Chapter from The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI. by Ronald
St. Martin's Press; ISBN: 0312304021; 1st edition (July 2002) amazon.com
Copyrighted material by Ronald Kessler - reprinted with permission of author - please respect his copyright.
In his final months in office, Freeh seemed distracted. He came in late and sometimes did not come in at all. On May 1, 2001, Freeh announced he planned to resign in June. He made it known that he did not want to leave when Clinton was in office because he did not want the president the FBI had investigated to choose a new director. All along, Freeh had dropped hints about the difficulties of bringing up six kids on his FBI salary of $145,100 a year. His house in Great Falls, Virginia was heavily mortgaged.
Freeh claimed he would explore job options, but former agents already working for MBNA in Wilmington, a major credit card company, said Freeh would join the firm, which had three former FBI officials working for it. In July, Charles M. Cawley, MBNA's chairman and CEO, named Freeh senior vice chairman - ironically - for administration.
Nine days after Freeh's announcement, the FBI told Timothy McVeigh's attorneys that it had failed to turn over to them about 3,000 pages of documents related to the Oklahoma City bombing investigation. Normally, law enforcement agencies agree to turn over to the defense material that has evidentiary value or that could exculpate the defendant. In an effort to put down conspiracy theories, the Justice Department had approved a unique deal that called for giving McVeigh's lawyers every scrap of paper mentioning him.
Even with the best computer systems, the promise was virtually impossible to carry out. Almost every field office had participated in the case, generating dozens of duplicate reports about leads that were checked out and abandoned. Because the FBI could not come up with a credible plan to replace its computers, Congress for the previous three years had withheld $20 million a year for upgrades and new systems. From the day the existing computer system was installed, it proved to be unreliable. It therefore was a foregone conclusion that all the documents would not be turned over. While Freeh had issued requests to SACs for the documents, only the last few asked for everything, and many assumed he wanted the kind of pertinent documents they had always produced during discoveryCnot everything the FBI had. Even if they realized what was wanted, the FBI's computers could not locate all the documents.
When the FBI began archiving the material, analysts realized that not all the material had been sent to McVeigh's lawyers. Not until four months later did anyone tell Freeh, known to punish the messenger.
The disclosure caused an uproar. Ashcroft delayed McVeigh's execution to give his attorneys time to review the documents, which eventually totaled 4,034 items. There was talk of a new trial. Families of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing were devastated. McVeigh's death would bring some degree of closure. Now the FBI, not the defense, had created uncertainty about the outcome.
The ball is now back in McVeigh's court, and it should never be there, said Kathleen Treanor, who lost her four-year-old daughter in the blast.
Freeh, as usual, claimed he took responsibility but blamed everyone. As director, I have taken responsibility, Freeh told a House Appropriations subcommittee solemnly. I'm accountable for the failure. He then outlined all the requests he had made to field offices for documents relating to McVeigh. As we now know, there were still many offices that had failed to comply, Freeh said.
Self-righteous and sanctimonious, Freeh never admitted a personal mistake. He never pointed out his own role in the McVeigh debacle. While he did not approve the sweeping discovery agreement, he ignored the need to revamp the FBI's computers. For years, David G. Binney, a former deputy FBI director under Freeh who became chief of security for IBM, had been warning Freeh about the deplorable state of the FBI's computers. In an age when even 85-year-old grandmothers used email, Freeh still refused to use it or to employ a computer himself. That same retrogressive attitude colored his perception of the FBI's computer needs.
In his final months in office, Freeh finally listened to Binney and others and appointed Bob E. Dies to overhaul the FBI's computer systems. After being with IBM for thirty years, Dies had retired at the age of 52 and was doing local volunteer work. His son Jason happened to be the FBI's IBM account representative. When an opening for a computer executive at the bureau came up, Jason was only half joking when he told his father that the bureau's computers were so Amessed up that he would be doing a public service by applying.
Dies, who is six feet, seven inches tall, began in July 2000. Never in his career had he seen or heard of an organization with such antiquated technology. The FBI had something called an Automated Case Support System which was developed in the mid-1990s and used 1980s technology. It could not connect to the internet and did not use a mouse. The system was so slow and useless that for investigations alone, the bureau had developed forty-two additional, separate systems to get around it. Each of the additional systems had to be checked to make sure all references to an individual were obtained. It was the Automated Case Support System that had contributed to the problem of the missing McVeigh documents.?
