- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

MY FBI: BRINGING DOWN THE MAFIA, INVESTIGATING BILL CLINTON, AND FIGHTING THE WAR ON TERROR

By Louis J. Freeh, St. Martin’s, $25.95, 352 pages, illus.

Oh, let’s cut right to the chase. Your primary interest in “My FBI,” the memoir by the FBI director during the Clinton administration, is not drug-smuggling cases, however interesting they might be, or even the inspiring story of how a kid from Jersey became a star FBI street agent, a federal prosecutor, a federal district judge and, finally, FBI director.

So proceed directly to page 245, “Bill and Me,” which recounts Louis Freeh’s side of the most interesting feud I’ve seen in Washington since LBJ squared off with Bobby Kennedy in the 1960s.

There is a difference. At its core, the LBJ-RFK conflict was petty personal politics. The Freeh-Clinton conflict involved a president who used his power to short-circuit not only domestic criminal investigations touching him and his close associates, but also international terrorism that cost the lives of American servicemen. If Mr. Freeh is to be believed (and he surely convinced me) the Clinton years posed a graver threat to our system than even the wildest excesses of Watergate.

Give the former president his due. When he pitched Judge Freeh to take the FBI position — replacing the unfortunate William Sessions, who practically had to be heaved out of the J. Edgar Hoover Building by bulldozer — the simple gesture of pausing to pen a seventh birthday note to Mr. Freeh’s son, Brendan, demonstrated that “this was the best politician of his generation.”

But Mr. Freeh, who spent years working against the New York Mafia, had the street smarts not to be charmed. Days into the job, the head of the FBI criminal division briefed him on an Arkansas situation soon to be known as “Whitewater.” As Mr. Freeh writes, “I could see us walking down a path that ended up with a sitting president… as the subject of a criminal investigation, perhaps even the subject of criminal prosecution.”

Mr. Freeh made the first of several moves to keep his distance from Bill Clinton. He declined to come to a White House movie viewing and meet actor Tom Hanks (Mrs. Freeh, a Hanks fan, was irked). Even more infuriating to the president, he refused a personal White House pass because “I wanted every visit I made… to be part of some public record.” This refusal, he heard, “offended Bill Clinton mightily.”

Worse was to come. In November 1997, Mr. Freeh sent Attorney General Janet Reno a 27-page memo about allegations of illicit fund-raising during the 1996 campaign. Much “soft money” came into the Clinton-Gore camp “from alarming sources, including the People’s Republic of China.” Miss Reno refused Mr. Freeh’s recommendation that an independent counsel run the case.

Then the president made a mistake. In an offhand remark to the press, he claimed that had the FBI briefed the White House, he would have ensured that there was no “undue influence” involved. But as Mr. Freeh writes, two FBI agents had briefed Rand Beers, a senior National Security Council staff member. To Mr. Freeh, it was “inconceivable” that such explosive material would not have reached the president. He writes, “It’s not in my character to lose my temper.” So he vented his anger by helping to “draft a press statement that said, in effect, the White House was lying.”

But to Mr. Freeh, the most striking instance of malfeasance came in Bill Clinton’s attempt to stifle the investigation into the 1996 terror attack on the Khobar Towers military housing project in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans. Mr. Freeh saw the carnage first-hand and he vowed to bring the killers to justice. But the Saudis, despite soothing assurances, feared offending other Arab neighbors, so they stalled.

To summarize a complex situation: Whether the FBI would have access to evidence required that the president make a direct request to the Saudi ruler, Crown Price Abdullah. According to information reaching Mr. Freeh, “Clinton briefly raised the subject only to tell the crown prince that he certainly understood the Saudis’ reluctance to cooperate. Then, according to my sources, he hit Abdullah up for a contribution for the still-to-be-built Clinton presidential library.” Gore, Mr. Freeh said, barely mentioned the subject.

Mr. Freeh also heaps scorn on Mr. Clinton for his 177 last-minute pardons and commutations without consulting either the FBI or the Justice Department, contrary to established procedures. One beneficiary, Marc Rich, fled to Switzerland to avoid 50-plus indictments for fraud. Why drop the charges? Mr. Rich’s socialite wife, Denise, donated more than $1 million to Democrats during the Clinton-Gore years. As Mr. Freeh writes, “the stench… should have been enough to dissuade the president. It didn’t, of course. That was Bill Clinton.”

Mr. Freeh’s book adds damning details to much that was already known about the Clinton years. Instinct says that we have yet to learn the total truth about the 42nd president of the United States.

Joseph C. Goulden’s 18th book, “The Money Lawyers,” will be published in January.


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