Nothing about the deterioration of the FBI under Clinton-era FBI Director Louis Freeh was his fault. Just ask him.
Freeh, who served as the bureau’s Director from August 1993 to June 2001, testified before the 9/11 (It’s non-partisan! We promise!) Commission on Tuesday, repeating the now familiar litany of excuses for the agency’s poor performance and morale under his leadership: Congress didn’t give us enough money; the country wasn’t on a “war footing”; our hands were tied behind our backs…. The FBI, Freeh inexplicably said, “had a very effective program with respect to counter-terrorism prior to Sept. 11.” before adding his ever-present caveat, “given the resources that we had.” Last year, in a similarly bizarre comment, Freeh described “coordination between the FBI and CIA,” before Sept. 11, as “exemplary.” I’d hate to see this guy’s definition of “terrible.” But terrible is an apt description of Freeh’s leadership, endorsed by President Bill Clinton. The two, working in tandem, hampered the work of agents working to keep America safe from attack.
Freeh has tenaciously defended his pre-9/11 tenure as FBI Director. “In the absence of all the things that were appropriately done after September 11th, when the United States declared war back on al-Qaeda, we were left with alternatives which were better than no alternatives,” Freeh said Tuesday. “And as I said in my statement, sometimes they worked.”
Of course, being effective “sometimes” is not exactly the goal the general public sets for the world’s premier law enforcement agency. Remedies that are “sometimes” effective leave large holes in America’s homeland security – holes large enough to fly commercial airliners through.
So what went wrong with Mr. Freeh? A former street-level FBI agent, Freeh also served as a much-lauded prosecutor in New York City and, then, went on to become a U.S. District Court judge. He was a fervent and feared foe of the mafia. Rudolph Giuliani, who actively campaigned for his nomination, described him as, “the singularly best-suited person in America to run the FBI.” Bill Clinton, announcing Freeh’s nomination in June 1993, said Freeh would be “both good and tough – good for the FBI and tough on criminals.” He added, “It can truly be said that Louis Freeh is the best possible person to head the FBI as it faces new challenges and a new century.”
Indeed, Freeh in his acceptance speech did seem to understand the bureau’s historic mission. He talked about the need for a more global approach to crime prevention, with advanced technology acting as a sort of silver bullet to stop gathering threats in their path. “Anyone doubting the need for an efficient FBI need only read the front page or watch the evening news,” Freeh lectured in the White House Rose Garden, alluding to the first World Trade Center bombing. “What most Americans once thought impossible has now occurred here: a terrorist bomb that killed, maimed and spread terror in our nation's largest city.”
There seemed to be a lot of excitement in the FBI about having one of their own come on board. Freeh made an initial good impression meeting personally with average, ordinary street agents to hear their concerns and suggestions. He urged them to call him personally if they so desired and surprised more than one agent by actually returning those calls. He insisted on being politically independent, refusing to carry water for Clinton when the many scandals came (which often provoked vicious clashes with then-Attorney General Janet Reno).
Louis Freeh was and remains an intelligent, talented man and a true patriot. But that cannot stop us from judging his performance at the helm of the FBI – and the verdict is dismal. The problem was Freeh identified too well with the rank-and-file agent, according to investigative reporter and author Ronald Kessler.
“Freeh viewed his job as directing major cases, which would be like the chairman of GE designing a jet engine or sitting in for Tom Brokaw on NBC’s Nightly News,” Kessler writes in, The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI. “From procurement of computers to the services the bureau provides law enforcement, Freeh ignored what goes on in the rest of the bureau. With only six years as an agent, Freeh had never supervised a case, yet he considered himself the bureau’s premier case agent.”
By ignoring the less glamorous duties of his post, Freeh put the FBI in a terribly disadvantaged position. The FBI’s intra-office computer system was old and ineffectual. The 56k modems the agency used were so slow, agents frequently communicated using faxes instead. Inevitably, many of these memos were lost. There were so few around that numerous agents had to share computers. While Freeh diverted millions of dollars overseas to establish FBI bases (a desirable goal), the agency’s headquarters here in America were falling into disrepair. The Information Technology programs the FBI did undertake went millions and millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. In the absence of results even by the pathetic standards of the U.S. Congress, further monies were withheld. Freeh himself, despite his pro-technology rhetoric, booted the computer out of his office on day one and, incredibly, never used e-mail during his tenure as Director.
