that the bureau was too distracted by the many "scandals" in the Clinton White House to attend to the terrorist threat. Of course, none of those politically motivated witch hunts, in which Freeh did the bidding of his congressional patrons on the partisan right, resulted in a conviction. And never mind that Freeh's FBI ought to have been able to protect the American people while pursuing other investigations at the same time.

Freeh's claim, moreover, that no one, including White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, told him that radical Islamist terrorism was a major threat, is totally disingenuous. As the Sept. 11 report, the congressional joint inquiry and a book by former National Security Council officials Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon show, there were countless memos circulating in the bureaucracy and numerous meetings that Freeh refused to attend. As Benjamin and Simon aptly wrote in "The Age of Sacred Terror," the FBI under Freeh was "a surly colossus" that listened to no one, provided intelligence to no one and took direction from no one.

Perhaps no part of Freeh's auto-whitewash is more self-aggrandizing and inaccurate than his rewrite of the history of the investigation into Khobar Towers. Freeh claims the White House did not support his attempts to probe the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and was unable or unwilling to help the FBI gain access to witnesses.

In fact, on numerous occasions senior Clinton administration officials reiterated requests for full cooperation on Khobar Towers, including access to key witnesses, with interlocutors at the highest levels of the Saudi government. This culminated in a face-to-face demand by President Bill Clinton to Crown Prince Abdullah in Washington in the fall of 1998. Freeh, who was not in that meeting and cites only unnamed sources, claims that Clinton never pushed seriously for cooperation, instead asking Abdullah for a contribution to his planned presidential library.

This account does not pass the straight-face test. Those who were in the room, including several still in government service who cannot speak publicly, all concur that Clinton pushed Abdullah hard for cooperation, telling him that the future of the American-Saudi relationship depended on the kingdom's cooperation. In short order, that cooperation was forthcoming and produced the information that led to the eventual indictments. Freeh alleges that the real reason for the Saudi turnaround was the intervention, at his request, of former president George H.W. Bush. That Bush added his voice to the chorus of administration demands reflects well on our former president, but the argument that the Saudis would deliver on the basis of an appeal from someone who was out of office as opposed to someone whose actions would determine the course of U.S.-Saudi relations is completely implausible.

Other parts of Freeh's account of the unfolding of the Khobar Towers investigation are also riddled with distortions and inaccuracies. For example, Freeh writes as if no acknowledgment of Iranian involvement in the bombing was made until after George W. Bush came into office. This is false: The Clinton administration publicly and unequivocally placed blame on senior Iranian officials. Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder made this point at a press conference on Oct. 4, 1999. Moreover, Freeh's story has changed. In "My FBI," Freeh leaves out the admission that he made to the New Yorker magazine in 2001: that he personally made the decision to hold back on an indictment of Iranian officials until a new administration came into office. The material for indictments was available, and there is no evidence that the Clinton administration did not want to pursue the case. Freeh, however, slow-rolled the case, apparently for political reasons.

A central claim of "My FBI" is that Clinton was more concerned about a rapprochement with Iran than about the safety of Americans. Yet Freeh fails to note the obvious: A principal aim of the administration's aggressive diplomacy and intelligence work was to reduce the terrorist threat coming from Iran and its surrogates in the Middle East.

I can understand why Freeh would write a book such as "My FBI" defending his tenure. After all, no one else would.

John Podesta was President Bill Clinton's last chief of staff and earlier served as counsel to the Senate subcommittee on security and terrorism, which had oversight of the FBI. He is now president of the Center for American Progress.

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