Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Fighting the War on Terror
By Louis J. Freeh with Howard Means
St. Martin's. 336 pp. $25.95
For nearly a dozen years, Louis J. Freeh has been pointedly silent about the man who appointed him director of the FBI. That moratorium ends officially and loudly with the publication of Freeh's My FBI, a scorching account of his relationship with Bill Clinton and of leading the bureau at a time when, as Freeh writes, the president's "scandals . . . never ended." To understand the depth of Freeh's antipathy, consider this one anecdote: Sometime after he resigned in 2001, Freeh ran into the former White House counsel who had recommended Freeh for the job. The lawyer reported that Clinton had just complained to him that the worst advice the lawyer ever gave him was to appoint Freeh. "I wear it as a badge of honor," Freeh writes. And that's just the second chapter.
How did it come to this? A president's relationship with an FBI director should be a mixture of hands-off and hands-on. Unlike cabinet members, who serve at the pleasure of a president, directors are now given 10-year terms -- in part to avoid another 48-year reign like that of J. Edgar Hoover, and in part to provide insulation from political pressure. A potentially secret police force constitutes a great opportunity for abuse by presidents and a threat to be used against them. But even if an FBI director cannot expect to be best friends with the president, he should, as Freeh writes, "be able to go directly to the president, sit down with him and say You should know about this." In Freeh and Clinton's case, there were vital issues to discuss and collaborate on. But the problem for Freeh was that he never could get to those hands-on moments. "There was always some new investigation brewing, some new calamity bubbling just below the headlines ." By the time Freeh resigned, he had met with Clinton at most three times.
My FBI is no ordinary Washington memoir. To be sure, Freeh tells a number of engaging stories about his rise from FBI street agent -- one undercover assignment entailed parading around nude in the locker room of a local health club frequented by a prominent mobster -- to his mob-busting days as a federal prosecutor in the famed Southern District of New York. There are a few too many gratuitous bromides bestowed on colleagues and even neighbors. But these accolades serve the purpose, intended or not, of contrasting starkly with Freeh's portrait of Clinton as a man whose only moral compass is political expediency. When a judge cited Clinton in 1999 for contempt for lying in the Paula Jones case, Freeh describes it as a disgrace equal only to Richard M. Nixon's. If it had been him, Freeh writes, "I would be so devastated that I might never show my face in public again. The ex-president, however, seems to suffer no such pangs of conscience."
In retrospect, it should have been clear to both men that this was a doomed relationship. Could there be two more different people? Freeh, a former altar boy and a moralist at his core, always carried a worn prayer book in his suit jacket. But Freeh was impressed with the breadth of Clinton's questions in their first meeting, and by the time Clinton assures Freeh there will be no political interference if he takes the job, Freeh has joined the legions of the charmed. When Clinton sits down, without prompting, to write a birthday greeting to Freeh's 7-year-old son, the deal is sealed.
Freeh acknowledges making mistakes in the relationship. He lacked tact in trying to distance himself. He turned down an early dinner invitation to the White House with the Clintons and Tom Hanks; he even sent back his White House pass with a terse note, indicating he would sign in every time he came calling. "It was seemingly a declaration of open hostility on my part," he writes. But, he argues, "I was the nation's top cop," and just a few months into his tenure, Clinton was already the subject of a criminal investigation in what became known as Whitewater. "Until the matter was sorted out," Freeh writes, "I had to be accountable for every trip I made to the building where the president worked and lived."
The final stake through the relationship's heart, however, was the president's response to the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, an American military facility in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 Americans were killed. It is fitting that Freeh opens My FBI with Khobar Towers; there was no case he cared more deeply about or pursued more relentlessly. It became his Moby-Dick. Only hours after the bombing, Clinton dispatched the FBI to track down the perpetrators, promising the nation they would not go unpunished. Freeh personally oversaw the case, and when it soon began to appear that top Iranian government officials might be behind the attack, Freeh says the investigation stalled: "Where I found myself most stymied [was] not halfway around the world on the Arabian Peninsula but at home, a half dozen blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue." The problem, in Freeh's view, was that in May 1997 an Iranian moderate, Mohammad Khatami, had been elected president and seemed to be the United States' best hope of normalizing relationships. "The Khobar Towers investigation was not going to get in the way of that," Freeh writes.
The tale of duplicity Freeh tells is complicated, but the basic outlines are these: The Saudis, who had suspects in custody, had communicated in a limited way their findings of Iranian involvement to the FBI and the White House. To put a legal case together, however, the bureau needed access to the suspects, and Freeh was told by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, that this would happen only if the president and his top aides exerted pressure on Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's de facto leader. The Saudis, however, said they were receiving U.S. signals to back off, not to bull ahead with the investigation. Clinton and his aides denied this to Freeh, but in the end, Freeh came to believe the Saudis' version.
