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Former Director Louis Freeh on 'My FBI'

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh talks about his new book, My FBI: Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton and Waging War on Terror. Freeh blames President Clinton for not aggressively going after those responsible for the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and says Clinton should have resigned from office.

Below is an excerpt from My FBI: Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Waging War on Terror by Louis J. Freeh.

From Chapter 9, 'Bill and Me'

I made my own mistakes in trying to find a working balance with Bill Clinton. I lacked subtlety at times. I had an insufficient appreciation for the nuanced life of southern politicians. I never learned to do good ol' boy. My part of New Jersey is a long way from Hope, Arkansas.

Hard on the heels of my briefing on Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, the White House sent over a personal pass for my use. Under other circumstances, I would have been flattered. Personal passes let you come and go at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue without having to be logged in. The passed were given out to cabinet officers as a matter of routine. Beneath that level -- and I was -- they're a gift of sorts, a way of saying that you're part of the team.

By then, though, a personal pass was just what I didn't want. If the FBI was going to be involved in an investigation of the president, as seemed possible, I wanted every visit I made to the White House to be part of some public record. I was just starting law school when the Watergate scandal broke. I remembered all those shadowy late-night meetings with Richard Nixon, all those "What did you talk about?" and "Who was there?" grillings before the congressional committees. I didn't want to go through that myself somewhere down the road, and I didn't want that kind of taint to attach itself to whatever waited ahead when this scandal broke, if it was a scandal, if it broke at all.

So I sent the pass back with a polite but fairly terse note, expressing my thanks and simply stating that I didn't mind signing in when I came calling and that, I was to find out much later, offended Bill Clinton mightily even though, so far as I knew, I had been a virtual nonentity to him up to that point. Not only was returning the pass a personal affront to the president, it was seemingly a declaration of open hostility on my part. I later heard that some of the Clinton people understood that wasn't the case and tried to tell the president as much, but to no avail. The president's mind was made up.

In retrospect, I should have better explained my reasons, sugar-coated the action and taken more care to try to preserve my relationship with the president even as I was intentionally distancing myself from him. But was I wrong to have returned the pass? No, not at all.

I was the nation's top cop. The president and his wife might or might not have been involved, however marginally, in an act of bank fraud; or they might simply be good friends and former business partners of someone who was involved in bank fraud; or it was possible no fraud was committed at all. Until the mater was sorted out, I had to be accountable for every trip I made to the building where the president worked and lived. That meant no personal pass, but it also marked the end of any hope I had of establishing a close working relationship with my boss. Less than half a year after Bill Clinton had wooed me into taking the job of director, the president was seriously beginning to wish that I had said no.

The problem, of course, was that with Bill Clinton the scandals and rumored scandals, the incubating ones and the dying ones, never ended. Whatever moral compass the president was consulting, it was leading him in the wrong direction, and he lacked the discipline to pull back once he found himself stepping into trouble. Worse, he had been behaving that way so long that the closets were full of skeletons just waiting to burst out. Whitewater grew like mold through the entire first term. Travelgate went away, finally, but Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones never really did. The women, the wheeling and dealing down in Arkansas, Webb Hubbell's legal troubles, Vince Foster's suicide -- they were always there as background static.

We added our own mess to the pile by incorrectly sending the president's staff more than four hundred FBI file summaries of people who had had White House security clearances during the Bush and Reagan years. It was a goof, plain and simple, as Ken Starr's office eventually confirmed, but it was embarrassing all the same. Still, if the ethical climate at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had not been so suspect, "Filegate" never would have provoked much more than a mild gasp.

I didn't help matters either way by the way I handled the Larry Potts promotion. I had known Larry since my U.S. attorney days when we worked together down in Atlanta on the Moody case, and I had the highest regard for him. He'd had a distinguished career in the FBI, rising to the rank of assistant director before I came on the scene, and he had every right in the normal course of affairs to expect that I would make him my number two, the deputy director, at some point after I took over the top post. But Larry was also a Bureau lightning rod. He had supervised two of the FBI's most controversial undertaking in the early 1990s, the siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, and the one at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Both had attracted plenty of media scrutiny and outside criticism, and a lot of that had attached to Larry.

