James Comey Vs. Louis Freeh: How to Fight a President
Both FBI directors opposed their presidents. Only one did it the right way.
Jim Comey is not the first former FBI director to despise a president and accuse him of hindering justice. Louis Freeh made even harsher and more substantive charges against Bill Clinton related to Clinton’s role in the FBI investigation of the Khobar Towers terrorist bombing. By comparing Comey and Freeh, we can consider the right (and wrong) way to oppose a president, and put Comey’s own complaints into better historical perspective.
Louis Freeh was appointed to head the FBI by Bill Clinton in 1993 and retired in 2001, under George W. Bush. Freeh wrote about his experience – and his intense anger at Clinton – in a signed Wall Street Journal essay in 2006 and in his book, “My FBI: Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Fighting the War on Terror,” published by St. Martin’s Press in 2005. (The quotes in this piece are all taken from Freeh’s book.)
In 1992, a newly elected President Clinton fired FBI Director William Sessions in year six of Sessions’ 10-year term, and chose Freeh. Clinton had accused Sessions of ethical lapses such as flying frequently to San Francisco on FBI business where his daughter danced in the ballet.
“Bill Sessions is an honorable man and I still think the case against him was mostly bunk,” wrote Freeh in his book, “but blood was in the water, and the capital was buzzing that the new administration was trying to politicize the Bureau. The president had wanted to replace Sessions with his old Oxford pal, Richard Stearns … Before he could do so, though, the first of many Clinton scandals (Travelgate) bubbled up from far down in the bureaucracy.” Clinton felt compelled to avoid his own circle of friends, and Freeh got the job instead.
Louis Freeh was born 1950 and began his career as an FBI agent. He later became an assistant United States attorney, famous as lead prosecutor in the “Pizza Connection” organized crime investigation. He was appointed a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York by President George H.W. Bush. Judge Freeh was sworn in as FBI director – the nation’s fifth ever – on Sept. 1, 1993.
On June 25, 1996, terrorists parked a fuel tanker truck just outside the wall of the Abdul Aziz Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The truck was placed adjacent to the eight-story military dormitory known as the Khobar Towers, which housed U.S. military personnel enforcing the no-fly zone in Iraq. The terrorists left the scene in other cars, and minutes later, the fuel truck “bomb” exploded with the power of 20,000 tons of TNT, leaving a crater 35 feet deep and 85 feet wide. Nineteen U.S. service personnel were killed, and 372 people were wounded. Only quick work by a U.S. sentry who saw the parked fuel truck and rushed to evacuate the building kept the death toll from being far worse.
The FBI had specific extraterritorial jurisdiction over cases of bombings where Americans had been killed. One hundred and fifty FBI agents were quickly dispatched to the Saudi crime scene, with Freeh among them. They sifted in 115-degree heat through the human remains and mementos of the dead (“hairbrushes, photo frames, …”) spread in the sand around the blast site. “The unique smell of decaying human flesh” Freeh wrote, “was overwhelming, especially in the intense heat, but there was no way to hurry retrieval. The evidentiary needs were too great.”
The Khobar Towers case would become the case that meant more to Freeh than any other. It would also be the subject of the first and most important chapter of his book. Freeh’s overwhelming message: Clinton, Gore and the Clinton administration obstructed the FBI’s pursuit of justice in the Khobar Towers case.
According to Freeh’s memoirs, when Freeh returned from the initial visit to the bomb site, he sought and received confirmation from the Clinton White House that they would back him up as he pursued his investigation. Freeh writes, “The Bureau, I was assured, had the president’s complete cooperation and authority on this. I remember the phrase exactly because the administration was still repeating it three years later: we were to leave ‘no stone unturned’ in finding the killers and bringing them to justice. Trouble was, the administration’s actions didn’t come close to matching its rhetoric.”
In March 1997, Canadian authorities acting on a tip from the Saudis arrested Hani Al-Sayegh, who had been one of the drivers of the terrorist escape cars at Khobar and who had been living illegally in Canada. Under questioning, Al-Sayegh admitted he had been a member of a Saudi-based Hezbollah cell that carried out the attack, and that he had been recruited for the cell by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Soon after, the Syrians turned over to the Saudis another suspect named Mustafa al-Qassab, who was also a member of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah cell. Other evidence also pointed toward Iran and Hezbollah, including private comments by outgoing Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani to the Saudi crown prince Abdullah.
