Louis Freeh's Leadership of the FBI Was a Disaster for American National Security
Louis Freeh was and remains an intelligent, talented man and a true patriot. But that cannot stop us from judging his performance at the helm of the FBI – and the verdict is dismal. The problem was Freeh identified too well with the rank-and-file agent, according to investigative reporter and author Ronald Kessler.
“Freeh viewed his job as directing major cases, which would be like the chairman of GE designing a jet engine or sitting in for Tom Brokaw on NBC's Nightly News ,” Kessler writes in, The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI . “From procurement of computers to the services the bureau provides law enforcement, Freeh ignored what goes on in the rest of the bureau. With only six years as an agent, Freeh had never supervised a case, yet he considered himself the bureau's premier case agent.”
By ignoring the less glamorous duties of his post, Freeh put the FBI in a terribly disadvantaged position. The FBI's intra-office computer system was old and ineffectual. The 56k modems the agency used were so slow, agents frequently communicated using faxes instead. Inevitably, many of these memos were lost. There were so few around that numerous agents had to share computers. While Freeh diverted millions of dollars overseas to establish FBI bases (a desirable goal), the agency's headquarters here in America were falling into disrepair. The Information Technology programs the FBI did undertake went millions and millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. In the absence of results even by the pathetic standards of the U.S. Congress, further monies were withheld. Freeh himself, despite his pro-technology rhetoric, booted the computer out of his office on day one and, incredibly, never used e-mail during his tenure as Director.
Freeh, then as now, complained that the real problem was the stinginess of the U.S. government. But a look at the numbers suggests otherwise. Between fiscal year 1992 and 1997 the FBI's budget increased 45 percent, from $2 billon to just under $3 billion. By 2001, the Bureau's budget stood at $3.4 billion. Freeh himself bragged about these increases as he left office. Those substantial increases point to a problem in management. A December 2002 audit by the Justice Department's Inspector General complained of the bureau's “inability to effectively complete IT projects within budget and schedule,” which had “reduced the FBI's credibility in the eyes of Congress.”
Just how bad did it get? Many of the FBI's computer systems not even have the technology to incorporate a mouse. “To store a single document on the Automated Case Support system required twelve separate computer commands,” Kessler writes. “On these green screened machines, the FBI could search for the word ‘flight' or the word ‘schools' – retrieving millions of documents each time – but not for ‘flight schools.' The CIA, in contrast, had been able to perform searches for ‘flight schools' on its computers since 1958.”
Having a former agent as Director was turning out to not be the plus it once was suggested to be, either. The distaste for supervisors he nursed as an agent came bubbling back to the surface. In The Bureau , Kessler quotes Freeh telling his assistant directors that he wanted them to “talk straight” with him. “If I'm full of sh-t, I want you to tell me,” he said, according to Kessler. Staff quickly learned that Freeh was not sincere about his desire for such dissent. Those who told him what he wanted to hear moved up the FBI ladder quickly, those who did not were ignored, shunned, and given “icy glares.” He would tell people their questions were “stupid,” rather than answering them. “Freeh killed the messenger,” one agent told Kessler. “After a while there were no more messengers.” Freeh's distaste for managers led him to decrease the number of agents assigned to headquarters by 37 percent. On the surface, the idea of putting more agents on the streets is attractive, but in practice it led to disarray at headquarters, which made everyone's job more difficult.
On Tuesday, Freeh told the 9/11 Commission he believed “that al-Qaeda declared war on the United States in 1996.” (And admittedly, he took a great deal of interest in the investigation into the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia the same year.) However, Freeh's congressional testimony in 1999 gives the lie to that. It appears his view of terrorsm took the PC posture of the Clinton administration. In that testimony two years before September 11 – and three years after he believed Osama bin Laden had “declared war” – Freeh said that the United States had “little credible intelligence at this time indicating that international or domestic terrorists are planning to attack United States interests domestically.” Instead, he insisted Americans were more threatened by “extremist splinter elements of right-wing groups.”
Among these domestic terrorists, Freeh included “militias,” “white-separatist groups,” “anti-government groups” (like Rush Limbaugh listeners), the “anti-abortion” (the overwhelmingly church-going, pro-life) movement, and “tax protestors.” That is, Freeh and Clinton were wary of being attacked by the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Despite the handicaps imposed by flawed leadership, the FBI's hardworking agents prevented 40 major terrorist attacks during the 1990s, saving thousands of lives. But even now, Freeh doesn't accept that the FBI had a blind spot on September 11. To this day, he maintains that he ran the agency well despite the allegedly tight-fisted ways of Congress. After years of ignoring the ever-depreciating technology in the FBI, citizen Freeh now insists before Congress that the Bureau's encryption software must be brought up to date. Why was this item not on his agenda during his eight years as Director?
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