From what I knew, Larry was getting an unfair rap, but when Floyd Clarke announced at the end of 1993 that he would be vacating the deputy director's post, I thought the time wasn't yet right to elevate Larry. I wanted to let all the controversy die down before I did that. Otherwise, the promotion would turn into yet another media circus. So I picked David Binney for the post. Understandably, Larry was very upset about being passed over, and he told me so. I explained my reasons to him, told him the furor needed more time to die down, and in effect promised him the deputy director's position when David left. That was my mistake. David Binney quit less than a year after accepting the job, to become director of corporate security at IBM and, as promised, I named Larry Potts to succeed him while the controversy over Waco and Ruby Ridge was still raging. Ten weeks later, in mid-1995, I had to pull Larry out of the job and transfer him to one of our training units.

The promotion-demotion was an embarrassment to the FBI, Larry, me, and to Janet Reno, who had approved my selection. It reflected poorly on the administration generally. This was an important post, responsible for day-to-day operations of the Bureau, not some Ping-Pong ball to be knocked all over the place. Most of all, though, my mistake was unfair to Larry Potts, and for that I feel deep regret.

Bernie Nussbaum, who had been my first connection to the Clinton White House and my best friend in it, resigned after only fourteen months as White House counsel. Whether Bernie left on his own or was nudged toward the door, I still don't know. I've never asked, but he'd had a rough run. Vince Foster's suicide, our bungling with Filegate, the floggings he took in the press when it was revealed that he had not met with officials of the Resolution Trust Corporation over the Madison Guaranty criminal referrals -- Bernie got it from all sides. What's more, his strategy for protecting the president wasn't working. Bernie was a top Wall Street lawyer. He was used to circling the wagons, locking the doors, and denying everything when things went bad. Offer up nothing. Make them get it out of you. My feeling was that the president needed to be disclosing more, not less; he needed to be more forthright with the American people about the charges and insinuations flying around him. Bill Clinton wasn't a corporate CEO; he was the leader of a nation. That's a big difference.

Bernie also never got over the fact that the president had failed to follow his advice to resist an independent counsel to investigate Whitewater. That more than anything else, in my opinion, is what made Bernie head for the door, but it was a door that would get plenty of use. In eight years in office, Bill Clinton ran through six White House counsels, a telling index of just how troubled his tenure was. But none of them had Bernie's depth and high integrity.

For me, Bernie's departure was a serious loss. As I wrote earlier, there's a special bond between those of us who have come out of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. Bernie was proud that he had recommended me for the job, and he would remain so even after Bill Clinton had changed his mind on that one. For my part, I was proud that Bernie had thought I was up to the task, and of course, it's always nice to have someone you trust and like inside the lion's den. But Bernie's departure did leave me feeling slightly abandoned. I still had plenty of channels to the Oval Office. Leon Panetta, John Podesta, Mack McLarty, George Stephanopoulos -- I was on good terms with all of them despite our occasional differences over particular issues. Every one of them was a pro, but none of them was Bernie, and that became a problem as the first term wore on. Also in Bernie's departure I was struck at how easily Clinton played hard-ball politics even with his loyal and closest friends.

An FBI director should be able to go directly to the president, sit down with him and say, You should know about this. I wish that I had been able to do that. We had vital business to discuss. But almost from the very beginning, I felt uncomfortable spending private time with the president. There was always some new investigation brewing, some new calamity bubbling just below the headlines.

The president's frequently expressed point of view was that his troubles stemmed from political enemies who wouldn't leave his past alone and a special prosecutor he never should have agreed to. The White River real-estate deal was a decade and a half old by the time Bill Clinton moved into the Oval Office. He'd first met Gennifer Flowers even before that, in 1977, when she was a local television reporter and he was a wet-behind-the-ears attorney general. The commodities deal in which Hillary allegedly made a sweetheart $100,000 profit -- another fork in the river as Whitewater flowed along -- dated back to the 1970s, as well. Paula Jones was old news, and a gold digger, too. As for Robert Fiske, the former U.S. attorney from new York whom I had recommended Janet Reno appoint as a special prosecutor, he was "the worst presidential decision I ever made," Clinton writes in his memoir.

I don't happen to agree with him on all those points, and not at all on the matter of a special prosecutor, but the campaign contribution investigation that dogged the beginning of the president's second term was none of those things. It was new; the makings were homegrown in the White House, not back in Arkansas; and Bob Fiske had nothing to do with it.

From My FBI: Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Waging War on Terror by Louis J. Freeh. Copyright © 2005 by the author. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press, LLC. Available wherever books are sold.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.