This month saw the publication of My FBI, Louis Freeh’s memoir of his tumultuous years as FBI Director[i]. In it, Freeh recounts his stained relationship with President Clinton, who was known to sneer at Freeh as the “insufferable Boy Scout”[ii]. Freeh does not emerge entirely unscathed from the book’s pages: It is clear that many high crimes and misdemeanors escaped Freeh’s notice during his time in office, and that the cancer of radical Islamic terrorism was allowed to metastasize even on American soil. Nevertheless, with the publication of My FBI, just as the nation marked the fourth anniversary of the deaths of thousands on 9/11, Freeh has begun to make amends.
Clinton’s defenders, however, will hear none of it. The most vocal of them, John Podesta, Clinton’s Chief of Staff and the prime cog in the Democratic spin machine, has taken it upon himself to denounce Freeh. Writing in the Washington Post on October 16, Podesta delivered himself of a hypocritical broadside against Freeh blaming him for the administration’s failures.
Podesta wastes no time condemning Freeh for the failures of the CIA. In the very first sentence, Podesta savages Freeh’s tenure as a “series of blunders and failures that brought the bureau to a low point in its history.” Podesta ought to know something about blunders. This is coming from the man who, according to the website of his stridently partisan “think tank,” the Center for American Progress, was responsible for “directing, managing, and overseeing all policy development, daily operations, Congressional relations, and staff activities of the White House”[iii].
Podesta next derides Freeh’s memoir as “shameless buck-passing.” Podesta notes sarcastically that nothing seems ever to have been Freeh's fault. Here Podesta has a valid point. After all, Freeh presided over the nation’s premier law enforcement agency during years when strategic military technology was wholesaled to a sworn enemy of America—China—in exchange for foreign campaign donations. Yet, somehow, Freeh lacked, by his own account, the “controlling legal authority” to do anything about it. Of course, one might wonder why the president would keep such a hapless official on in such an important role—but then, accountability has never been one of Clinton’s strong suits.
Podesta declines to address such questions. His concern instead is to pin the administration’s failings squarely on Freeh. Thus he takes issue with Freeh’s claim that the CIA was too distracted by the scandals dogging the Clinton White House to focus on the threat of terrorism. In his book, Freeh notes, “The problem was with Bill Clinton, the scandals and rumored scandals, the incubating ones and the dying ones never ended. Whatever moral compass the president was consulting was leading him in the wrong direction. His closets were full of skeletons just waiting to burst out." To which Podesta sniffs: “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.”
The truth is something else. If anything, too few of the “scandals”—Podesta puts it in scare-quotes—were pursued. For instance, no “witch-hunting” attended the Clinton administration’s misbegotten decision to sell supercomputers to China and Russia, the so-called “Chinagate” scandal. Podesta himself appears to have narrowly avoided charges on the strength of a presidential “waiver,” i.e., a pardon.[iv] As to Podesta’s claim that Freeh was doing the bidding of the partisan right, it is well to remember that it was not Tom DeLay or Jesse Helms who appointed Freeh, but Bill Clinton.
Moreover, Podesta’s claims notwithstanding, there were indeed convictions. It is a matter of public record that, beyond the fines levied against Clinton and his eventual disbarment, a number of the president’s friends and associates were convicted for sundry skullduggeries; many others entered guilty pleas. Even the Progressive Review, hardly a bugle of the vast right-wing conspiracy, attests[v] to that. And this is to say nothing of those former cabinet officials who came under criminal investigation, or the witnesses who chose to flee country or otherwise refused to testify.
Nor does the authority to whom Podesta defers—former White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke—help his case against Freeh. Clarke is on record as saying that there was no plan to address terrorism in the Clinton Administration. That comports with Freeh’s charges of long-running incompetence in our nation’s counterterrorism agencies. As Freeh pointed out in 2002[vi], “Al Qaeda-type organizations, state sponsors of terrorism like Iran, and the threats they pose to America are beyond the competence of the FBI and the CIA to address.”
None of this reflects well on Podesta’s role in the Clinton administration. As the architect of the administration’s policies, Podesta could have developed new strategies to address the lack of preparedness that became so clear on September 11. He did not.
Podesta admits none of this. Rather, after distorting the historical record, Podesta twists Freeh’s words. Podesta declares that Freeh’s criticism of Congressional failures on counterterrorism is suspect because “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.” Not so fast. In fact, the testimony Podesta cites, supposedly from “three years ago,” was written in 1998![vii] The testimony Freeh actually gave three years ago was far more critical of Congress: “The 2000, 2001 and 2002 (pre September 11, 2001) budgets fell far short of the counter-terrorism resources we knew were necessary to do the best job,” Freeh said at the time, adding that the “total war against terrorists was not the same priority before September 11th as it is today.”
Perhaps the most spectacular revelations in Freeh’s book involves Bill Clinton’s supplication before the Saudi government in the wake of the Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 Americans. Beyond failing to confront the Saudis—Clinton asked only that the FBI be granted access to bombing suspects—Freeh contends that the Clinton administration balked at acknowledging the Iranian role in the bombing. Not until the Bush administration entered office was Iran’s tie to that act of terrorism exposed, according to Freeh.
Podesta strenuously denies the allegation. “The Clinton administration,” he writes, “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.” Not quite. What Holder actually said on that date[viii] was: "The U.S. investigation of the attack at Khobar is on-going. We are investigating information concerning the involvement of Saudi nationals, Iranian government officials and others. And we have not reached a conclusion regarding whether the attack was directed by the government of Iran." That’s hardly the public and unequivocal placement of blame Podesta would have readers believe.
In railing against Freeh, Podesta is fighting a lost battle. Freeh, after all, is just one of many former Clinton-era officials who has confirmed that the administration had no serious policy for confronting terrorism and terror-sponsoring regimes. No less an insider than Clinton’s former pollster, Dick Morris, has said that Clinton’s National Security Advisor “seemed to work overtime at opposing tough measures against terror”[ix].
Not surprisingly, the Clinton years saw not only the training of terrorists like Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Abdulaziz al-Omari, and more than a dozen other Islamic who extremists entered their flight schools or crept into the country, awaiting the signal to strike, but also successful attacks, like the bombing of the USS Cole. Those were also the years when the firewall erected by Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick prevented the sharing of intelligence between foreign and domestic counterterrorism agencies.[x] The preponderance of evidence suggests that the Islamic terrorism that would murder thousands on American soil within months of Clinton’s departure was simply not on the radar screen for the administration. The best Podesta can do in the face of this evidence is assert that Freeh has political motives—a curious allegation, considering that Freeh has never sought a political profile.
But of what of Podesta’s role in the failures of the Clinton administration? As the self-admitted director of policy development, what blame does Podesta deserve for the administration’s refusal of a Sudanese offer to hand over Osama bin Laden? Likewise, is Podesta to be held accountable for the fact that he did nothing to alter the administration’s policy of suffering bin Laden operate in Afghanistan, or to change its farcical policy toward nuclear-bound North Korea? Is he entirely blameless for the administration’s feckless counterterrorism strategy, which amounted, in the words of Richard Clarke, to occasional “swatting at flies”?
With a résumé like that, you’d expect Podesta would seek an obscure retirement far from the public eye. At the very least, he might refrain from weighing in on the Clinton administration’s plan, such as it was, to combat terrorism. Instead, Podesta seems perfectly content to smear Louis Freeh in order to defend his departed employer’s indefensible record on terrorism. But Podesta’s real target in the end isn’t Louis Freeh. It’s the judgment of history.