Among the most telling incidents for Freeh was a meeting that occurred in September 1998 between the crown prince and the president at the Hay Adams hotel in Washington. Freeh was assured by Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, that Clinton had pressed Abdullah for U.S. access to the Saudi-held suspects, but others present told Freeh that Clinton barely raised the subject and sympathized with the Saudis' reluctance to cooperate. Clinton, Freeh writes, then promptly asked Abdullah for a contribution to his presidential library. (I learned through my own reporting at the time that Freeh later secretly referred Clinton's library request for grand jury investigation, but he does not reveal this here, presumably because of grand jury secrecy rules.) Frustrated, Freeh then made an extraordinary out-of-chain of command pitch to former president George H.W. Bush, who also was scheduled to visit with Abdullah. Freeh called Bush, much favored in Saudi Arabia due to the 1991 Gulf War, and asked him to make the request that Clinton wasn't making. The former president agreed, and two days later, Abdullah told Freeh that the suspects would be made available. "I have no doubt that, but for President Bush's personal intervention, we would never have gotten access," Freeh writes. Six weeks later, the information from the interviews and other evidence turned over by the Saudis showed incontrovertibly that the attack had been funded, Freeh writes, by senior Iranian officials. He adds that, after he reported these findings, Berger convened a meeting in the West Wing's Situation Room to discuss them. But instead of dealing with the evidence of Iranian complicity, Freeh writes, the meeting focused on how to deal with the press and Congress should the news leak. (A "Script A" and a "Script B" had been prepared.)
No other moment in his eight years matched the disappointment of that meeting: "We had the goods on them, cold, yet the Clinton administration miserably failed to seek any redress," Freeh writes. The case limped along until the new President Bush took office. Six months later, a grand jury indicted 14 defendants, mostly the active participants in the plot, and accused the Iranian government of directing the attack -- though no Iranian officials were indicted, a fact that Freeh curiously fails to explain.
Freeh devotes a scant two chapters to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and their aftermath, explaining that enough newsprint and news hours already have been dedicated to what went wrong without his rehashing the details. This will be too little for many; critics have blasted Freeh for pursuing his Khobar Towers obsession while his FBI missed the gathering al Qaeda plot at home. Though Freeh resigned three months before Sept. 11, the plot was assembled on his watch, as was the FBI counterterrorism apparatus that failed to thwart it. But he has a few points about Sept. 11 that he is determined to make. While acknowledging "many shortcomings" of his own, Freeh blames Congress for the much-reported antiquated state of the FBI's computer system, pointing out that the bureau begged Congress for funds that were not forthcoming. He complains that from 2000-02, the bureau asked for 1,900 new employees for its counterterrorism program and got only 76.
But the heart of Freeh's complaint is that until Sept. 11, terrorism was viewed by both the Clinton and Bush administrations as a law enforcement issue -- sifting through bomb sites looking for evidence, as the FBI did with Khobar Towers -- and not as an act of war, as he now argues that it should have been. "I don't know an agent who thought that was sufficient to the cause, or anyone who believed that a criminal investigation was a reasonable alternative to military or diplomatic action," he writes. The United States had gone after Osama bin Laden with a few Tomahawk cruise missiles in 1998 in retaliation for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; the CIA had made covert attempts to get bin Laden; and the State Department had harangued his Taliban patrons. But these attempts were all lame, Freeh argues, because the United States lacked the political spine to put its full force behind the efforts. Freeh points out that the FBI had helped secure indictments against bin Laden in 1998 and 1999 and, along with the CIA, missed nabbing Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the Sept. 11 plot's mastermind, in Qatar in 1996 when he was apparently tipped off by a Qatari official. In 2000, Freeh flew to Pakistan and personally appealed to President Pervez Musharraf to pressure his Taliban allies to arrest bin Laden. "If [the U.S.] government had a different mind-set, the secretaries of state and defense would have been in Lahore with me, or instead of me," Freeh writes. This negligence, he argues, emboldened the terrorists. "The image of a lumbering giant stumbling around with a sign on its back reading 'Kick Me' was not lost on our enemies," he notes.
My FBI is ultimately a sad tale, and it's clear Freeh saw it this way, too. He had planned to resign before the end of Clinton's term but held off until the president left office because he worried that Clinton might replace him with someone who would damage the FBI. "Not only was he actively hostile toward me, he was hostile to the FBI generally," Freeh writes. "My departure might be one last opportunity for retaliation." *
Elsa Walsh is a staff writer for the New Yorker.