“A blind pig couldn’t have missed the outlines,” writes Freeh, “but to flesh out the connections and put the dots together, we needed permission for FBI agents to sit in on and help conduct the questioning of suspects held in Saudi custody.” Given the complexities of Saudi sovereignty and Islamic law, that could only happen if Clinton and the White House pressed the Saudis to gain this permission. “In the White House, though, and at the State Department in Foggy Bottom,” Freeh writes, “interest was headed in another direction.”
In Freeh’s account, Clinton and his administration wanted to appease Iran and so intentionally withheld the investigative support that the FBI desperately needed. Again and again, Freeh reports, Clinton and Gore failed to make the strong request of cooperation that the FBI required. Says Freeh, “(W)e would wait. And wait. And nothing would happen … Prince Bandar (the Saudi ambassador who was supportive of Freeh and waiting for the request) would shake his head the next time I saw him and wonder why Clinton or Gore had failed to raise the matter in anything like an urgent way.”
In September 1997, Clinton’s Justice Department moved to dismiss the indictment the FBI had obtained against Al-Sayegh, in part because –since the FBI had not interviewed the Hezbollah cell members held in Saudi – there were not enough corroborating witnesses. Of course in Freeh’s opinion, the FBI lacked permission to interview cell members in Saudi because of Clinton and Gore’s refusal to support. Says Freeh, “the almost celebratory attitude at the White House sat poorly with me.”
As months and years went by, the Khobar military families became more frustrated, and so did Freeh. Freeh writes, “When one woman, the mother of a thirty-five year old master sergeant who had died in the attack, asked why we let the Saudis get away with withholding information and access, I told her that I was a policeman, not a politician.”
Freeh kept pressing the administration to make a strong access request. Finally, when Crown Prince Abdulah came to Washington, D.C. for six days and took over the entire 143-room Hay-Adams Hotel, the FBI director thought he would finally have his chance. But, Freeh writes, when Clinton had his key meeting with the prince, “Bill Clinton briefly raised the subject only to tell the crown prince that he certainly understood the Saudi’s reluctance to cooperate. Then, according to my sources, he hit Abdullah up for a contribution to the still-to-be-built Clinton presidential library. Gore, who was supposed to press hardest of all in his meeting with the crown prince, barely mentioned the matter, I was told.”
Eventually, Freeh gave up any hope in Clinton and Gore, and appealed to former president George H. W. Bush to make the access request in one of Bush’s own meetings with the Saudis. Within hours of Bush’s intervention, Freeh was invited with his team to meet the Crown Prince personally and a solution was quickly found. The FBI could prepare questions which would be asked by Saudi officials, consistent with Islamic law, and the FBI would be allowed to monitor the answers.
In November 1998, 212 questions were put to detainees in Saudi as FBI agents watched the responses from behind a one-way mirror. “The answers, along with the new materials and information we had previously uncovered or been handed by the Saudis, showed almost beyond doubt that the Khobar attacks had been sanctioned, funded and directed by senior officials of the government of Iran.”
But to Freeh’s dismay, when he reported his findings to Clinton’s team in the West Wing situation room, the meeting devolved into a discussion of how to cover the findings up. “I thought that we were meeting to discuss what our next move would be, given the fact that we now had solid evidence that Iranians, with involvement at the highest official levels, had blown up nineteen Americans. But I was wrong. The meeting started with how to deal with the press and with Congress, should news of the Iranian involvement in the Khobar murders leak out of the room. … In the eight years I was to spend as FBI director, there was nothing to match that moment in the situation room for sheer disappointment.”
Freeh continued to pursue the matter, and – when George W. Bush became president, just before the five-year statute of limitations took effect – a federal grand jury returned a 46 count indictment against 14 defendants for the bombing of the towers and the murder of 19 Americans. (Ironically, the prosecutor working with Freeh on the case? James Comey.)
