Picking the 'Top Cop'

No wonder the last three FBI directors have been judges. The job requires fairness, integrity, openness, and impartiality.

And with the Bush administration now searching for a replacement to the outgoing director, Louis Freeh, those qualities should remain centerstage. A political choice would be wrong.

Mr. Freeh's tenure shows just how tough the job is. He managed the bureau during a time of rolling controversy, and was able to mostly keep his own counsel.

He should be credited as an experienced tough lawman. He may be best remembered for taking the FBI global. He hired several thousand agents and doubled the FBI's presence overseas. It now has a presence in 44 countries. He traveled to 68 countries to sign deals that gave the FBI access to information on terrorism, drug dealing, and cybercrime.

On making his retirement announcement, Freeh heaped praise on President Bush, but gave only passing gratitude to the man who appointed him, former President Bill Clinton. In fact, Freeh took a political stand against Clinton by praising Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who oversaw the investigation into the Whitewater and Lewinsky scandals.

He wrote a secret memo recommending an investigation into alleged breaches of campaign-finance rules by Clinton and Gore in 1996. (Attorney General Janet Reno didn't take his advice.)

In the end, though, Freeh's own sense of what was and wasn't political may have contributed to some of his more unwise decisions.

Along with inheriting the problems of both the Branch Davidian tragedy near Waco, Texas, and the murders at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, Freeh had to deal with questions raised about his shrinking the size of the FBI's crime lab, and its mishandling of the 1996 bombings at the Olympics in Atlanta.

He was criticized for using strong-arm tactics against Los Alamos nuclear weapons scientist Wen Ho Lee. The case against Mr. Lee fell apart - and just one of the 59 charges against him stuck.

Freeh decided a few years ago against adopting a proposal to require regular polygraph screening of FBI agents. That may have helped agent Robert Hanssen continue his spying for Russia, which went on, undetected, for 15 years. Freeh recently announced that those lie detector tests are now being given.

The FBI directorship, like other top government jobs, has an obvious "where the buck stops" aspect to it. The FBI's prestige is intact, despite bumps during the Freeh years. As the Bush administration scouts for a replacement, it should keep a sharp eye out for an individual with the personal and political skills required to smooth the rough places that go with this territory. That will help keep the mistakes to a minimum.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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