Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh, summoned before a House committee Tuesday, maintained a united front and praised each other lavishly as Republicans sought to highlight the duo’s disagreement on the campaign finance investigation.
Republicans erupted last week when Reno decided not to seek an independent counsel to investigate White House fund-raising calls made by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
When it was learned Reno had rejected contrary advice from Freeh, contained in a long memo to her, Republicans felt vindicated. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who chairs the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight looking into campaign financing, promptly demanded Reno and Freeh appear before him and that they provide the memo.
That resulted in the unusual sight Tuesday of the nation’s top two law enforcement officers struggling to put a good face on their differences.
If Republicans had hoped Reno and Freeh would go after each other, they were disappointed. Both stuck to the same story: Yes, they had a good-faith disagreement, but Freeh recognizes the ultimate decision was Reno’s and they still have the utmost respect for each other.
“I have the highest regard for her as a lawyer,” Freeh said of Reno. “I think her integrity is impeccable. … One of the reasons I took this job - I was not eager to take it - was the meeting I had with her.”
Reno, testifying separately, amply repaid the compliment. “Louis Freeh is one of the most dedicated public servants I know,” she said. “I value his judgment and his counsel, and we have a strong, amicable working relationship that I don’t think anybody is going to bust up.”
Both Reno and Freeh hammered away at the theme that thoughtful law enforcement officers often disagree.
“I would be upset if I found the director of the FBI agreeing with me all the time,” Reno said. “I do not want to be surrounded by yes-people.”
But Republicans were not buying such a collegial self-portrait. Burton and his colleagues sought to use Freeh’s reputation for integrity to suggest Reno bypassed an independent counsel to protect Clinton and Gore.
“This is the first time in my memory that the attorney general of the United States and the director of the FBI have disagreed so publicly about such an important case,” Burton said.
“When our nation’s two top law enforcement officers have such a serious disagreement about a case involving our country’s highest elected officials, Congress is compelled to step in,” Burton said.
The past year has seen numerous allegations of campaign finance violations, mostly against Democrats. They range from accusations of improper influence by the Chinese to charges that campaign spending limits were blatantly violated.
The hearing was an opportunity for the Republicans to vent their anger.
Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., suggested Reno and Freeh should resign. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said he was prepared to initiate contempt-of-Congress proceedings against Reno.
They accused Reno of fixating on the technicalities of the independent counsel law, ignoring the conflict of interest when an attorney general investigates her own administration.
“For you to keep hiding behind this thing I think is a dereliction of your responsibility,” said a visibly frustrated Burton.
Reno shot back: “I’m not hiding … I’m trying to do my duty.
“I will make the decisions based on the evidence and the law and not on newspaper headlines, newspaper editorials, polls or threats,” she said.
Republicans also seemed annoyed at what has become a familiar scene: Reno refusing to answer questions and saying that doing so might damage the ongoing investigation.
Burton, whose own campaign finances are under investigation by a Justice Department task force, is a highly partisan Republican. But in Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the committee’s senior Democrat, he has an equally querulous counterpart.
The allegation that Reno was protecting the president, Lantos said, was a “sickeningly persistent innuendo.” The notion that only Democrats are guilty of campaign abuses is “so patently absurd as to be almost nauseating.”
The campaign finance affair has been murky all long, and the FreehReno subplot is no exception.
First the question arose of who leaked the information that Freeh had dissented so strongly to Reno’s decision. Now, the threat of contempt-of-Congress hangs over Reno because she rejected a subpoena from Burton’s committee ordering her to turn over Freeh’s memo.
Reno said Tuesday that making such a document public would reveal prosecution strategy to potential targets of the investigation.
“Laying out for people what you’re going to do in an investigation is the dumbest thing I know to do,” Reno said.
Freeh was clearly uncomfortable even acknowledging publicly that he disagreed with Reno on the matter. “I feel very strongly that I should be free to give frank, unvarnished advice to the attorney general without having to worry about the advice being laid out before the world,” he said.