Thursday, November 17, 2005

# Posted 8:38 AM by Patrick Belton  

OXBLOG REVIEW OF BOOKS: The first in, we hope, a recurring feature here on OxBlog....

My FBI : Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton,
and Fighting the War on Terror
by Louis J. Freeh
St Martin’s Press. 352 pp. $25.95.

Memoir is the literature of memory. When private and public memory touch, we have history’s first draft. The story of the Clinton administration has now been recounted by the president, the first lady, its two Secretaries of State, its first Secretary of Labor, its second Secretary of Treasury and its final Secretary of Energy. It is told here by its FBI director.

Suffice it to say at the Clinton administration’s going-down party there were no choruses sung of ‘for Freeh’s a jolly good fellow.’ The feelings were cordially requited. Mr Freeh is not a reticent man, and some hint of his sentiments toward his former employer comes across in this catalogue: ‘farcical,’ ‘unedited,’ ‘a bad movie,’ and, the unkindest blow, ‘master politician.’ It was not always this way. Freeh, impressed by Clinton’s charm and knowledge of the Bureau on their meeting, tells an anecdote of a jovial Clinton cross-examining one of the Freeh children, and writing a birthday note to another. Clinton, for his part, described Freeh as a law enforcement legend. But as in all love affairs, the end result was heartbreak and recrimination on both sides. The now-infamous White House pass which Freeh returned in late 1993 presaged the fall; by the time a special prosecutor was appointed for Whitewater, he would join that other judge Kenneth Starr as Clinton’s great adversary in Washington.

There was also the matter of a Bureau to run. He had been preparing to run it his entire life. Coming from a working-class Catholic background, he tellingly viewed the FBI as ‘a calling.’ Joining the Bureau after law school, he left it in 1981 for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York. He worked closely with assassinated Sicilian judge Giovanni Falcone on the prosecution of Salvatore Catalano and Gaetano Badalamenti, in these mafia cases finding a natural idiom of tough-talking street-smart wisecrackers on both offence and defence. (‘Some of the goons we dealt with were genuinely funny, some of them genuinely warm’: he never speaks so warmly about politicians.) He rounded out this gestation with a brief tour as a federal judge in the Southern District. His tenure would include not only the investigation of a president, but his search for the Iranian and Hezbollah operatives behind the 1996 Khobar Towers bombings on Saudi soil, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen. It is remarkable then that he did it so badly.

The classic criticisms are those of Richard Clarke and Ronald Kessler, supplemented by the report of the 9/11 Commission.* These ranged from the comparatively sanguine (though dedicated, his skills did not match the job; a former field agent, he micromanaged individual cases rather than leading a Bureau; not using a computer personally and in technology preferring a Smith & Wesson, he failed to grasp the importance of databases and computers for the FBI); to the damning (his managerial style was arrogant and cronyish; incompetent, he survived only because of a hobbled administration and the patronage of a Congress for whom he served as a penetration agent). He became well known in forays up Capitol Hill for ritual penitence for Bureau failures, subsequent deflection of guilt onto insufficient budget and staff, and at end walking away graced with a larger budget from Congress (which increased by 65 per cent during his tenure). The Commission found that while he increased the number of legal attaché offices abroad, there was no significant resource shift under him to counterterrorism, nor did field offices much view terrorism as a priority. Information systems were poor, intelligence collection ineffective, and the Counterterrorism Division he created faltered with paltry resources and mediocre analysts; his deputy, misinterpreting a 1995 Department of Justice guideline, informed agents that too much information sharing within the Bureau could be a career stopper. For Kessler, each of the FBI's embarrassments during his tenure is directly attributable to him; and his successor could not find a church willing to accept the Bureau’s 286 and 386 computers. For Clarke, he ignored terrorism and the bureaucratic reform and technological provision of his bureau, preferring instead to micromanage high-profile cases, and in the process inflicting serious damage to each. In Khobar, he depicts Freeh as an ingénue credulously duped by the fawning attentions of a Prince Bandar, and oblivious to broader containment policy against Iran conducted by the administration’s foreign policy levels. Freeh maintained a low profile after September 11, having left the directorship in late June to return to private life.

