The Victim Of His Virtues

AS A FORMER ALTAR BOY, LOUIS Freeh was warned against the sin of pride; be humble, he was especially about your virtue. Freeh, who came to the FBI from the federal bench, wants to be called "Louie," not "Director" or "Judge." On his first visit to New York as director of the FBI, agents showed Freeh to the suite in the Waldorf Astoria reserved for the nation's top G-man since the days of J. Edgar Hoover. Freeh took one look and checked out; he now stays in a single room in a small hotel. Freer likes to slip his security detail; his predecessor at the FBI, the image-obsessed William Sessions, "used a seven-car caravan just to cross the street," said a Justice Department official.

It is ironic, then, to find Freeh brooding over his own image in the press. The FBI is enduring a spell of bad luck-accusations that its once famed crime lab tampered with evidence, squabbles with the White House, the humiliation of catching the wrong man in the Olympic bombing, charges of cover-up in scandals large and small. Freeh himself has been accused of hiding in a bunker, of becoming "J. Edgar Hoover with kids," of surrounding himself with paranoid loyalists ("Friends of Louis," or "F.O.L."). Before a congressional committee, Freeh was forced to defend his integrity. In a rare interview, he told NEWSWEEK that he has occasionally considered resigning. Freeh's friends have heard him wonder aloud, "Have I run out my string? Am I hurting the FBI?"

Much of the criticism is exaggerated-the usual Washington name-calling. By some measures, Freeh is an excellent director. He has whacked the bureaucracy, pushing hundreds of time servers out of headquarters and onto the streets. He is forcing the FBI to cooperate ("share your toys," as he puts it) with rival agencies like the CIA. Freeh, a former street agent once called "Mad Dog" for his tenacity, still has the loyalty of his own troops.

But he does have a serious public-relations problem, and in Washington appearances can become self-fulfilling. It might be said that Freeh is too good and too pure for a morally ambiguous world. To him ethics is a "bright line," a simple matter of right and wrong and not an invitation to haggle or equivocate. But Freeh's real problem is not purity. It's pride. In his three and a half years as FBI director, he, too, often seems compelled to declare his own righteousness-usually through a press release.

The risks of Freeh's moralism are well illustrated by his prickly relationship with the White House. He irritated President Bill Clinton's aides in 1994 by refusing to attend a ceremony for the signing of a crime bill; he did not want to be a political prop. Last summer Freeh was aghast to learn that the White House had passed around hundreds of secret FBI files, including scores on its GOP predecessors. "I and the FBI," declared a press release under Freeh's name, "have been victimized by the White House." The statement quickly inflamed the scandal. Attorney General Janet Reno told NEWSWEEK that she picked up the phone and pointedly told the director, "I can't imagine Louis Freeh being victimized." Freeh said he had not read the word "victimized" but added, "I stand by the press release." In fact, the FBI had failed to safeguard the files from political meddling.

Things got worse this winter when Freeh turned down a White House request that the FBI brief Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about allegations that the Chinese were funneling contributions into American campaigns. Freeh believed it was improper for the FBI to be sharing any information with the White House during what may become a criminal investigation. But the briefing the White House wanted would not have compromised the FBI's probe; it was "plain vanilla," according to Justice officials. Freeh and the Clintonites tangled again when presidential aides accused the FBI of failing to fully brief the White House on the Chinese connection last summer. Clinton personally criticized the FBI for not passing vital national-security information up the chain of command. Freeh responded with a press release contradicting the president, implying that the fault lay with some national-security staffers. Some of Freeh's own aides were stunned. Reno, who is for the most part a genuine Freeh admirer, says with a sigh, "Everyone should stop with these press releases and talk in real terms." A bit defensively, Freeh insisted to NEWSWEEK that he regularly talked to former national-security adviser Tony Lake and his successor, Sandy Berger, though he somewhat undercut the impression of collegiality by referring to them as "Sandy Lake and Tony Berger."

Freeh's rectitude has even embroiled him in scandals that were none of his doing. A year before Freeh became director, an FBI sniper shot the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge in Montana. The head of the criminal division, Larry Potts, had overall responsibility for the botched seige. Justice wanted to discipline Potts, but instead Freeh insisted on making Potts, an old friend, the bureau's number two. In March of 1995 Freeh sent a stiff-necked memo to Justice, saying that flit opposed Potts's appointment, it would do "profound damage to the relationship between the Department and the FBI." Freeh never shouts or shows much emotion. "But he has a temper," says Reno. "It shows like a brick wall." The press and some in Congress accused Freeh of committing the old bureau sins of cronyism and cover-up. Six months later Freeh had to reverse course and suspend Potts when his deputy became the subject of a criminal investigation into his role at Ruby Ridge. Freeh has spoken to Potts only once since, in an awkward chance encounter at a memorial service. "He embraced Potts too tightly," said a senior Justice official. "Then he dropped him too quickly." NEWSWEEK has learned that Potts is likely to be soon cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. Freeh calls the Potts chapter "very, very painful."

Almost overlooked have been the reforms Freeh made after Ruby Ridge. A standoff with the Montana Freemen last year was peacefully settled in large part because Freeh took away control from the FBI's paramilitary Hostage Rescue Team and created a savvier, more patient team of psychologists and crisis managers. Likewise, The Washington Post called Freeh the "Genghis Khan of turf grabbers" when he sent FBI agents abroad to crack down on international crime. But Freeh has made peace with the bureau's old rivals in the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Recently the director of operations at the CIA had a family dinner with the number-two man at the FBI, which was unthinkable in the days when the two agencies routinely spied on each other.

Freeh's do-good instincts can backfire in unlucky ways. In the panic after the Olympic bombing, FBI agents tried to trick their initial suspect, Richard Jewell, into admitting his guilt by telling the Atlanta security guard that they were just "pretending" to interrogate him. In the midst of this ploy, Freeh called down to Atlanta, insisting that Jewell be read his Miranda fights. The agents' ruse was probably legal, since Jewell had not yet been arrested or charged, but it crossed Freeh's ethical "bright line." Desperate for a break in the case, the gum-shoes incorporated reading Jewell his fights into their phony gambit. Jewell smelled something fishy-and shut up. Had he talked, he might have established his innocence early on.

Freeh has always hated Washington's gamesmanship. His only unhappy time as an FBI agent was a brief stint at headquarters in 1980. He missed the streets and darkly suspected political influence in a decision not to indict a U.S. senator in a case he was working on at the time. Lately Freeh has tried to adapt to the local customs. He knows that he has to start talking more to reporters. The antisocial Freeh has even been spotted looking uncomfortable in a tuxedo at an A-list charity ball. But he jealously guards his time with his five boys, 6 months to 12 years of age. "I have wondered about leaving," he told NEWSWEEK. He insists, however, that he is committed to the bureau, and by law the White House can't fire him during his 10-year term. And he isn't likely to change in any real way. "I know what I am," he says, and stares down at his wingtips. "And I know what I'm not." What he doesn't seem to realize is that even the most humble can be too proud.

Join the Discussion