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Turf wars ensnare plain-talking FBI chief

By Ann Scott TysonSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 1999


As a young undercover FBI agent probing Mafia influence in New York's waterfront unions in the 1970s, Louis Freeh got into a hot spot one day: He was body-wired and posing as a corrupt lawyer when a crime boss invited him into a steam bath.

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But Mr. Freeh kept cool. As he stripped down, he managed to slip off the recording device undetected, and later still succeeded in taping vital conversations.

Freeh's agility on risky assignments was one of many talents that made him a rising star at the Manhattan FBI office on East 69th Street, then considered the agency's big leagues. Known as a bright straight-shooter, the Jersey City 25-year-old quickly impressed superiors. "Everyone back then was sort of joking, 'Hey, he's going to be the next director,' " says James Kallstrom, an ex-Marine who was Freeh's first squad supervisor and later headed the New York office. "One of his nicknames was 'Director.' "

Now, after advancing as an agent, federal prosecutor, and judge, FBI Director Freeh's bold, "tell-it-like-it-is" style has plunged him into hot water in a Washington steeped in partisan politics, as conflicts with his bosses, Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton, reach a boiling point.

Indeed, President Clinton, who called Freeh a "law enforcement legend" when he nominated him in July 1993, only days ago angrily charged the FBI was improperly focusing attention on alleged White House campaign fund-raising abuses in order to downplay its own Waco troubles.

"The FBI wants you to write about that rather than write about Waco," Clinton told journalists last Friday. FBI spokesmen offered no comment.

What is behind this apparently growing schism - between Freeh and Congress, on one hand, and Reno and the White House on the other - and what impact will it have on federal crime fighting? How will Freeh, who is more than halfway through a 10-year term that expires in 2003, emerge?

Friction between the nation's top law enforcers, many observers say, is driven largely by Washington's intense partisanship, marked by distrust between a scandal-tainted White House and zealous investigators in the Republican-led Congress.

When Freeh stakes out independent positions that embarrass the White House - on issues ranging from the 1996 campaign-funding probe to last month's clemency for Puerto Rican nationalists - he draws applause from congressional Republicans and barbs from Clinton officials. Meanwhile, when Ms. Reno sides with the White House, she provokes fresh cries from Capitol Hill for her resignation.

As a result, differences between Freeh and Reno are magnified by Washington's "gotcha" politics, straining a once largely cordial relationship.

"Both [Freeh and Reno] are fine public servants who are being used as cat paws for a larger debate," says former FBI Director William Webster.

Conflict from above has also added to traditional infighting in bureaucracies under Freeh and Reno. "There is a lot of mutual recrimination between FBI headquarters and main Justice in Washington," says Philip Heymann, a former deputy attorney general now at Harvard.

Since Freeh took charge of the FBI in 1993, disputes with the White House and Justice Department have often flared. Early on, "filegate" erupted after the White House obtained FBI files on prominent Republicans, leaving Freeh outraged, former colleagues say. More recently, the FBI and Justice Department have butted heads over mistakes in investigating the assault on the Branch Dividian compound in Waco, Texas, as well as Chinese nuclear espionage. This month, Freeh made known his strong opposition to the President's decision to grant clemency to 16 Puerto Rican militants.

Perhaps the most important disagreement stems from Freeh's 1997 decision to urge Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Clinton's 1996 campaign fund-raising. Reno rejected the advice, fueling charges she was sheltering Clinton. Last week, FBI agents testified that Justice officials had stymied their investigation for months by denying key search warrants.

Today, the lack of cooperation between the FBI and Justice Department is so severe that it is "impeding the successful prosecution of serious crimes," concludes Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Progress unimpeded

Yet surprisingly, this inter-agency acrimony has apparently not hurt the FBI or Freeh, who is overseeing a push to establish the agency as the epicenter of a national law-enforcement system.

In fact, Freeh's unusually close relations with Congress have helped him pursue ambitious expansion of the FBI's reach at home and abroad, both through dramatic budget increases - more than 50 percent so far - and the passage of sweeping new laws broadening the scope of FBI jurisdiction and investigations.