FBI Director Louis Freeh’s office is about halfway between the White House and the Capitol - pretty much the political position Freeh now occupies.
Hunkered down in the middle.
Relations between President Clinton’s White House and the FBI are tense at best these days, government officials said, thanks largely to a campaign finance investigation that ranges from the Democratic Party to the government of China.
Just this week, officials confirmed that Freeh blocked a briefing for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the investigation into whether China tried to make illegal campaign contributions last year. This despite the fact that Albright was preparing for the China trip she made last month.
Some Clinton administration officials said they suspect that Freeh is trying to distance himself from the White House because he is under increasing attack from congressional Republicans.
Those Republicans have protested what they called improper contacts between the FBI and the White House, including the release of private background files on prominent Republicans. Members of the GOP congressional majority also have raised questions about the FBI’s forensic lab, the still-mysterious crash of TWA Flight 800, and bombing investigations in Atlanta and Oklahoma City.
“Director, your judgment in several high-profile episodes is coming under increased scrutiny,” Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., recently told Freeh.
Justice Department officials and aides to Freeh said he is seeking to be independent of both the White House and Congress - especially when it comes to ongoing investigations.
“He’s always had an arms-length relationship with the White House,” one aide said. “The only difference now is that it’s become more public.”
Freeh himself told Rogers that he made only two requests when Clinton appointed him to his 10-year term in 1993.
“One was that I run the FBI completely free of any interference, political inference in particular,” Freeh said. “And that I protect the integrity of our investigations.”
Aides said this is probably Freeh’s toughest political period since his appointment. But few people expect the former FBI agent, prosecutor and federal judge to leave his post anytime soon.
Officials said Clinton couldn’t fire Freeh even if he wanted to, not with the campaign finance investigation pending and the Republicans in charge of Congress. White House spokesman Mike McCurry played down the Albright flap Tuesday, and said Clinton retains confidence in Freeh.
Freeh is under increasing fire from congressional Republicans, notably Rogers, Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
But congressional aides said he still enjoys the strong support of two key GOP leaders: Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairmen of the Senate and House judiciary committees.
Committee aides said one of the keys to Freeh’s success is communication, keeping the chairmen informed of what’s going on at the FBI.
At the White House, however, communication has been the problem.
In the latest example, White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff requested an FBI briefing for the secretary of state in a Feb. 18 letter to the Justice Department.
Attorneys there prepared what some described as a narrowly drawn, “vanilla” response. It outlined general allegations that China may have tried to influence presidential and congressional elections by contributing money through third parties. The Chinese government has denied the charges.
Justice Department officials signed off on the response, but Freeh spiked it, officials said - not because he didn’t trust the White House, but because he doesn’t believe in sharing investigative information.
Vice President Al Gore, currently in China, did not request an FBI briefing, aides said, obtaining information instead from the National Security Council.
The Albright incident surfaced a month after a very public spat among Clinton, his aides, and the FBI over bureau briefings to the NSC.
Clinton complained that he was unaware of FBI fears about a possible China plot. NSC members said the FBI warned them last year about a possible China political plot, but agents told them not to disseminate the information within the White House.
The FBI issued a statement, approved by Freeh, that it told the NSC no such thing. McCurry called the statement “in error.” The next day, all parties described the disagreement as a “misunderstanding.”
Justice Department officials said the campaign finance investigation is at a more sensitive stage now, and it involves more than just China and the White House.
Allegations against Republicans are also fair game for a Justice Department task force on campaign finance, officials said, and that is another source of potential political danger for Freeh.
The increasing Republican criticism of Freeh stems largely from two incidents. One is what Republicans like to call “filegate,” the White House acquisition of FBI background files on prominent Republicans.
Administration officials described those 1993 acquisitions a bureaucratic mistake, stemming from its plan to develop a new White House pass list. In a report, Freeh said that the White House obtained the files “without justification,” and that the FBI was “victimized.”
Republicans also are mad at FBI General Counsel Howard Shapiro for giving the White House an advance copy of a highly critical book by former agent Gary Aldrich. Shapiro has apologized for the action.
Those topics surfaced at the House appropriations hearing chaired by Rogers.
“I am the director, as you said Chairman,” Freeh said at the time. “I am the leadership, and if I’m not doing a good job in that regard, then they ought to get a new FBI director.”
Few people expect Freeh to make that decision voluntarily. As one Justice Department official put it: “He’s certainly committed to getting the bureau through these difficult times.”
There are more potential difficulties on the horizon. They include:
The possibility of future indictments of FBI officials in connection with their investigation of a 1992 shootout at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. An FBI sniper killed the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver. One senior FBI official already has pleaded guilty to charges of destroying a report that had criticized the bureau’s role.
A forthcoming report on problems at the FBI lab. Officials fear that defense attorneys will use evidence of lab sloppiness to attack dozens of prosecutions, including the Oklahoma City bombing.
The punishment of FBI agents for their treatment of former Olympic bombing suspect Richard Jewell, who was initially brought in for questioning under the pretense of making a “training film” for security guards.
Meanwhile, the Olympic bombing, which resulted in the deaths of two people, remains unsolved.