To those who had looked to this memoir to provide melodic counterpoint to these criticisms, this book will come as some disappointment. He describes his term blandly, reciting Bureau accomplishments in the argot of a press release. Nor should one look to this book for competing evidence to a reading of Freeh’s directorship as the spurning of lesser temptations as Osama Bin Laden to pursue what in different circumstances or lesser pages one might refer to as his Moby Dick, a president’s sex life. For rebuttal, Freeh offers us no more than to accuse Clarke of ‘bad facts, no access’ and of being a ‘second-tier player,’ and he makes no mention of the 9/11 Commission report whatever. The ‘second-tier player’ parry is less than effective given that in the text of the report Freeh receives five mentions, to Clarke’s forty nine (Freeh’s including one for being present at a briefing and two incidental mentions for remaining in the Bush administration, and then retiring). It is not Clarke who here appears as a bit player. Instead of answering his critics, Freeh then presents the Agincourt finger to the very public he took an oath to protect.
‘I never during my public service or afterward felt the slightest inclination to respond to the group of witless and mostly idle FBI critics who all believe they should lead this important government agency but would not have the fortitude or skill to do so. This assortment of knuckleheads—who inhabit government roles in some cases but mostly just stand on the sidelines—are wont to tell the real athletes, coaches, and referees what should be done in the arena without ever having put on a jersey themselves.’
One presumes he means us. But that’s just the point: ‘My FBI,’ it wasn’t, and no quantity of loyalty or distinguished service changes that fact. One gets the sense Freeh prefers to take his American people as a mass to be protected by heroes of integrity, rather than citizens who might ask questions. This is the arrogance of office. His critics anyway were not convinced. During the writing of this review, Kessler commented to me that Freeh was ‘diverting attention from his colossal mismanagement of the FBI, and the fact it almost disintegrated under his leadership, by taking pot shots at Clinton.’ Clarke was somewhat more succinct: ‘I am not going to comment on Freeh's statements except to say that anyone interested in the truth can read the 9/11 Commission Report, with which I agree.’

Much more fun to slough blame. Like a dull boxer punching blind in all directions, we learn Clinton’s vertebra and not the chief domestic counterterrorist agency is at fault for 9/11: ‘what we lacked was the spine’ to take on Osama more directly. (Ironically, it was precisely Freeh’s sparring partner Clarke who after the Cole attack laid out the administration’s most formal proposal for an ultimatum to the Taliban to be backed up by argument of arms.) We learn the Wen Ho Lee debacle was not his fault but the New York Times’s and the ‘gods of political correctness.’ With Richard Jewell, this time it’s the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that’s culpable. Without self-consciousness he then complains ‘Washington is never short of politicians willing to off-load their own share of the blame.’

More interesting, though, is the glimpse here provided into the psychology of the last FBI director, what Freeh was in Freeh’s eyes. At times to his own mind he appears the Capetian St Louis, the stud-saint: ‘Maybe I was, in Clinton’s eyes, too much the altar boy I once had been.’ He notes to us his record of ‘winning convictions in some of the office’s highest-profile cases, in the nation’s highest-profile venue.’ And then the dual brag: ‘Just about the only times I ever took off the gun were when I slept – and then it was on the nightstand, just a hand’s reach away – and the early morning, when I went jogging.’ As a card-carrying ghostwriter, it was Howard Means’s task to edit away much of this, including such passages as ‘the brothers made a serious effort to involve us in good works … in my case, with spectacular results.’ Perhaps Freeh is not so full of himself; but it is how he permitted himself to be represented in these pages. The heroism of the passengers of September 11’s United 93, ordinary citizens who saved Washington, was of quieter stuff.

This tough guy self image is directed against somebody. He defines himself against Clinton like the inverse cut-out in a wax mould. His moral, which he does not risk repeating so infrequently we forget it, is ‘how politics can sometimes destroy judgment and corrupt moral sense.’ It’s the moral of most of his anecdotes, from a drug case tried before him compromised by a lying witness to a small kindness he once did for a mobster he was arresting. ‘Politics’, we are given to understand, is generally a prefiguring code word for Clinton; and ‘integrity’, for himself. It is thus a chillingly low blow when he cites the Holocaust as an example of politics overwhelming the police power. Future historians may find intriguing the disjunct between his self-definition as a ‘straitlaced Catholic kid, raised to respect authority’, and disdain for his boss. Amateur psychologists could sense a connection between the self-pitying turn of soul that produced the chapter title ‘You’re not really college material’ and the resentment and hatred toward privilege embodied in Clinton. The irony of course is that Clinton’s origins were as humble, and lay much farther from Manhattan; there may be here the makings of a play rather better than this memoir.

