FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who ran the bureau during some of the most troubling times in its 69-year history and clashed repeatedly with the Clinton administration, announced yesterday he will resign next month.
Although his 10-year appointment does not end until 2003, Mr. Freeh, 51 and father of six sons ages 3 to 16, announced he would step down “by the end of the school year in June.”
“I look forward to spending the summer with my family and engaging in new challenges,” Mr. Freeh said.
The director feuded openly for years with President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, recommending an independent counsel investigate Clinton-Gore campaign fund-raising activities in 1996 and chastising the White House for illegally obtaining FBI files of Republicans.
As head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he was also held responsible for a longtime cover-up of FBI tactics during the deadly raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and failure to detect an agent charged with giving secrets to the Russians for 15 years.
President Bush, who met with Mr. Freeh at the White House Monday afternoon, said the director’s decision to resign caught him “by surprise… . I was hoping he would stay on.”
“I regret the director is leaving government. We are fortunate to have had a man of his caliber serve our county and we will miss him,” the president said. “And now well begin the process of finding replacements.”
Candidates for the job include Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a former FBI agent and Justice Department veteran who was previously mentioned as a possible attorney general nominee.
In a five-page statement, Mr. Freeh effusively praised Mr. Bush and more than a dozen administration officials, but devoted just one line to Mr. Clinton, who appointed him to the post in 1993.
“I want to thank President George W. Bush for his leadership and commitment to protecting this great nation at home and abroad… . I am also grateful for the presidents unwavering support of me and the FBI.
“President Bush has brought great honor and integrity to the Oval Office,” he wrote.
He went on to laud Vice President Richard B. Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their “decisiveness and leadership in quickly resolving a number of long-standing national security issues.”
And the FBI director said he was “grateful to Attorney General John D. Ashcroft for the strong support he has provided to the men and women of the FBI… . His efforts, combined with the work of his staff, will be critical in guiding the Department of Justice in the days ahead.”
Of Mr. Clinton, however, Mr. Freeh said only: “I wish to thank former President Clinton for the honor and privilege of allowing me to serve the American people as the FBI director.”
Mr. Freeh called for appointment of an independent counsel in November 1997 to investigate a broad “pattern of activities by the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election effort designed to circumvent restrictions of campaign fund raising” — including the possible influence of foreign governments in the elections. The memo, kept secret for 2 and 1/2 years, said a task-force probe had led FBI agents “to the highest levels of the White House, including the vice president and the president.”
Miss Reno, who limited a preliminary investigation to White House calls by Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, rejected the proposal, saying she found no specific and credible evidence that crimes had been committed.
Mr. Gore acknowledged making 45 telephone calls from his office during the campaign but said there was “no controlling legal authority” governing his behavior. Mr. Clinton provided perks for contributors, including overnight stays at the White House and trips on Air Force One, and also solicited donations from Chinese nationals.
Mr. Freeh was attacked for his stance by congressional Democrats, but held his ground in hearings before House and Senate panels.
“My job is not to make people happy or please them or be a loyal subordinate when that conflicts with what I think my job is,” Mr. Freeh said a month after calling for the investigation, supported by federal prosecutor Charles LaBella, who headed the task-force probe into suspected campaign-finance abuses.
Mr. Freeh also weighed in heavily on Mr. Clintons acquisition of FBI files in 1996, accusing the White House of “egregious violations of privacy” in seeking hundreds of secret background files of Reagan and Bush administration officials. He ordered sweeping new measures to protect the bureaus sensitive background information.
“Unfortunately, the FBI and I were victimized,” Mr. Freeh said at the time. “I promise the American people that it will not happen again on my watch.”
In addition, Mr. Freeh drew Mr. Clintons ire when he praised the “persistence and uncompromising personal and professional integrity” of former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, whose investigation led to the impeachment of the president and 14 convictions in the Whitewater Arkansas real estate case.
A former federal judge and FBI agent who has spent 27 years in public service, Mr. Freeh gave up a lifetime appointment to the U.S. District Court in New York to accept the FBI directors job. During his tenure, he hired several thousand new special agents, forged a relationship with the CIA, doubled the FBIs overseas presence and won larger budgets for fighting crime.
But he was also criticized for:
* The admission in 1999 — six years after the raid of the Davidian compound — that the FBI had used incendiary devices in that raid.
* The handling of the Olympic bombing investigation of Richard Jewell, who was labeled the prime suspect until the FBI announced he was no longer a probe target.
* The destruction of evidence by FBI officials outlining the bureaus involvement in shoot-on-sight orders during the August 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, that left three persons dead.
* Failure to properly handle evidence that was tainted in the FBI crime laboratory, resulting in notification to prosecutors nationwide of possible problems in cases, including the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
Perhaps his most embarrassing moment came in February, when he was forced to announce that one of the FBIs own agents, Robert Hanssen, had been arrested for delivering secrets to Moscow for more than 15 years. The FBI missed telltale signs, including extravagant spending habits by Mr. Hanssen.
Mr. Freeh was the fifth man to head the federal law enforcement agency in its history. He succeeded William S. Sessions, fired by Mr. Clinton amid accusations that he had misused his office for personal financial gain.