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Jewish World Review May 4, 2001 / 11 Iyar, 5761

Dan K. Thomasson

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Freeing Freeh -- IF one pays attention to his congressional pals, Louis Freeh is leaving the FBI a better place, at least in some respects, than he found it when he assumed the directorship in 1993. But what may be good for the FBI may not necessarily be so for the country.

Clearly the bureau was staggering from some horrendously bad publicity in those days, including the forced resignation of Freeh's predecessor, Judge William Sessions, who had presided over such public-relations disasters as Waco and the incident at Ruby Ridge, where a young mother was killed by an FBI sniper. There was immediate hope that the new young director, who had served five years in the bureau before leaving for a legal career, would clean up the bureau's image and wipe out the last vestiges of Hoover elitism.

But that isn't exactly what happened despite what his allies in Congress would have one believe. In fact, almost from the beginning Freeh acted at times more like Hoover than anyone else who had directed the FBI since the controversial founder's death in the early '70s, reinforcing the bureau's stance that mistakes were internal affairs and the bureau was always right publicly. If Hoover had been heavy-handed in personnel matters, Freeh demonstrated he could be more so.

He went about shaking up the FBI hierarchy, replacing top managers with his handpicked aides, some of whom came without experience from New York, where he had been a federal judge, and sending top headquarters personnel to remote field offices. In one incident, he summarily dismissed the head of the New York field office, who also was an assistant director, for a minor infraction, dispatching agents to Manhattan to escort him from his office. The official had only three weeks left before retirement. Actions like these did not go down well with the bureau's old guard.

Any criticism, however, seemed to fade in a welter of fawning praise from Congress, led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who absolved him, and, thus, the bureau, from a number of embarrassing mistakes that were to continue to plague the nation's largest law-enforcement agency and got worse as it got larger. It seemed that whenever the bureau came up short, Freeh would trot up to Congress to explain that it all could be made right by more agents and expanded authority.

The result of Freeh's political skill was thousands of more agents, a hugely enlarged international presence, expansion in areas in which the bureau had little expertise like bomb investigations and undercover work at the expense of its white-collar crime assignment, and a growing elitism that more often than not infuriated other federal agencies whose turf was being invaded regularly. Under the heading "domestic terrorism," for instance, the bureau began sticking its nose into every investigation, no matter how minor or off its beaten path.

For the first time in its history, the nation is on the verge of establishing a national police force, a scary concept that every president since George Washington has denounced because of its obvious dangers. The refusal to lump all investigative authority under one umbrella, despite the duplication this produces, has been a deliberate decision to prevent one agency from becoming too powerful.

While Freeh was tripling the FBI's domain and adding 5,000 agents and 4,000 technicians, his vaunted troops were muffing one high-profile investigation after another, including the stealing of nuclear secrets by the Chinese and the Olympic bombing in Atlanta, and the misuse and protection of criminal informants in Boston, to mention but a few. His resignation now comes as the FBI has been confronted with the worst internal scandal in its history, the arrest of one of its senior agents for years of alleged spying for the Russians.

Born out of a steadily worsening arrogance that the bureau was immune from the internal disgrace of a mole that had plagued the CIA, the spy case finally has forced the FBI to take measures it always has shunned, like instituting lie-detector exams for counterintelligence agents.

No one can fault Freeh for his dedication or honesty. He stood up to the Clinton White House, urging an expanded investigation of the campaign fund-raising scandal, earning him the animosity of Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Janet Reno, his boss at the Justice Department. His sin as director was trying to do too much, to taking his institution further than it probably should go, to buying into the myth of bureau infallibility. Even Hoover, for all his faults, realized that there were limits to his empire and there should be.

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05/01/01: Kerrey's story
04/26/01: Enviro-hysteria
04/24/01: The right to DNA testing
04/20/01: The world closes in
04/13/01: Is election reform finally dead?
04/11/01: Rather tarring makes all journalists stink
04/06/01: Bad news about the news business
03/30/01: Lieberman plots his future
03/23/01: When appointing federal judges, records unblemished by brilliance, accomplishment or the evidence of independent thought are rewarded
03/21/01: On campaign finance reform, is something better than nothing?
03/19/01: Will Gore get another shot?
03/13/01: Bashing business not Bush's style
03/13/01: The senior Bush's unseemly job
02/27/01: Is that J. Edgar Hoover turning in his grave?
02/23/01: Goodbye to the SATs --- and good riddance!
02/20/01: How gullible does Clinton think we are?
02/16/01: Milking nonsense for all its worth
02/13/01: The need for a one-armed economist
02/09/01: Move over, Bonnie and Clyde

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