The bureau needed at least one computer for each of its nearly 28,000 employees. Dies could not determine how many computers the bureau had, but it was far fewer than one per employee. A total of 13,000 computers were four to eight years old. Many of them did not work, and of those that did, few could run standard software or connect to the internet because they had no browsers. Nor did they have CD-rom drives.
Instead of using the internet, FBI personal computers communicated with each other in smaller offices over telephone lines shared with twenty or thirty other computers. Data moved so slowly that agents gave up. Because few of the computers could handle graphics, agents had to have photos of suspects emailed from local police departments to their home computers.
They had stuff I had never heard of, Dies said. No wonder they couldn't maintain the stuff. They had only recently gotten email. It was amazing. The FBI was running on technology that in many cases was a decade out of date. The FBI was asking its agents and support personnel to do their jobs without the tools other companies use or that you may use at home.
Anyone with a computer understood what it meant to use one more than four years old. Even if donated, charities would not accept such machines. Yet, at the same time, Freeh continued to find the money to open new legats at a cost of $1 million to $2 million each per year.
"Somebody didn't care," Dies told me.
It was a devastating indictment of Freeh, one that would reach scandalous
proportions when the FBI began investigating the attacks of September 11. As
with Freeh's decision to slash headquarters staff, by the time Freeh listened
to recommendations he had been given over the course of his term in office,
the damage had been done.
- - -
The fiasco involving the McVeigh documents was the final catastrophe in a series of disasters that had plagued the FBI ever since Freeh took over. Whenever the media mentioned the FBI, they now added a litany of calamities. Representative David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, called it a failed agency. The bureau became the butt of jokes on late night comedy shows and in cartoons in The New Yorker, a sad contrast to the proud image the FBI had before Freeh came in.
A Gallup poll found Americans had twice as much confidence in their local police as in the FBI. Not since the Church Committee hearings had morale in the bureau plummeted to such depths. The bureau appeared to be a bunch of incompetents.
Still, as in the Hoover days, many members of Congress frantically sought to shift the blame away from Freeh. Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican who rarely had a good word to say about the FBI, commented, Because of one embarrassment after another, the public has been losing confidence in the FBI, and that is very bad for the country. Freeh tried to some extent, but he was not able to change the cowboy culture inside the FBI.
Freeh happily chimed in, saying that when he was an agent back in 1975, the agency's culture had been defective. The implication was that he had rectified the problem. For many agents who had continued to defend Freeh, that statement was a turning point. The truth was that despite the shortcomings of some of its directors, the FBI was a remarkably efficient agency that was both law abiding and responsive to the director.
Agents want you to succeed, Webster said. AIf you succeed, they succeed.
Through all the problems during Freeh's nearly eight years, FBI agents continued to investigate more than 100,000 cases a year, bringing to justice Mafia leaders, fraudulent health care providers, kidnappers, terrorists, spies, computer hackers, and corrupt politicians and police officers. With few exceptions, the cases held up in court. As in the Hoover days, the agents were smart and dedicated. Anyone whose child was kidnapped would want FBI agents on his side. Even the bureau's secretaries were a breed apart: In her sixty-two years with the FBI, Millie Parsons, still secretary to the head of the Washington Field Office, never took a day of sick leave.
If there was a cultural problem, it related to the FBI's self-protectiveness. When Randy Weaver went to trial on murder charges in 1993, the bureau resisted production of records that would reveal internal criticism of its rules of engagement at Ruby Ridge. In a post-trial decree, Judge Edward J. Lodge of the U.S. District Court in Boise, Idaho angrily fined the FBI $1,920, saying its Abehavior served to obstruct the administration of justice.
Similarly, former senator John C. Danforth complained that during his investigation of Waco, the FBI was so uncooperative about turning over documents that he had to threaten Freeh with a search warrant before he got what he wanted.
While most agents thought Sessions was an embarrassment, and about half thought Freeh was a disaster, many resented the outside criticism. An attack on the director was an attack on the bureau and therefore of them. Even though none of the current agents served under Hoover, they absorbed by osmosis his instruction about not embarrassing the bureau.
