15 December, 2005Issue 5.1North AmericaPolitics & Society

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Freeh, at Last

Patrick Belton

Louis J. Freeh
My FBI : Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Fighting the War on Terror
St Martin’s Press, 2005
352 pages
ISBN 0312321899

The story of the Clinton administration has now been recounted by the president, the first lady, its two Secretaries of State, its first Secretary of Labor, its second Secretary of Treasury and its final Secretary of Energy. It is told here by its FBI director. Only the second memoirist among FBI directors (Clarence Kelley wrote his as well), at forty-three, Louis Freeh was also the youngest to attain the post. His narrative structure, more psychological than temporal, begins with the Khobar Towers bombing of June 25, 1996. In it, nineteen American service personnel perished in a bomb explosion planted near a housing compound in Saudi Arabia, occupied principally by members of the American air force. Investigating the bombing became the driving passion of his directorship.

In this, he came into conflict with a Clinton administration he felt was insufficiently supportive. His principal complaint: the president would not telephone the Saudi crown prince to press him to allow the Bureau to question detainees on Saudi territory. In the end, Freeh had recourse to the former President Bush, with result that the Bureau’s agents were permitted to submit questions to the Saudi security service and view their interrogation from behind one-way windows.

The investigation led to Hezbollah, and then Iran at a time when the administration was attempting to draw closer to moderate President Mohammad Khatami, in office from August 1997. By Freeh’s account, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s response when briefed about his findings was to enquire ‘Who knows about this?’, then to dismiss the findings as hearsay. By securing indictments of fourteen Saudi Hezbollah operatives on his last day in office, Freeh closed a narrative arc that would interweave the three themes of his career. This memoir is an investigative pursuit, a religiously-inspired reflection on duty, and his conflict as director with the president who appointed him.

Only after learning all of this are we treated to more typical autobiographical fare. Louis J. Freeh (his forebears’ name was Früh, but New York is unkind to umlauts) is a New Yorker not only by lengthy employ but also by self-definition. Joining the FBI after Rutgers law school to hunt the Mafia, Freeh found on New York’s streets both ‘a calling’ and an idiom that fit him—wisecracking street smarts both on offence and on defence. In his first major case, he worked under long-time agent Thomas Emergy to racketeering investigation into mafia affiliations with the International Longshoremen’s Association. It became known as the Union Racketeering, or UNIRAC, case, and resulted in the conviction of 117 mafia leaders. The most significant of these was Anthony Scotto, a Gambino family captain and president of Local 1814, controller of the Brooklyn docks and political power broker whose union members voted as he told them. He was feted by politicians on his release, the first instance of one of Freeh’s leitmotifs, ‘how politics can sometimes destroy judgment and corrupt moral sense.’

Freeh’s work on the UNIRAC case earned him his first summons to the Bureau’s headquarters, where he moved in 1980 to take the labour-racketeering investigation nationwide and to brief Senators Nunn and Rudman for their investigation into mob involvement with the unions. Though he met his wife Marilyn in this period, he was not happy behind a Washington desk; there were too few colourful goombas, and too many bureaucrats. (‘The street, it was not. The wise guys weren’t the same either.’)

Thus when the opportunity arose to move back to New York and mafiosi, this time at the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District under future Whitewater special prosecutor Robert Fiske, Freeh’s decision was painless. Just as he was settling back into New York, Joseph Pistone—a special agent infiltrated into the Bonanno family under the name Donnie Brasco—received from Bonanno captain Sonny Napolitano his first murder assignment, to have led to his being ‘made’. The Bureau did not smile on such ambitions. Pistone was withdrawn, the pace of the investigation pushed forward unexpectedly and indictments against five major Bonanno family members and a further dozen bit players drawn up, requiring Freeh to step in as second prosecutor. This was Freeh’s element. With a fondness he never expresses toward politicians, he writes ‘Some of the goons we dealt with were genuinely funny, some of them genuinely warm.’

With success in the Pizza Connection case and his bones thus earned, Freeh became US attorney Benito Romano’s deputy and chief of the Southern District’s Organized Crime Unit. Yet again, rewards took the form of exile from his beloved New York City streets, this time to Georgia to take over the investigation by three US attorneys’ offices of four mail bombs despatched to an appellate judge and a clerk, a prominent black lawyer and an NAACP office.

