Former FBI director Louis Freeh’s recently published memoir, My FBI, is one of the more enlightening literary treatments of the travails and failings of the Clinton administration. It is written by a man who -- whatever his faults as a bureaucrat -- appears to be of the highest professional and personal character. Unfortunately, Freeh’s dedication and professionalism did little to endear him to an administration which valued petty political acumen far more than it did efficacy or integrity.
Initially, the Freeh-Clinton relationship appeared to be destined for success. The new director was astounded by the President’s vigor and intelligence, attributes which he expected to translate into a presidency actively involved in matters of security and intelligence. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as Freeh would quickly realize. Over his seven year tenure as FBI director, Freeh met privately with Clinton on no more than three occasions, causing Freeh to lament, “[Clinton] just wasn’t very interested in intelligence gathering or law-enforcement.”
The relationship between the two men worsened precipitously as the FBI was forced to assume an antagonistic role in reaction to the President’s never-ending stream of scandals. As Clinton’s indignities mounted, Freeh was determined to maintain a respectful distance between himself and the man whom he was investigating, a move which irked the loyalty-obsessed President. In reaction to Freeh’s sensible stance, Clinton took to calling his FBI director “that f***ing Freeh” during casual conversations, while letting it be known that Freeh was a “non-entity.” True to form, Clinton refused to even speak with the director from 1996 to 2000, ignoring Freeh’s numerous requests for meetings on issues pertaining to terrorism and economic security.
The war between the FBI and the Clinton administration became especially pronounced over the controversy surrounding Chinese attempts to influence the 1996 elections through large campaign contributions. Freeh and the Bureau’s counter-intelligence investigators were convinced that Chinese intelligence had authorized and supervised the overall operation. Fearful of the political fallout resulting from the release of such information, the White House repeatedly attempted to derail the investigation, with administration members -- including future 9-11 commission member Jamie Gorelick -- citing “national security” as a pretext for their demands of total access to the investigation’s findings and its ongoing activities. When Freeh successfully resisted these efforts at sabotage, obfuscation was employed, with President Clinton publicly blaming the FBI for not telling him about the Chinese involvement, a claim which stretched the limits of credulity even for Bill Clinton, considering the fact that FBI agents were briefing NSC members on an almost weekly basis.
Freeh, to his credit, holds little back in his cutting assessment of the President, suggesting that Clinton “lacked discipline,” while deeming his second term of office “farcical.” This moral contrast between the leader of the free world and his abused underling is startling, to say the least.
It did not take long for Freeh to realize that the immorality and strategic indecision that so defined the Clinton White House would adversely affect American efforts against international terrorism. Perhaps Freeh’s most devastating critique of the Clinton administration’s criminally negligent response to terrorism comes when he discusses the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, a case which he has admirably adopted as a personal crusade. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, which killed 19 American servicemen, the White House expressed total support for an expansive FBI role in the Saudi-led investigation, with National Security Advisor Sandy Burger personally assuring Freeh that the President was squarely behind him and had conveyed his level of support to the Saudis.
This preliminary rhetoric evaporated as soon as the investigation began to implicate the terrorist group Hezbollah and its masters in Tehran. Connecting Iran to the murders of 19 American servicemen was hardly politically expedient for the Clinton White House, which had dedicated itself wholly to a policy of accommodation towards the world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism. Freeh recounts how the State Department -- desperate to protect their guiding principle of Iranian relations -- essentially began running cover for Tehran, foiling FBI investigations into Iranian spies while denying travel permits to federal agents attempting to travel to Saudi Arabia. In one conversation, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright confronts Freeh, warning him that “the Iranians are complaining,” as if the mullah’s tetchy response was a compelling reason to alter the focus of the investigation.
The White House’s disinterest in a successful investigation was more covert than Foggy Bottom’s but would prove no less devastating. When high-ranking administration officials -- such as Vice President Al Gore -- were to meet with Saudi officials, the FBI would provide them with detailed talking points, only to see them consistently ignored. During a meeting with Saudi Prince Abdullah in 1998, Clinton again disregarded Freeh’s appeals, neglecting to mention the faltering investigation but evidently finding time to press Abdullah for a contribution to the Clinton Presidential Library.
Constantly stringing Freeh along with platitudes and broken promises was Mr. Berger, who led the attempt to cover-up Iranian involvement in the Khobar bombings. When presented with nearly-incontrovertible evidence of the Iranian connection by Freeh, Berger’s first response was “who knows about this?” At meetings of the National Security Council -- chaired by Berger -- the topic of discussion was not retaliation, but ensuring that proof of Iran’s role would be suppressed. This policy of concealment permeated the entire administration, with Freeh recalling a “celebratory attitude” holding sway at the White House when a bombing suspect -- who had inconveniently testified to Iran’s involvement in the operation -- was released for lack of evidence.