Larry W. Langberg, a former president of the FBI Agents Association, even told me that L. Patrick Gray, who destroyed evidence during Watergate and impeded the FBI's investigation, was a good man who had the potential to be a very good FBI director. Langberg said Gray was new to the job and in an acting capacity when given a direct order by the president's counsel, John Dean. Yet when asked if he would find similar excuses for an FBI agent doing the same thing, Langberg said, "An agent would not have destroyed evidence."
Explaining why he did not want to be interviewed for this book, W. Raymond Wannall Jr., an assistant director under Hoover, told me, "You are responsible for the firing of Sessions, and you've been critical of Freeh." Similarly, some of the officials under Sessions who should have reported his abuses to the Justice Department in the first place have a sour taste, as one of them put it, about my book The FBI because it led to Sessions' firing. While these agents are proud of the FBI's reputation for pursuing investigations of others impartially, they view their own director and agency through a different prism. That kind of attitude inevitably leads to cover-ups, errors in judgment, and the sort of complacency that allowed Robert Hanssen to spy for so many years without being caught.
No where is that self-protective attitude better reflected than in the email messages distributed by the Xgboys, which consists of 1,500 of the 8,000 members of the Society of Former Agents of the FBI. Since 1995, the Xgboys which includes some current agentsChas received and forwarded as many as twenty to sixty emails a day from its members. On what is known as a LISTSERV, they discuss which journalists or television anchors are friends or foes, and they suggest letters to the editor or to members of Congress for other members to copy. When they appear on television or are quoted in the press, they critique each other, proudly recounting how they defended the bureau and whoever happened to be the director at the time.
As criticism of Freeh mounted, the Xgboys began exchanging messages angrily denouncing the critics, who included former FBI official Buck Revell.
I find unbelievable these public, nonspecific and sniping personal criticisms of Freeh from a former bureau agent, no matter what his former position in the bureau, a retired agent wrote of Revell's comments about Freeh. Such pontifications serve absolutely no positive purpose at this point and smack of some personal animosity. Put a muzzle on them.
"Eureka! I think I've got it; Senator Grassley is an old Soviet mole still trying to impede the efficiency of the FBI," another Xgboy wrote about the FBI's congressional critic.
While even Hoover's staunchest defenders concede he stayed too long, many Xgboys still worshiped him. When Richard Cohen wrote a column in the Washington Post urging removal of Hoover's name from FBI headquarters, an Xgboy sent him a nasty letter and posted it. "You suggested that Martin Luther King Jr.'s name replace Hoover's name," the former agent wrote. Referring to the fact King had been jailed for leading a civil rights demonstration in the south, the former agent said, "AThat is just what we need "a convict's name on the FBI Building."
"You can't judge Hoover by today's standards," Larry Langberg said. And why not? While it is important to place historical figures in the context of their times, to excuse the excesses of the past is to create the possibility that they will be repeated. To be sure, Hoover built the FBI into a great organization. But he is seen by the public as the man who outrageously violated the rights of Martin Luther King and many other Americans. Their insistence on wearing blinders when looking at Hoover undermined the credibility of former agents and therefore of the institution.
After I called him, a former agent confided to the Xgboys that he declined to be interviewed and warned that I might be calling them. "Kessler has done nothing to particularly enhance the bureau's image," the former agent groused to his fellow Xgboys. He equated me with Anthony Summers, whose book claimed that Hoover was a cross-dresser.
According to another message to Xgboys from Tom McGorray, the retired agent who runs it, the topics discussed on the Xgboys include bureau critics, such as 60 Minutes, Senators Grassley and Leahy, and Ron Kessler, along with Aprostate cancer, colon cancer, and heart attacks.
After a conversation with me, Lane Bonner, a former FBI public affairs official, told his fellow Xgboys that my book was going to be highly critical of Freeh and would cite FBI memos showing that Hoover knew that Joseph Salvati, who was falsely imprisoned in Boston, was innocent.
The FBI had released the documents showing that Hoover was informed of Salvati's innocence. In public statements, the FBI characterized the allegations as Aappalling. But Bonner, refusing to believe it, said the claim that Hoover knew was "nonsense." As for Freeh, Bonner told the Xgboys that he informed me all he knows about the former director is that he had "impeccable integrity."
