FBI Director Louis Freeh

FBI Director Louis Freeh

FBI Director Louis Freeh

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Sept. 22 2000 8:30 PM

FBI Director Louis Freeh

The untouchable. 


Here's a theory: Louis Freeh has photographs of key Republican congressmen in compromising positions with young boys. What else could explain his J. Edgar Hoover-esque immunity on Capitol Hill?

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


The Wen Ho Lee fiasco has been supplying the latest evidence of the FBI director's astonishing hold on congressional Republicans. One of his G-men admitted that he lied in crucial testimony about Lee. The FBI fixated on Lee as a suspect, then prodded the Justice Department for the huge Lee indictment, despite a dearth of evidence. Agents pushed to keep Lee in punitive solitary confinement. Judge James Parker chastised the bureau (as well as the Department of Energy and federal prosecutors) for its misbehavior, and newspapers have piled on.

But this has not wounded Freeh on Capitol Hill. It has merely given Republicans another opportunity to play their favorite game: decapitate Janet Reno. GOP senators have demanded to know why her prosecutors were so pushy and whether her department racially profiled Lee, but they have uttered scarcely a word about the FBI's excesses. (See Michael Kinsley's " Readme" for more on the senators' Lee hypocrisy.)

It is hardly the first time Congress has bypassed Freeh's agency in order to blame Reno. In 1997, Justice Department prosecutors refused an FBI request to wiretap Lee, arguing there was not sufficient evidence to justify it. When that denial became public, Republicans clamored for Reno's head. (The collapse of the Lee case, of course, shows how right the DOJ was.) Freeh's agents withheld for years evidence that the FBI had used incendiary grenades at Waco. When it finally came out, Reno, not Freeh, was blamed for the coverup.

What protects Freeh, if not blackmail dossiers? For one thing, he benefits from the structural conflict between the FBI and its ostensible parent, the Department of Justice. After Richard Nixon used the FBI and Justice to harass his enemies, post-Watergate reforms insulated the FBI from presidential meddling. The FBI director has a 10-year term and can only be removed by the president for cause. (No other federal law enforcement chief is similarly protected.) So while Freeh ranks below Reno and President Clinton on the org chart, he effectively serves independently of them. (The FBI's organizational philosophy seems to be: We're independent till we screw up. Then we belong to the Justice Department, and it's the attorney general's fault.)


The structural tension did not flare up between Freeh's FBI and Reno's Justice Department until Clinton's second term. In 1993, the president had appointed Freeh to restore a bureau weakened by the corruption and casual management of William Sessions. Freeh was a masterful choice, a modern-day Eliot Ness. He'd been an altar boy, a Boy Scout, an undercover FBI agent, a mob prosecutor, and a federal judge. He was a father of four boys. He seemed—and was—a righteous, honest man. He quickly streamlined and modernized the department, broke some big cases (notably the Unabomber and Oklahoma City bombing), and restored trust in the department, deservedly winning admiration from both left and right.

But he came to be seen—wrongly—as a Clinton sympathizer. Freeh worked closely with Reno's team on the much-lampooned Waco and Ruby Ridge investigations. A Freeh aide leaked an advance copy of an anti-Clinton book to the White House. The FBI didn't protest when Clinton staffers requisitioned the FBI files of hundreds of Republicans. Hill Republicans began to seethe at what they perceived as the politicization of the FBI.

Freeh and his top aides realized their independence was threatened. They understood that the FBI's real constituency was not the president or attorney general, who can't bother the bureau, but Congress, which controls the FBI budget. Freeh was also enraged by White House behavior: He reportedly felt the administration had embarrassed the bureau with Filegate and was disgusted by Clinton's sleazy fund raising and sleazier adultery.

So Freeh and his team cultivated their Republican paymasters. He charmed key senators—Orrin Hatch and Arlen Specter in particular. He delighted Republicans by lavishly praising Ken Starr. Congress boosted Freeh's budget by 50 percent in four years. When DOJ budgeters rejected FBI requests, the bureau's lobbyists even went behind the DOJ's back and persuaded legislators to add the goodies to the final bill.


Such FBI lobbying was nothing new. But Freeh and his team also began to publicize its conflicts with the DOJ and use them for political gain. The most notorious example of this occurred during the 1997 investigation of the Clinton-Gore fund-raising scandal. Freeh wrote a private memo urging Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate the fund raising. Reno rejected his advice, but Freeh's memo somehow found its way to Hill Republicans, who used it to bash Reno and to demand her resignation. FBI watchers say it's unheard of for the FBI director to disagree so publicly with the AG, who is, after all, his boss.

"In a normal system, the FBI would do as it is asked to do by the Justice Department," says Carl Stern, the DOJ's spokesman during the first Clinton term. "But the bureau does not take instruction and direction. If it feels it is going to be on the losing side, it will go to the press or the Hill."

It's unlikely that the upstanding Freeh springs these leaks himself. But Reno allies insist that his top aides are feeding reporters and senators and that Freeh could stop them if he wanted to. Nor is Freeh practicing any kind of party politics. He cares most about guarding the FBI fief, a duty that, for a G-man, transcends mundane partisanship.

Freeh's invincibility depends heavily on Reno's weakness. A different attorney general might not have tolerated such contrariness from the FBI. But Reno dislikes conflict, is uninterested in political gamesmanship, and is willing to play fall gal in cases embarrassing to the DOJ and the FBI. She doesn't want to alienate Freeh—they reportedly have a very cordial private relationship. And unlike Freeh, she lacks a power base on Capitol Hill, because she has never cultivated legislators. Republicans have made Freeh her foil: Reno's lack of support and perceived incompetence make him gleam.

Freeh and his FBI profit from their alliance with the Hill and the press. They escape interference by the AG and the president, and they increase their budget. But the country pays a price. The FBI has become a congressional tool. As the Lee probe suggests, agents may be more inclined to pursue investigations that interest Hill legislators. And the FBI now functions as a congressional bludgeon against an unpopular attorney general.

The post-Watergate reforms of the FBI have been all too successful. Freeh's FBI doesn't do the president's bidding, and it doesn't answer to a single political boss anymore. Instead it answers to 535 of them.