WASHINGTON — 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.
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.
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.
As terrorism replaces the cold war as a threat to US security, Freeh since 1993 has bolstered the FBI by hiring more than 4,400 new agents and stepping up counterterrorism training. And he has strengthened links to local law enforcement, promoting the FBI as a center of national intelligence-gathering.
The changes have not come without controversy. Civil rights groups say Freeh has dangerously expanded police powers. "Freeh has shown a marked disregard for the [citizen] privacy," says Greg Nojeim of the American Civil Liberties Union, noting a record number of wiretaps.
Freeh has also faced criticism from within. Friends and foes alike say his mid-1990s house-cleaning at FBI headquarters went too far, with nearly 50 top-level posts eliminated and some 600 supervisory agents reassigned to the field. The drastic streamlining instilled a fear that may have prevented bad news - possibly including the use of pyrotechnic devices at Waco - from reaching the top, says Oliver Revell of Dallas, a former FBI official.
Morale at the FBI has also suffered to a degree from Freeh's own, candid criticisms of the agency's botched operations such as Waco, former officials say.
At particularly troubled times, Freeh has expressed a willingness to step aside. "He asks the hard question: 'Am I becoming a liability to the FBI?' " says Mr. Webster. "Anybody who can ask that ... is devoted to the organization they serve."
Indeed, colleagues and critics generally agree that Freeh is a man of integrity who is dedicated to his job. With an informal style and sense of humor - he is known to joke in a thick New Jersey accent - Freeh also comes across as "a regular guy," associates say.
Ever since he was a 10-year-old growing up fighting neighborhood scraps near Jersey City, Freeh's dreamed of being an FBI agent. The son of a real-estate broker with German-Italian heritage, he studied at Roman Catholic schools. He later led a Christian youth group to teach English to poor children in Appalachia, an experience that sparked his interest in public service.
After graduating from Rutgers University law school in 1974, he joined the FBI in New York, playing a key undercover role in probes of organized crime on the waterfront. "You become aware of young stars, and he clearly was one," says Webster.
During the 1980s, Freeh continued fighting organized crime as an assistant US attorney in New York. Known for his untheatrical yet quietly devastating courtroom strategy, he masterminded the successful prosecution in one of the longest Mafia trials in federal court history - the "Pizza Connection."
In 1991, President Bush appointed Freeh to be a federal district judge in New York, a job he came to love. "Being a trial judge is the greatest," he once said. "There's something about the ebb and flow of human events, ordinary and sublime, all the different hues of human nature."
So Freeh was initially torn in 1993 when Clinton offered him the job of FBI director. He accepted only after the president agreed to two requests: that he have total independence as director and be allowed sufficient time with his family.
Freeh and his wife, Marilyn, a former FBI employee, have six sons, whose artwork covers Freeh's office walls. The boys often visit Freeh at work, and he is known at times to leave early to care for them - checking homework, giving them baths, and coaching their teams - rather than attend Washington receptions.
Colleagues calling Freeh in the middle of the night on urgent business have often found him up feeding a baby a bottle. "I'm trying to talk over the baby's screaming about some big case in New York," recalls Mr. Kallstrom, "and he'd say, 'Wait a minute - I have to burp him.' "
Freeh fact file
* Grew up in New Jersey, with boyhood dream of being FBI agent.
*Graduated from Rutgers University law school, 1974.
*FBI in New York, going undercover against organized crime on waterfront.
*As assistant US attorney in New York, successfully prosecuted "pizza connection" mob case in the 1980s.
*Appointed federal district judge in New York in 1991 by President Bush.
*Accepted post as FBI director in 1993 after President Clinton agreed to two requests: managerial independence and time for his family.
*Has six sons with wife, Marilyn, a former FBI employee. The boys often visit Freeh at work. He skips Washington receptions to coach their teams.
Initiatives at FBI
*Hired more than 4,400 new agents while cutting supervisory staff. Strengthened links to local law enforcement, promoting the FBI as a center of national intelligence-gathering.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society