Bonner warned that my book would do "irreparable harm" to the FBI, thanks in part to "those few crybabies in our midst (and others) who have collaborated" with me. Bonner said he used to think of FBI agents as understanding the need for integrity and loyalty. Instead, he said, it seems that Asome in our midst are either naive or are of the Robert Hanssen mold.
As in any large group, present and former agents have multiple attitudes and opinions. The Xgboys represents only a small portion of former agents. The more sophisticated agents and those who rose in the bureau laughed at the Xgboys. They looked at Hoover with balance, recognized that an FBI director should be held at least to the same standards as everyone else, and believed Sessions' abuses and Freeh's mismanagement needed to be exposed.?
Bill Baker, the former head of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division who was once Lane Bonner's boss, said much of the chatter on the Xgboys is "unprofessional." It was Baker, a prominent member of the Society of Former FBI Agents, who recommended to Sessions the bureau's unprecedented cooperation with me for my previous FBI book so that I could test what FBI officials were telling me. Bucky Walters, the assistant FBI director under Hoover who is the longtime membership chairman of the Society of Former FBI agents, said of the Xgboys, "I would get angry if I sat reading that crap. People have sent it to me. A lot of it is unfactual." Courtland Jones, a former chairman of the society's Washington chapter, said, "It's a gossip group of people who seem to be two-year agents who are sure they know everything. Buck Revell is ten times smarter than they are. I happen to have been familiar with the details of what they talk about, and they don't know what they're talking about. They act as if they are spokesmen for the bureau. Most of us laugh at it and ignore it."
As those who worked with Freeh began relating horror stories they had long kept to themselves, sentiment even among the Xgboys began to shift. Once Freeh was out of power, members of Congress woke from their slumber as well, just as they did after Hoover died. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "There are some very, very serious management problems at the FBI." Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said, "It's hard to believe the situation has deteriorated and disintegrated the way it has. How did this great agency fall so far so fast? The FBI has been starved for leadership." The real question was: where had these members been for the past nearly eight years?
As Freeh was leaving, he put out the word that the Bush administration had asked him to stay on until a successor was found. In fact, the White House did not ask Freeh to remain in his job. So skillful was Freeh at manipulating public opinion that he had an "associate" tell the Washington Post that when his sixth son was born in 1998, Freeh responded to rumors that he might resign by saying he had a mission to make the bureau "more efficient, more professional, more tech-savvy and, along the way, to rebuild confidence in the nation's largest law enforcement organization." To the unwary, it sounded as if the FBI was in trouble before Freeh took over, rather than the other way around. The comment was in line with Freeh's and Bucknam's strategy of having Freeh distance himself from the problems of the bureau - even if he had caused them - so that he could pose as a reformer.
"He's been rushing and rushing around trying to plug holes in the dike, but it has become impossible to keep all the water out," echoed Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who headed the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Freeh "one of the best FBI directors to serve the American people." Four years earlier, Hatch said there were serious problems at the FBI, "but I would be remiss if I did not mention the positive leadership of Director Louis Freeh." Senator Leahy, who would soon take over as chairman, praised Freeh by saying his legacy was "an updated attitude appropriate to twenty-first-century law enforcement." No matter how bad things got, Freeh could do no wrong.
While for the most part the bureau's problems were obvious, the agency was also good at concealing the extent of its problems and covering up for the director. Over the years, SACs gave the press favorable quotes about Freeh while privately calling him "Hoover with children." That referred to his arbitrariness and to his disciplinary rules, including no drinking on the job. In some respects, the comparison was unfair to Hoover, who knew how to manage and - while he promoted himself - also promoted the bureau and was loyal to it.
Only a few press accounts saw through the haze. In one of them, Newsweek noted, "In scandal after scandal, Director Louis Freeh would dutifully take responsibility. Yet with his priestly aura, he would at the same time leave the impression that he had been let down or victimized by his subordinates. Congressional Republicans were always ready to forgive Freeh because he seemed so morally censorious of the Clinton White House."
In two opinion pieces in the Washington Post, I called attention to the problems caused by Freeh's management style and said agents have lost faith in him. After "a promising start, Freeh has settled into a controlling, self-protective, image-conscious style that suppresses internal debate while promoting a double standard of conduct: one for favored aides and one for the rest of the bureau," I wrote on April 13, 1997. The second piece, "Fire Freeh," appeared two months before Freeh announced his departure.