Freeh’s disillusionment with the executive branch’s role in derailing the Khobar Towers investigation soon colored his entire outlook on the administration’s response to the rising tide of Islamic terrorism. Throughout his book, Freeh decries the lack of meaningful retaliatory measures carried out by the United States in response to the bombing of the East African embassies in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000, suggesting that the consistently weak response hurt morale at the agencies -- such as the CIA and FBI -- tasked with tracking Bin Laden’s growing army. During his recent 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace, Freeh harkened back to an earlier example of American weakness, questioning why an assassination attempt engineered by Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service against the first President Bush in 1993 elicited only a tepid military response -- which resulted in little more than the abrupt rearrangement of Iraqi intelligence’s office supplies. Even fervent Bush critics, such as former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, have attested to the fact that hard-line military options were declared “dead on arrival” by Clinton administration officials, who Freeh declares lacked the “political will” to respond in a truly effective manner.
Special derision is reserved for former NSC staffer Richard Clarke, a man who Freeh calls “the self-appointed Paul Revere of 9/11.” Freeh -- who has been criticized as thoroughly incompetent by Clarke -- deems Clarke a “second-tier player,” a figure barely noticed by those responsible for combating terrorism. Freeh could not recall a single memo of consequence authored by Clarke, while also claiming that Clarke never attended any of the high-level “principals” meetings held at the White House. The inconsequential nature of Clarke’s White House role is echoed in another memoir, the 2004 American Soldier, authored by General Tommy Franks, who recalled then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton warning him about Clarke: “He likes to talk, drops a lot of names, and thinks highly of himself. But in many ways he's not very practical. Be careful in dealing with him.” After working with Clarke, Franks concurred with his superior’s assessment.
Additionally, Freeh charges Clarke with promulgating outright lies, such as his accounts of meetings during which Sandy Berger supposedly proposed strenuous anti-terrorist measures; Freeh contends -- convincingly -- that such gatherings simply never occurred. Clarke alleged in Against All Enemies that Freeh is a member of Opus Dei (not true), and that Clarke was at the epicenter of millennial counter-terrorist operations (also false). In order to increase his marketability -- Freeh hypothesizes -- Clarke has created a series of myths which position him as an ignored intellect, inventing a “rebellious genius” persona for himself that has no basis in fact. Given the bombastic and politically motivated nature of Clarke’s activities since leaving the government, Freeh’s allegations strike one as eminently credible.
While Freeh’s lamentations on the reckless disregard of national security displayed by the Clinton administration are numerous, the memoir finds little reason to fault its author. This is a weak point of the book, as serious questions have been raised concerning the former director’s managerial ability and his recognition of the threat posed by terrorism. The 9-11 report, while mostly praising the director’s efforts to expand the Bureau’s presence abroad and giving it a more preemptive approach to terrorism, criticizes Freeh for not successfully shifting emphasis from anti-drug and anti-organized crime efforts to counter-terrorism. Freeh offers up the lethargy of an ignorant Congress as an explanation, pointing out how legislators consistently refused to fund his terrorism-related requests.
Freeh’s excuses do not explain why he, as director of the nation’s most important law-enforcement agency, did not use the stature of his office to sway public opinion along with Congressional willingness to spend the requisite amounts on counter-terrorism. While he privately may have detested the Congressional refusal to take terrorism seriously, he never pronounced this in a sufficiently provocative manner.
Additionally, the 9-11 Review Commission charged Freeh with failing to impose his vision of aggressive counter-terrorism on the dozens of FBI field offices -- a flaw which allowed a July 2001 memo from the Minneapolis Field Office stating that a large number of Middle Eastern men were attending U.S. flight schools to go largely unnoticed. In his defense, Freeh offers only his own personal regret, hardly comforting to those who still see problems in the ways by which FBI headquarters communicates with agents in the field.
Responding to one of the more prevalent criticisms levied against Freeh’s FBI -- their astonishing technical backwardness -- Freeh can only plead guilty, stating “we were in the dark ages.” Freeh again goes on to blame a cheap Congress for not properly funding modernization efforts. Such equivocation tends to ring hollow, as Freeh -- who famously refused to use email -- cannot point to a single instance of his personal leadership concerning the issue over his eight year tenure. If he was profoundly disturbed by the antiquated nature of the FBI’s computer system, he rarely expressed it, even when bombarded by numerous external criticisms of the FBI’s technical performance.
While Freeh is hardly worthy of extensive praise, his honest assessment of the national security-related calamities of the Clinton White House is refreshing, coming from a man who had much to gain by towing the Clinton line. As is made clear throughout his commendable book, those who argued for an aggressive stance against terrorism -- including Freeh himself -- were consistently overruled by an administration which saw little political value in pursuing Islamic fundamentalists. To Freeh’s horror, when confronted with a choice between forceful action that would help ensure America’s national security or reckless indolence that would insulate him from political risk, President Clinton would invariably choose the latter. The American people have had to deal with the repercussions ever since.
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