Monday, October 17, 2005

Louis Freeh: A New GOP Smear Artist Emerges

Rank and file Republicans left speechless when offered daily proof of what a miserable failure George W. Bush has been as president, will inevitably start the next sentence with "Yeah, but Bill Clinton..." and then toss out some imagined way in which the country suffered under the former president's administration.

Within the Republican party organization, the dominant tactic when things are going badly is to turn the slime machine on someone else -- ideally, the person behind any difficulties you are currently having. (Witness the sliming of Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle, who's getting it with both barrels after indicting Tom DeLay on charges of money laundering.)

So with the president's approval ratings in the toilet, DeLay indicted, Karl Rove and Scooter Libby about to board the indictment train themselves, a Bush-created quagmire raging in Iraq, Bill Frist in trouble and most Americans thinking the country is heading in the wrong direction, what better time for the GOP to mount a huge distraction offensive?

Enter former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who has just released his new book, "My FBI", and has been a fixture on whatever cable news shows will have him the last couple of weeks. His mission is to once again drag Bill Clinton through the mud and, like so many cockroaches scattering when you flip on the kitchen light, help his president and the Republican party escape the glare of publicity surrounding their real-life misdeeds.

This latest smear-and-distract episode also illustrates yet again the folly of Democrats reaching across the aisle and believing that appointing a Republican to a high-level position in a Democratic administration will strengthen bipartisan ties and lead to anything resembling cross-party loyalty.

Freeh had been strongly recommended to Clinton in 1993 by White House counsel Bernie Nussbaum and, trying to strike a conciliatory tone in Washington, Clinton appointed him as FBI Director.

"I knew Freeh was a Republican, but Nussbaum assured me that he was a professional and a stand-up guy who would not use the FBI for political purposes," wrote Clinton in his book "My Life."

But Clinton was quickly warned about appointing Freeh.

"We scheduled the announcement for the twentieth. The day before, when word got out about the appointment, a retired FBI agent who was a friend of mine called Nancy Heinrich, who ran the Oval Office operations, to tell me not to do it," Clinton continues. "He said Freeh was too political and self-serving for the current climate. It gave me pause, but I sent word back that it was too late; the offer had been extended and accepted."

The content of that warning came to fruition quickly during the following eight years and is now coming home to roost again.

Freeh, Vice Chairman of Law and Government Affairs at MBNA Corporation – a bank holding company that is the biggest Republican donator in the finance and credit industry – has decided, of all the world's ills he could attack, to go after Bill Clinton for his handling of terrorism and so-called moral shortcomings. Hey, what would a Republican attack be without the requisite, glass-house attacks on someone else's character?

It's also important to note that, despite his attempts to paint himself as almost apolitical in the last week or so, Freeh has personally given almost $20,000 to Republican candidates in the last five years, including $4,000 to the last Bush-Cheney campaign.

Freeh's biggest bone to pick is Clinton's alleged botching of the investigation of the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which took 19 American lives. Aside from magically putting Clinton, and not himself, at the head of the investigation, Freeh claims that Clinton failed to press Saudi Arabian leaders for FBI access to suspects in the bombing.

But, like the Swift Boat Liars before him – who didn't actually serve with John Kerry in Vietnam -- Freeh is missing a component central to his commenting accurately on how Clinton handled the Saudi leaders. He wasn't there.

Jay Carson, Clinton's spokesman, said Freeh "wasn't even present for the meetings he describes. President Clinton repeatedly pressed the Saudis for cooperation on the Khobar Towers investigation and his pressure led to the eventual indictments."

Carson said Freeh's claims about the library "are more untruths in a book that clearly has many."

Daniel Benjamin, a former Clinton counterterrorism official, concurs with Carson, saying that Freeh is "factually wrong." Clinton "pushed the crown prince quite hard," and eventually won Saudi cooperation that led to indictments in the case. "Freeh has been clearly discredited by the 9/11 commission and the congressional joint inquiry," Benjamin said.

Joe Lockhart, who served as White House press secretary during the Clinton administration, comes out hard against Freeh's overall attempts to draw inaccurate attention to political days gone by.

“[Freeh] spent a lot of his time chasing political rumors and political scandals when there were real issues, like the FBI computers system, the crime lab, and the real terrorist threat," said Lockhart.

And, in a scathing editorial in the Sunday Washington Post, former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, makes it abundantly clear that the nation would have benefited greatly by Freeh paying more attention to doing his own job while at the FBI.

"During his tenure as director of the FBI, Louis Freeh presided over a series of blunders and failures that brought the bureau to a low point in its history. From the embarrassment of the Russian mole Robert Hanssen to the bungling of the Wen Ho Lee investigation to the wasting of hundreds of millions of dollars in a failed attempt to build a modern, computerized case management system, the bureau under Freeh's leadership stumbled from one blunder to the next, with little or no accountability," wrote Podesta. "The nadir, as the nation knows too well, was reached in the astonishing string of failures that helped leave America vulnerable to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."

Podesta also takes aim at Freeh's ludicrous assertion that the FBI couldn't pay attention to the emerging terrorist threat because it was too busy investigating Bill Clinton.

"Of course, none of those politically motivated witch hunts, in which Freeh did the bidding of his congressional patrons on the partisan right, resulted in a conviction. And never mind that Freeh's FBI ought to have been able to protect the American people while pursuing other investigations at the same time," said Podesta.

Finally, Podesta concludes: "I can understand why Freeh would write a book such as 'My FBI' defending his tenure. After all, no one else would."

Rather than focus on the FBI he built in the 90s that, as Podesta and the 9/11 commission point out, was responsible for many of the intelligence failings leading to the September 11 attacks, Freeh chooses to take the usual conservative low road and go after Clinton's moral posture.

In the book, Freeh writes: "Whatever moral compass the president was consulting was leading him in the wrong direction. His closets were full of skeletons just waiting to burst out."

"The FBI secretly met with Mr. Clinton during a White House dinner to draw blood for a DNA test on the semen-stained dress worn by Monica Lewinsky," Freeh further laments.

Nice of Mr. Freeh to draw our attention once again to something that was covered ad nauseam by the media at the time, so many years ago.

What about the fact that the whole 9/11 plot was hatched on Freeh's watch? How about him being the FBI director who seemed to have missed the technical and communications revolution that took place throughout the world and did nothing to modernize FBI networks and systems to keep pace with the technical sophistication of our enemies?

And what about the unmitigated gall in joining in Republican attempts to blame Bill Clinton for September 11 when it was Freeh himself who was our country's chief investigative officer for eight years before those attacks took place?

Ultimately, Freeh's game of smoke and mirrors will fail. His book will sell a few copies and, like "My FBI," Freeh will drift off our national radar within a few weeks – while the many Bush-administration problems that he so lamely tries to mask continue to worsen.

But Bill Clinton's lesson-learned shouldn't be lost on any future Democratic president who naively believes that bringing a Republican stalwart into their inner circle is a wise move.

The former president says it best in his last reference to Freeh in his book. After detailing many of the screw-ups in the Freeh FBI during his tenure as president and Freeh's attempts at that time to distract attention from himself by blaming the White House, Clinton made this comment:

"He [Freeh] was just trying to avoid criticism from the press and the Republicans, even if it damaged our foreign policy operations. I thought back to the call I had received the day before I appointed Freeh from the retired FBI agent in Arkansas pleading with me not to name him and warning that he would sell me down the river the minute it would benefit him to do so."

Indeed, Mr. President. Indeed.