In his last year in office, Freeh gave interviews to Elsa Walsh of The New Yorker portraying his starring role in the FBI's investigation of the Khobar Towers bombing and his meetings with Saudi officials to obtain their cooperation. After the bombing of the dormitory for U.S. military personnel in Dharan, Saudi Arabia on June 25, 1996, Freeh became obsessed by it. The explosion killed nineteen American military personnel. As soon as it occurred, Freeh boarded an Air Force jet to go to the crime scene.
Until he left the FBI five years later, Freeh would act as the case agent, flying back and forth and meeting with Saudi leaders in Washington and Saudi Arabia. While Freeh was genuinely concerned about the victims' families he met with them for three days at Quantico the role of an FBI director is to manage the agency, not to be a highly-paid case agent. Normally, high-level meetings with foreign officials are conducted by the FBI's deputy associate directors, but Freeh, in his quest to stamp out bureaucracy, had eliminated those positions.?
"Freeh was interested in prosecutions, the Khobar Towers bombing, New York, Congress, his family, and his religion," said a high-ranking official who worked closely with him.
Titled "Louis Freeh's Last Case," the New Yorker piece hinted that Iran was behind the bombings. Finally, just as he was leaving, Freeh got his wish to look like a great case agent. The amount of time he devoted to telling the story to Walsh-eight interviews in the course of a year-suggested his priorities. Freeh had no time to update the FBI's computers or to defend the bureau from outlandish charges about Waco and Ruby Ridge. He had seemingly limitless time to promote himself. Yet even that article included a disclosure that agents found devastating: Because a prosecution of the case involved national security issues, Freeh felt he had to present a list of proposed indictments to the president before he proceeded. The Clinton administration did not want a military confrontation with Iran, which was becoming more moderate, and Freeh did not trust Clinton to move forward with prosecutions because they might require a military response. Freeh therefore held off on presenting the list until the new administration came in.
If an agent had made such a politically motivated decision, he would have been fired. Similarly, an agent widely suspected of leaking, as Bob Bucknam was, would have been investigated and polygraphed. "In the interest of this great institution, swift and decisive action will be taken to redress any unauthorized disclosure of information," Freeh told all employees in an April 1994 memo. But Freeh saw himself and his aides as being governed by different rules. If Friends of Louis received favored treatment, certainly Louis himself should. Many naively overlooked the double standard because of the air of piety Freeh projected. Like Hoover, Freeh wore his integrity on his sleeve. But in law enforcement, protecting friends is hardly a sign of integrity.
"Power corrupts, and the longer he was in office, the more corrupted Freeh became," said an agent who worked closely with him.
Freeh did not respond to my letter seeking comment.
Despite the tilt toward Freeh by Republicans in Congress, Ashcroft had nothing good to say about Freeh. In the light of the latest gaffe involving the McVeigh documents, the attorney general announced three investigations into what had gone wrong at the FBI. He also removed restrictions on the Justice Department's inspector general, allowing him to investigate the FBI without prior approval by the attorney general or his deputy. The FBI had long resisted such a move, but now, with its credibility shattered, the bureau was powerless to prevent inroads on its turf.
Everyone had a solution - more oversight, a restructuring, a reduction in size or jurisdiction, even splitting up the agency. When a publicly held company like Lucent or Enron self-destructs, everyone recognizes that the CEO was responsible and must be replaced. Similarly, when General Electric did well, everyone understood that CEO Jack Welch was responsible.
In the case of the FBI, one man was responsible. His last day on the job was Friday, June 22, 2001, timed to coincide with indictments of thirteen Saudis and a Lebanese man in the Khobar Towers bombing. Because they were in foreign countries, it was not clear whether the alleged terrorists would ever be brought to trial.
Freeh had gotten his men - sort of. But he left the FBI in a shambles. In a farewell to employees in the FBI's courtyard, Freeh airily dismissed the fiascoes and embarrassments of his administration as "bumps in the road."
1. Dies, Bob E., January 31, 2002.
2. Parsons, Mildred C. AMillie, August 1, 2001.
3. Washington Post, June 1, 2001, page A-12.
4. Walters, Leonard ABucky, August 17, 2001.
5. Jones, Courtland J., July 28, 2001.
6. Washington Post, April 13, 1997, page C-1, February 27, 2001, page A-23.
7. The New Yorker, May 14, 2001, page 79.
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