His relationship to the FBI – ‘my FBI’ – fits in somewhere here. In his more reflective moments, he tells us of a Bureau that has grown reactively more than logically, its powers granted more as corrective than preventative. He feels strongly about creation of an American MI-5 (‘loony notion’); which not wholly tangentially, would largely be carved out of the FBI. But in other paragraphs the book carries the misflavour of such saccharine declarations as ‘FBI agents – even just two of them – can make a difference.’ One gathers we’re meant to congratulate, or perhaps hug them. The FBI is a player in a tale that is culture wars all the way down: ‘I never learned to do good ol’ boy. My part of New Jersey is a long way from Hope, Arkansas.’ While at Rutgers more privileged students protested the Vietnam war, the prospective director was ‘paying for all those course hours myself.’ He says of his assistant U.S. attorneys, but could have been speaking of Clinton, ‘even Yale Law graduates need lots of watching.’ Rutgers, he remembers revealingly, ‘topped Princeton 6-4’ in the first American football fixture. Freeh’s gentlemanly respect for an adversary, so evident with mobsters, disappears when the adversary does not speak the demotic of the New York City streets.

When Clinton is off stage, he often writes with real feeling. He writes appealingly about his family’s history. His most engaging moments deal with anecdotes about New Jersey childhood and mob-busting. Among his other redeeming features, he is a resolute New Yorker. One gets the feeling he might be a nice enough man, if you could keep him away from Clintons. Students of the administration will learn in office his confidantes were the first President Bush, William Webster, and Robert Fiske from the SDNY attorney’s office. Similarly for his relationships with other members of his administration: he cordially dislikes Jim Woolsey, and unsuspensefully, Clarke. He liked George Tenet, John Deutch, Condoleezza Rice, Rudolph Giuliani, Bernie Nussbaum (to whom he owed his job), along with Gore, Ken Starr, and Attorney General Reno (with whom his relations were purportedly icy, but who comes in for kind words here). He also likes wise guys, and dead people (inevitably ‘heroes,’ more so if they might prefer him to Clinton.)

Mr Freeh may well be a delightful man, but he has written here an ugly book of political score settling. What is still worse, he has not even settled them very well. One wonders whether leading with the Khobar Towers is an attempt to outhawk his critics for September 11. Doing so at any rate produces a distorted narrative timeline in which Louis Freeh: 1. investigated the Khobar Towers against the frustrations of a president who preferred Saudi book money, 2. was born in New Jersey, and so forth. He criticises Clinton for seeking to get closer to the Iranians; Freeh by contrast had wanted to get closer to the Saudis. The Iranians had killed Americans; the Saudis were arguably about to. From the subtitle, one might still be left with the grudging impression the ordering of words reflects their hierarchy in the mind of the author as officeholder. There is no note of apology carried in the sentence, ‘Before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the largest single area of responsibility for the Bureau was white-collar crime.’ This from a director who in a moment of truly bureaucratic dullness of imagination claimed on 60 Minutes that even with adequate intelligence that did not specify date and time, nothing could have been done to prevent the September 11 hijackings. (The increased checks at airports, passengers will be gratified to know, are apparently for show.) When he writes ‘That’s what we learned on 9/11: al Qaeda is not the Cosa Nostra, and Osama bin Laden is not a John Gotti or a Ted Kaczynski,’ he means I.

As a personal recounting of a journey through a career in the FBI and federal bench, Mr Freeh’s memoir invigorates. As a rebuttal of serious criticisms levied at Director Freeh in the wake of September 11th in the report of the 9/11 Commission and writings of those who served in government with him, it disappoints badly. The book is also riddled with grapeshot of minor inaccuracies; Zug, for instance, is not in the Alps. Memory is truth’s cousin, with a complicated relationship; it is famously unfaithful as politicians. To return in the end to the author’s ensign allegation, in the director’s words,
The story that came back to me, from ‘usually reliable sources,’ as they say in Washington, was that Bill Clinton briefly raised the subject [of the Khobar Towers] 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 to the still-to-be-built Clinton presidential library.
What is clear from this passage is the following: 1. Louis Freeh was not in the room. 2. We do not know who was in the room (except it was not Freeh). 3. For all we know from the account he has given us, Mr Freeh heard this off a gentleman at a bar. No one has stepped forward to confirm the story’s authenticity. Coming from someone who has just told us he did not hold a White House pass, this sounds suspiciously like bad facts and no access. One wants to retort to the frequently engaging street-wise New York investigator: C’mon, Judge. You gotta give us better than that.

* Against All Enemies, by Richard Clarke, Free Press, 2004; Inside the FBI, by Ronald Kessler, St Martin's, 2002
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