[ bookreviews ]
A thread runs through all memoirs. In Louis Freeh’s memoir, My FBI the thread is an avowedly devout Catholicism, a faith in which Freeh was raised a “straight laced Catholic”, a faith that “moved me toward the FBI”, that “taught him to respect authority”, that made the FBI “like a calling”. His book’s language is unadorned and is honest as a handshake, high spirited, decent, compassionate, and handsomely generous. If your name is in this book and Freeh has not called you “a great guy”, “remarkable”, “an inspiration”, you are probably wanted in Nebraska for an axe slaying.
Early on in My FBI, Freeh tells of a winter night in 1968, when he, an 18-year-old Rutgers sophomore bound for his rented room above a store after having worked that night on a beer truck, finds an old vagrant, reeking of “booze”, lying in the hallway. Rather than prudently calling the police to have the man taken to a shelter, Freeh carries the stranger to his room, puts him on a sofa, and covers him. After morning coffee, the man states that he is “Flaherty”, one of three brothers who had joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and went to Spain in 1937 to fight Franco. Upon returning home, he was persecutued by the FBI as a Communist. He could not find a job, and so, 31 years later, he was on skid row. Freeh gave him “a few bucks”. Flaherty left, never to be seen by Freeh again. Admitting that he did not know how true Flaherty’s story was, Freeh calls their conversation “one of my richest undergraduate experiences” for he saw how the FBI had set out to ruin Flaherty “without lifting an official finger against him”. The story is a movingly genuine one of Freeh’s compassion.
On the other hand, by startling coincidences, I know that the man in the hallway was Frank Flaherty who in October, 1969, was buried in an unmarked grave in Olean, New York. I knew the political commissar of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Steve Nelson, and I knew that the three young Flaherty brothers from south Boston were famed for heroism in battle. I read Flaherty’s 260-page FBI file provided upon his relative’s FOIA request. It discloses, among other things, Flaherty’s primary work as a seaman on coastline ships. The FBI’s checking of him, such as it was, ended in 1953. The thread in Flaherty’s ruin lay curled with him at the bottom of whatever bottle he was holding. He had sunk so low - his nickname was “Sunky” - that the FBI’s last interest in him arose out of complaints that in at least three states and the District of Columbia he scammed parents of servicemen by calling them, posing as their son’s college friend in sore need of money to reach his ship, and conning the parents to wire him money. Ironically, Freeh might have been scammed by Flaherty, who might have known that the other tenants in Freeh’s building were college students.
With a Phi Beta Kappa degree from Rutgers College in 1971, and a law degree from its law school in 1975, Freeh went to work at 25 as an FBI agent. He begins work in the small crimes world of “the street”. There he doesn’t “rat out” anyone, collars “nobodies”, and works “to get enough goods” to put the deserving into the “slammer”. In 1981, he is appointed an Assistant US Attorney in the Southern District, where he attracts national attention during 1985 as the fighting prosecutor in the 17-month Pizza Connection case involving 300 witnesses, 15,000 exhibits, a 41,000-page transcript, a defendant shot during his attorney’s summation, while another, unhappy with his attorney’s summation, “put out a hit contract on him”. In 1989, Freeh tediously tracks and brings to conviction the bomber Walter Moody who killed US District Judge Robert Vance and NAACP leader Robert Robinson. At 43, Freeh is appointed a US District Judge. His two years as a district judge are quickly glossed over in My FBI, though he does stop to refer to Learned Hand as a “Supreme Court justice”.
In 1993, President Clinton appoints Freeh Director of the FBI. Freeh confesses in retrospect that he “wasn’t ready” for the political pressure that position would attract. He describes the constant FBI budget problems, the failure to keep abreast of communication technologies, and the daunting great need for additional agents. Notable convictions are recalled - the Birmingham church bombing, the conviction of the former governor of Louisiana, and the usual suspects, corrupt police officers. He points to China and the foreign intelligence services of our closest allies engaged in intellectual property thefts. Health care fraud, anti-trust, bank fraud, and theft by computers, are but a handful of the many matters that made him work “like a dog”.
In 1995 he dealt with the apprehension of the Unabomber, Kaczynski, and in 1996 he oversaw the Murrah Federal Building bombing investigation in Oklahoma. And then there was the mindboggling nightmare of the Russian mole, FBI agent Robert Hanssen, caught in 2001 having compromised intelligence operations since the 1970s. Hanssen lived in Scarsdale close to my home and prayed in our parish Catholic church. As yet undiscovered, he was then transferred to Washington where he lived near Freeh and prayed in Freeh’s church.
Freeh’s book was published more than four years after he resigned in 2001 and entered corporate life. He so despised Clinton, and so loved the FBI, that he delayed his resignation until Clinton had resigned, thus allowing President Bush to appoint his successor. Freeh had spent most of his time as director “investigating the man who had appointed me”. Clinton’s moral compass, said Freeh, pointed in the wrong direction. The closets “were full of skeletons just waiting to burst out.” In eight years, “Clinton ran through six White House counsels, a telling index of just how troubled his tenure was.”
Freeh points to FBI evidence of illicit fund-raising during the 1996 presidential campaign, particularly Republic of China soft money in Clinton-Gore coffers. With a fine touch of solemn comedy, Freeh describes the FBI’s overseeing in the White House of the procurement from Clinton himself of his DNA for comparative use with the historic semen stains found on Monica Lewinsky’s dress. The odor of decay is recalled by Freeh in Clinton’s end term rain of controversial pardons, especially that of Marc Rich. For “the most devastating moment of my entire tenure as director”, Freeh points to Clinton’s 1999 citation by US District Judge Wright for contempt for the giving of intentionally false information in Paula Jones v. Clinton. In January, 2001, the Arkansas Supreme Court suspended Clinton for five years for having knowingly given evasive and misleading discovery responses in that matter.
For the public, however, Freeh’s claim that Clinton attempted to obtain money from the Saudis in connection with the Khobar Towers bombing is by far the gravest charge made by Freeh against Clinton. In June, 1996, Iran’s exclusive terrorist agent, Hezbollah, bombed the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans and wounding 372. The FBI could not question suspects in Saudi Arabia unless Clinton obtained King Fahd’s consent. Freeh determinedly pressed Clinton to persuade the Saudis to allow FBI agents to enter Saudi Arabia for hard evidence of Iran’s complicity. In 1998, when Crown Prince Abdullah met with Clinton in Washington, Freeh expected Clinton to persuade the Saudis to cooperate. Instead, Clinton, wrote Freeh, “raised the subject only to tell the crown prince that he certainly understood the Saudi’s reluctance to cooperate [because of Iran]. Then... he hit Abdullah up for a contribution to the still-to-be-built Clinton library”.
For his accusation against Clinton, one that directly challenges Clinton’s integrity in a grave matter, Freeh offers “usually reliable sources”. Freeh, an attorney, must know that his accusation of Clinton, still an attorney though suspended, made without stating its grounds, denies Clinton the means of challenging the truth of the accusation. On the other hand, Freeh’s claim of misconduct by Clinton is relevant to whether the Committee on Professional Conduct of the Arkansas Supreme Court should recommend his reinstatement in January, 2006. Freeh would then have an opportunity to identify his “usually reliable sources”.