Freeh at Last?

Sorry, Louis, but Congress’ 9/11 report doesn’t vindicate you.

Louis Freeh sees vindication in the Senate and House intelligence committees’ Sept. 11 report. Writing today on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, Bill Clinton’s FBI director quotes the report’s statement that the investigators found no “specific, advance warning of the details of those attacks” in the files of the CIA, the FBI, and other intelligence agencies. But the report also points out that two of the Sept. 11 hijackers had extensive contact with an FBI informant in Southern California and that, generally, “The FBI was unable to identify and monitor effectively the extent of activity by al-Qa’ida and other international terrorist groups operating in the United States.” That’s hardly a vote of confidence.

The report is scathing on the lack of preparedness at all the intelligence agencies, not just the FBI. But among all those who ran these agencies during the months and years immediately prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, only Freeh is foolish enough to mount a soapbox and boast that it makes him look good. In his op-ed, Freeh says it’s important that Americans not “translate this loss into a scapegoating of the courageous men and women from our law enforcement and intelligence services who protect our liberties every day by putting their lives on the line.” Which courageous men and women might those be? For starters, Louis Freeh.

Far from being vindicated in the intelligence committees’ report, Freeh (who vacated the FBI director’s office a mere 78 days prior to the World Trade Center’s toppling) comes in for a pasting. Some examples:

  • “While former FBI Director Louis Freeh testified that the FBI was ‘intensely focused’ on terrorist targets within the United States, the FBI’s Executive Assistant Director for Counterterrorism testified that in 2001 he thought there was a high probability—’98 percent’—that the attack would be overseas. The latter was the clear majority view, despite the fact that the Intelligence Community had information suggesting that Bin Ladin had planned, and was capable of, conducting attacks within the domestic United States.” (Page 8)

  • “Regarding Saudi Arabia, former FBI Director Louis Freeh testified that, following the 1996 KhobarTowers bombing, the FBI ‘was able to forge an effective working relationship with the Saudi police and Interior Ministry.’ A considerable amount of personal effort by Director Freeh helped to secure what he described as ‘unprecedented and invaluable’ assistance in the KhobarTowers bombing investigation from the Saudi Ambassador to the United States and the Saudi Interior Minister. By contrast, the Committees heard testimony from U.S. Government personnel that Saudi officials had been uncooperative and often did not act on information implicating Saudi nationals.” (Page 110)

  • “The FBI … did not inform policymakers of the extent of terrorist activity in the United States, although former Director Freeh stated that he met regularly with senior U.S. Government officials to discuss counterterrorism. Former National Security Advisor [Sandy] Berger has testified that the FBI assured him that there was little radical activity in the United States and that this activity was ‘covered.’ Although the FBI conducted many investigations, these pieces were not fitted into a larger picture.” (Page 245)

An addendum to the report by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., lays part of the blame for the FBI’s shortcomings on its overly broad reading of Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which (until it was amended one month after 9/11 in the USA Patriot Act) prohibited law enforcement officials from passing grand jury testimony to intelligence agencies. Rule 6(e) never applied to other information obtained in the course of a criminal investigation (such as interviews with and leads from potential witnesses, or documents obtained through search warrants). But Freeh’s FBI nonetheless refused to make any information obtained in its investigations of suspected terrorists available to the National Security Council, which sought it. Here is how Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, two counterterrorism officials in Clinton’s NSC, describe the impasse in their book The Age of Sacred Terror, from which Shelby mined this complaint:

Eager to resolve the problem in the first year of the administration, [National Security Adviser] Tony Lake and [his deputy,] Sandy Berger met with the newly installed attorney general, Janet Reno, and proposed drafting a memorandum of understanding about the handling of such information. Reno agreed immediately and promised to work on it within her domain, including, most critically, the FBI. Although the issue was revisited many times over the next four years, that was as far as matters went. The FBI balked at the proposal, and Reno, although she was Louis Freeh’s boss, could never bring him around.

A suitable subtitle for The Age of Sacred Terror might be, “We hate Louis Freeh.” Freeh, they note, had never managed a large organization before becoming FBI director in 1993, and under him the bureau accelerated its transformation into “an anarchic patchwork of fiefdoms.” Another problem, they write, was

Louis Freeh’s animus toward the White House. … No one outside the Bureau could acquire any sense of the scope of FBI knowledge on a particular issue. The White House could not know what it did not know, so the gravity of the problem could not be assessed. For the NSC staff working on counterterrorism, this was crippling—but how crippling was also something they could not know. Every day a hundred or more reports from the CIA, DIA, the National Security Agency, and the State Department would be waiting in their computer queues when they got to work. There was never anything from the FBI.

Various theories have been offered as to why Freeh so disliked and mistrusted President Clinton. Some say it was disgust at Filegate, Whitewater, and various other Clinton scandals (all of which, save Clinton’s perjury about Monica Lewinsky, eventually proved trivial or nonexistent). Slate’s David Plotz argued in 2000 that Freeh’s Clinton-hatred was opportunistic; Freeh simply realized that his true constituency wasn’t the White House but the Republican (and passionately anti-Clinton) Congress, which wrote his budget. Benjamin and Simon offer the plausible view—based largely on a New Yorker profile of Freeh by Elsa Walsh—that Freeh let himself be conned into mistrusting Clinton by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the silken Saudi ambassador, who apparently played Freeh like a violin during the Khobar Towers investigation. Freeh was so worried Clinton wouldn’t let him indict Iranians involved in the Khobar Towers bombing that he actually delayed the indictments until after Clinton left office. With undisguised satisfaction, Benjamin and Simon pass along the rumor that when Walsh’s piece revealing this last tidbit hit the newsstands in May 2001, President Bush’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, summoned Freeh to her office for “a tongue-lashing, the essence of which was that the FBI director did not make foreign policy.”

Does that sound like vindication to you?