Freeh, then as now, complained that the real problem was the stinginess of the U.S. government. But a look at the numbers suggests otherwise. Between fiscal year 1992 and 1997 the FBI's budget increased 45 percent, from $2 billon to just under $3 billion. By 2001, the Bureau’s budget stood at $3.4 billion. Freeh himself bragged about these increases as he left office. Those substantial increases point to a problem in management. A December 2002 audit by the Justice Department’s Inspector General complained of the bureau’s “inability to effectively complete IT projects within budget and schedule,” which had “reduced the FBI's credibility in the eyes of Congress.”
Just how bad did it get? Many of the FBI’s computer systems not even have the technology to incorporate a mouse. “To store a single document on the Automated Case Support system required twelve separate computer commands,” Kessler writes. “On these green screened machines, the FBI could search for the word ‘flight’ or the word ‘schools’ – retrieving millions of documents each time – but not for ‘flight schools.’ The CIA, in contrast, had been able to perform searches for ‘flight schools’ on its computers since 1958.”
Having a former agent as Director was turning out to not be the plus it once was suggested to be, either. The distaste for supervisors he nursed as an agent came bubbling back to the surface. In The Bureau, Kessler quotes Freeh telling his assistant directors that he wanted them to “talk straight” with him. “If I’m full of sh-t, I want you to tell me,” he said, according to Kessler. Staff quickly learned that Freeh was not sincere about his desire for such dissent. Those who told him what he wanted to hear moved up the FBI ladder quickly, those who did not were ignored, shunned, and given “icy glares.” He would tell people their questions were “stupid,” rather than answering them. “Freeh killed the messenger,” one agent told Kessler. “After a while there were no more messengers.” Freeh’s distaste for managers led him to decrease the number of agents assigned to headquarters by 37 percent. On the surface, the idea of putting more agents on the streets is attractive, but in practice it led to disarray at headquarters, which made everyone’s job more difficult.
On Tuesday, Freeh told the 9/11 Commission he believed “that al-Qaeda declared war on the United States in 1996.” (And admittedly, he took a great deal of interest in the investigation into the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia the same year.) However, Freeh’s congressional testimony in 1999 gives the lie to that. It appears his view of terrorsm took the PC posture of the Clinton administration. In that testimony two years before September 11 – and three years after he believed Osama bin Laden had “declared war” – Freeh said that the United States had “little credible intelligence at this time indicating that international or domestic terrorists are planning to attack United States interests domestically.” Instead, he insisted Americans were more threatened by “extremist splinter elements of right-wing groups.”
Among these domestic terrorists, Freeh included “militias,” “white-separatist groups,” “anti-government groups” (like Rush Limbaugh listeners), the “anti-abortion” (the overwhelmingly church-going, pro-life) movement, and “tax protestors.” That is, Freeh and Clinton were wary of being attacked by the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Despite the handicaps imposed by flawed leadership, the FBI’s hardworking agents prevented 40 major terrorist attacks during the 1990s, saving thousands of lives. But even now, Freeh doesn’t accept that the FBI had a blind spot on September 11. To this day, he maintains that he ran the agency well despite the allegedly tight-fisted ways of Congress. After years of ignoring the ever-depreciating technology in the FBI, citizen Freeh now insists before Congress that the Bureau’s encryption software must be brought up to date. Why was this item not on his agenda during his eight years as Director?
Freeh’s successor at the FBI, Director Robert Mueller, brought the Bureau out of the darkness and into the light. The Bush appointee, a former Marine, was sworn in September 4, 2001, a scant week before the terror attacks. Mueller has taken a proactive approach to rebuilding FBI morale and technological prowess during trying times. “I think we can and are fixing what has been wrong with the FBI,” Mueller testified Wednesday. “I think we (at the FBI) are putting our house in order.”
Mueller has instituted reforms to fix “management structures” and rebuild the long neglected infrastructure of the FBI. “Every FBI manager – indeed, every agent – needs to be computer literate; not a computer programmer, but aware of what computers can, and cannot, do to assist them with their jobs,” Mueller said at his confirmation hearing, where he also promised not to sit on important decisions. “In prior positions I have made changes swiftly, as soon as I was confident that I had the benefit of all views and was convinced that the proposed changes would indeed improve the organization,” he said. Ronald Kessler has also noted that Mueller, in sharp contrast to Freeh, invites criticism and promotes agents who tell him the truth, even when it’s not what he wants to hear.
All indications are, Mueller is indeed putting the FBI’s house back in order. He doesn’t tolerate laxity and he is moving forward with system upgrades and more rigorous standards. Not every terrorist attack can be prevented, even by the best intelligence, but is there any reason why we should tolerate anything less than the best defense? It’s heartening that Robert Mueller the Bush administration says no. If Louis Freeh and Bill Clinton had agreed, one more, major terrorist attack might have been foiled.