Freeh’s appointment as a federal judge for the Southern District was his reward. Freeh does not dwell on his time as a judge, which was at any rate a brief two years beginning in July 1991. The director’s job came through Bernard Nussbaum, an admirer and the White House counsel. Freeh’s recounting of his tenure as director is partly a recitation of his accomplishments, partly a reflection upon the Bureau and its work, and a partial response to his critics. Among the accomplishments: Freeh would appoint the Bureau’s first Hispanic and female assistant directors, and ended its discrimination against applicants on grounds of sexual orientation. He cultivated a very close relationship with Congress, lobbying personally for legislation to modernise wiretapping and to crack down on corrupt business practices. He also sought to adapt the Bureau to the rapid globalisation of the 1990s, going after international organised crime and expanding the Bureau’s presence abroad three-fold.

Rather than rebut critics’ claims that while in office he was the Bureau’s field agent in chief, Freeh embraces them. He could be involved with 25 cases at any moment. Micromanaging as in Oklahoma City, he could speed up the pace of investigation before evidence vanished. He clings to the correctness of his action in the Wen Ho Lee case and the strength of evidence that Lee did commit espionage, blaming The New York Times for judging Lee in the court of opinion and denying the government the opportunity to do so afterward in a court of law. Similarly with Richard Jewell, the wrongly accused Olympic bomber, Freeh claims to have merely investigated him for completeness’s sake.

Freeh’s opinion of Clinton has by now been well circulated. Freeh sought to establish his independence from the White House as early as 1993, even refusing the White House pass to enter the White House freely. Though a courtesy given all high-level staff, Freeh claims he wanted all of his ‘visits to be official.’ By the time the Whitewater special prosecutor was appointed, the rupture was

complete. He spent much of his time in office investigating the president, not only taking a presidential blood sample to test against the infamous blue dress, but unsuccessfully pushing Janet Reno in 1997 to invoke the independent counsel statute to investigate Democratic campaign contributions from China. He remained in office longer than he would have otherwise to prevent Clinton from appointing his successor. He estimates meeting with President Clinton on no more than three or four occasions.

He deals with September 11 at a glance, deflecting blame from the Bureau onto congressional appropriations and Presidential vertebra. Congress had not permitted him to assign sufficient agents to counterterrorism, nor fulfilled his budget requests to upgrade the Bureau’s technological skeleton. Richard Clarke he calls a ‘second-tier player’ with ‘bad facts’ and ‘no access.’ He feels strongly about creation of an American MI-5 (‘loony notion’), and in a reflective moment tells us of a Bureau that has grown reactively more than logically, its powers granted more as corrective than preventative (FBI agents could not carry guns or make arrest until 1933, when several were shot in Kansas City while escorting a bank robber). Freeh’s return to private life, and the end of this narrative, is 25 June 2001.

Reading this account as an evaluation of its author’s legacy as director, and contribution to the political history of the Clinton administration, Freeh’s tenure is a post-Hoover low-water mark in the politicisation of the Bureau. For an investigative bureau aligned with Congress, much of the blame no doubt rests with the inescapable political climate. Still, the Bureau’s heavy involvement in politics during Freeh’s tenure was overdetermined by Freeh’s revulsion with a president far removed from his profession and argot. There are achievements that have been lost in the more stentorian debates of impeachment and September 11. The antagonism with Clinton we knew; his warm relations with Tenet, Deutch (but not Woolsey), Rice, Gore, and Reno, we had not.

Viewed from a counterterrorist standpoint, it is not entirely clear how Freeh—who could push through bills of his own drafting and increase his bureau’s budget by 65%—could not bring Congress to reassign agents to terrorism or appropriate necessary funds to new computers. He is too far estranged from the White House here to cast much light upon its counterterrorist policies before September 11. One suspects it was likely too far removed from his background for him truly to grasp its importance. Nor do rebuttals to his critics always quite land at their mark. His ‘second-tier player’ dismissal of Richard Clarke is blunted by Clarke’s forty-nine mentions in the 9/11 Commission report to Freeh’s five (three being quite minor). Similarly, as a matter of style, one should perhaps not in the same book accuse a critic of lacking access while at some length pointing out the return of one’s own White House pass.

A nuanced reading of this memoir leaves open its interpretation as a tragedy of someone who could do one thing quite well, but whose reward was promotion to lands he neither enjoyed nor understood. His prose style is confident and engaging in its tale of New York, but then brittle and at times defensive in Washington. It teaches us that in situating Louis Freeh in history, as the FBI director in the lead up to September 11, we should not forget Louis Freeh the street-wise field agent, who with a love for his work and respect for his adversary, brought the mafia to its knees.

Patrick Belton is a DPhil student in Politics and International Relations at Trinity College, Oxford. President of the Foreign Policy Society, he writes daily on www.oxblog.com, and has also contributed to the Times Literary Supplement and online Weekly Standard.