It testifies to the Clinton administration's political dexterity that the fiasco of Justice Department handling of the Waco disaster is being laid at the door of the federal official whom President Clinton thoroughly detests: FBI Director Louis Freeh.

Justice Department and White House officials for the past 10 days have been informing the news media how terribly angry Attorney General Janet Reno was that Freeh and the FBI misled her about what went on at the Branch Davidian compound in April 1993. This campaign's culmination came last Thursday, when U.S. marshals ostentatiously seized evidence held by the FBI to "protect" it. Contradicting its reputation of public relations prowess, the FBI was mute.

It is difficult to minimize the outrage of congressional Republicans that Reno is now depicted as the victim of Waco and Freeh as the malefactor. For the nearly five years that the GOP has controlled Congress, Reno and her Justice Department handlers have stonewalled legitimate requests from the legislative branch -- in sharp contrast to Freeh's cooperation. That is precisely what has made Reno invaluable to the president, and Freeh so menacing.

To blame Freeh instead of Reno for the apparent coverup is the famous White House spin cycle at its most audacious. He was not yet in office at the time of the tragedy. Reno, not Freeh, was in charge of two outside investigations of Waco. In response to my telephone call to the FBI director, he declined to discuss the details. But when I asked if he had known about the withheld information, he quickly replied: "Absolutely not. I did not know."

While Reno herself was typically bland and uncommunicative in her press conference last Friday, the administration's political operatives have been poisoning FBI waters. That deflected attention from what the Justice Department did.

Lee Hancock, whose stellar reporting for the Dallas Morning News broke this story, has described a classic flimflam. The Justice Department asked the Texas Rangers to keep Waco evidence locked up and instructed them to refer requests for such evidence back up to Washington. Justice, in turn, would say that it did not have control of material that was in the hands of the Texas authorities. That kept everything locked up until two weeks ago.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Johnson of Waco, who has become something of a whistle-blower, issued a warning to Reno last Monday. He had been given a 1994 document containing notations by Justice Department officials, suggesting that interviews with members of the FBI's hostage rescue team not be given to anybody outside Justice's legal staff. On Tuesday, the attorney general asked a federal court in Waco to block the release of documents.

Such bottling up of evidence has been characteristic of the Reno Justice Department. So diversified a band of Republicans as Rep. Dan Burton, Sen. Arlen Specter and Sen. Fred Thompson have lost patience in confronting Reno's stonewall (Thompson told me the allegations that Freeh was withholding evidence were "a bunch of bull"). Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a member of the House Judiciary committee, put it this way: "Louis Freeh has been very cooperative. I think that with the [congressional] committees, he's been very responsive. The attorney general has been pulling back on every investigation, not cooperating."

Freeh's cooperation has made him a pariah at the White House, as Bob Woodward's latest book "Shadow" makes clear. On Aug. 21, 1998, four days after delivering his first "contrition" speech to the nation, Clinton, in a private telephone conversation with former aide and ardent supporter Lanny Davis, "let loose about the ignominies he was suffering."

The president described Freeh in three unspeakably vulgar words for his recommendation (rejected by Reno) of an independent counsel on 1996 campaign finance abuses. "Davis and Clinton agreed," Woodward wrote, "that the FBI was so totally immune from any political control that he had become like the legendary baron, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover."

So, why not exploit the embarrassment of Waco to get rid of this meddlesome man once and for all? The problem is that Dan Burton has sent out subpoenas, Rep. Henry Hyde is calling for a bipartisan probe and Reno herself promises a special Republican investigator. They also will be looking into dark allegations that nobody fairly can blame on Louis Freeh.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.