The Saudis held 11 of the 14 suspects in custody, and would not extradite them. Their fate in the Saudi criminal system is unknown, but the common assumption is that they have been executed. In September 2015, it was reported that Ahmed al-Mughassil, the alleged mastermind of the plot who had been named in the indictments, had been arrested by the Saudis as well. None of the indicted have ever come to trial in the U.S. Meanwhile, the Iranians (and some American analysts) seek to blame al-Qaeda instead.
So, how does Comey compare to Freeh? Clinton to Trump? Khobar Towers to Russian Collusion-gate? And how has the media handled each incident?
In every aspect, Freeh’s criticisms of Clinton appear to be far more serious and substantive than Comey’s attacks on Trump, and yet in every instance, the media’s treatment of the two matters has been exactly in reverse. Freeh also demonstrates the proper way for an FBI director to behave, in sharp contrast to Comey.
First, there was a clear and substantive crime at the heart of the Khobar Towers incident: the terrorist murder of 19 Americans and the wounding of hundreds more. It is still unclear if there was any criminal collusion between Trump’s campaign with Russia at all, or if there was any substantive crime to be investigated in the first place.
Second, a president’s efforts to please a hostile foreign government appear much stronger with Clinton-Iran than Trump-Russia. Clinton appears to have wanted peaceful relations with Iran (a policy decision which is in a president’s proper powers) and Trump has stated that he would prefer that the U.S. have peaceful relations with Russia. Yet somehow Trump is portrayed as wrong or even traitorous to say so, even as Trump has opposed Russia in action: providing lethal arms to the Ukrainians in December 2017 that Obama would previously not provide; sanctioning Russian oligarchs and Putin’s cronies in April 2018; and allowing U.S. troops to engage in direct combat against “Russian military contractors” in Syria on Feb. 7, 2018, which reportedly killed 200 to 300 Syrian-regime forces with Russians among them.
Third, Freeh himself behaved much more properly than Comey. Both raised protests against the presidents and administrations under which they served, but Freeh made his protests openly and consistent with the rules of the FBI, while Comey used subterfuge and acted outside of the rules of the FBI.
Freeh’s writings had been properly vetted by the FBI before they were released. Comey – in sharp contrast – famously told Trump according to Comey’s own memos that “I don’t leak. I don’t do weasel moves,” and then in fact secretly handed his materials to a law professor crony, to be handed to the press. (A “leak” in any common usage of the term.) Comey has said that he sought to get his information out to trigger an investigation by a special prosecutor. This investigation is now underway and has been helping to tear America apart at the spiritual seams for almost two years now, with little or nothing of substance to show for it. If “Blessed be the peacemakers,” then the opposite must be true for any official who secretly sows national discord through his own personal vanity and pride.
In making his leaks, Comey appears to have clearly violated the FBI Employment Agreement (form FD-291) which states “(3.) I will not reveal, by any means, any information or material from or related to FBI files or any other information acquired by virtue of my official employment to any unauthorized recipient without prior official written authorization by the FBI…(7) Violations of this employment agreement may constitute cause for revocation of my security clearance, subject me to criminal sanctions, disciplinary action by the FBI, including dismissal … and the disgorging of any profits arising from any unauthorized publication or disclosure.” The FBI agreement covers all materials, not just those marked classified.
The materials that Comey sent to the press through his friend were clearly acquired by virtue of his role at the FBI. By using leaks and triggering the press rumors and special prosecutor investigation, Comey created rocket fuel to increase the sale of his book and the royalties he receives. He has financially profited from his breach.
It is critically important that FBI directors do speak truth to power, and do call out any president who acts improperly, just as Louis Freeh does in his book and press essay. But they should “speak,” not “sneak,” and they should defend their opinions openly, not through subterfuge and friends one step removed. Nor should FBI Directors write memos against a president that they keep secret if the president employs them but release if the president fires them, for this is simply a form of presidential blackmail of the very type that ruined J. Edgar Hoover’s place in history.
Comey’s book has been called “A Higher Royalty.” The FBI agreement permits disgorgement of such royalties to the extent they were fueled by FBI-related materials released without official authorization. It may be just and fair to return these royalties to the FBI, which Comey has so badly damaged.
K.S. Bruce writes the “In This Corner” column of opinion for RealClearLife.