The Man Who Wasn’t There

How Louis Freeh escaped responsibility for 9/11.

For more than a month, congressional committees have been investigating America’s recent track record on intelligence and counterterrorism. Members of Congress have heard from Robert Mueller, the current chief of the FBI, and George Tenet, the current chief of the CIA. They’ve heard from former heads of these agencies, such as William Webster. They’ve taken testimony from a star-studded array of other intelligence and counterterrorism worthies. But along the way, it somehow hasn’t occurred to any of the committees doing post-9/11 investigations to call up Louis J. Freeh, the man who headed the FBI—the country’s primary domestic intelligence and counterterrorism agency—from 1993 to June 2001, the most critical eight years in question.

Freeh ran the bureau from the rise of al-Qaida in the early 1990s until just two months before Bin Laden landed his roundhouse blow on the United States. Under his leadership, the FBI made many mistakes and missed many opportunities that paved the way for 9/11. He presided over a bureau that fell almost laughably behind in information technology. On his watch, the counterterrorism division languished as a career-killing backwater. As David Plotz noted in Slate more than a year ago, Freeh’s chief accomplishment as FBI director was to oversee an almost endless litany of fiascos while successfully ducking responsibility for all of them.

True, some of Freeh’s failures were rooted in problems that long predated his tenure. But even if you subscribe to the unlikely notion that Freeh did a bang-up job under the most difficult of circumstances, why not bring him up to the Hill and hear what he has to say?

Simple. It’s not in anyone’s political interest to have him there. Freeh’s feckless and unfortunate tenure was a bipartisan blunder of immense and perhaps tragic proportions. The normal rules say that politics is a zero-sum game and that even if both parties have egg on their face, one must have more than the other. The party with two eggs on its face should be trying to stick it to the party with three. But in this case, it’s pretty much just eggs all around.

Democrats don’t want to talk about Freeh. Yes, Freeh—a Republican—never got along with the Clinton White House, outspokenly pushed for independent counsels and investigations of various Clintonites, and bickered with his nominal boss, Attorney General Janet Reno. But much as Clintonites and Democrats might loathe Freeh, at the end of the day, Bill Clinton appointed him, and whatever mistakes Freeh might be responsible for happened on Bill Clinton’s watch. True, a president can fire an FBI director only for cause, not just because he wants to. But that doesn’t make it impossible. Clinton dismissed Freeh’s predecessor, William Sessions, in July 1993 for abusing the perquisites of his office. Firing Freeh, however, was never politically possible because of the FBI’s involvement in the various investigations of the Clinton White House. If you’re a Democrat or a Clintonite, that’s the sort of defense that makes you not want to get the argument started in the first place.

Given the Republicans’ eagerness to pin pre-9/11 failures on the Clinton administration, you would think they would be clamoring to bring Freeh to the Hill. But congressional Republicans are even more to blame for Freeh’s fecklessness than Clinton. If the White House found Freeh obstreperous and unmanageable, it was largely because he had so much support from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Whether it was the Richard Jewell disaster, or the Wen Ho Lee debacle, or the cover-ups of Waco and Ruby Ridge, whenever a new problem at the FBI would come to light, a senatorial Freeh-booster like Orrin Hatch or Arlen Specter would use the occasion to give a tongue-lashing to Janet Reno or Bill Clinton. If congressional Republicans started attacking Freeh today, they would have to admit that they shortchanged their oversight responsibilities while he was in office because they were such fans of his endless Clinton-bashing.

Freeh became a key player in the long-standing war between the Clinton White House and the Republican Congress. And he, unlike the country, profited from it immensely. He carved out a pocket of freedom for his agency and himself in which he was accountable to pretty much no one. Both parties bear responsibility for that. Now they are both conspiring to sweep the truth under the rug.

And once again, Louis Freeh gets to skate away scot-free.