WASHINGTON — When Louis Freeh stepped down as FBI director in May, the primary reaction in this city was disappointment. President George W. Bush said he had wanted the Clinton appointee to stay on. And on Capitol Hill Mr. Freeh's many defenders said he had led the agency well through difficult times and left it better than he found it.
In the past three months, however, a decidedly different picture of the FBI - and Freeh - has begun to emerge that is once again tarnishing the bureau's image as America's elite law-enforcement agency.
The FBI's mishandling of documents surrounding Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was a big red flag, but a series of Senate hearings have found much more. The hearings have shed light on an organization that ignores calls for change, a bureaucracy that is using computers that would be considered obsolete by any large private-sector company, and an agency that has grown lax as it has grown.
Last week, in the latest revelation, the bureau reported it could not account for 449 guns and 184 missing laptop computers, four of which may contain classified information.
Behind the bureau's most recent debacles - say former and current agents - is a slow and steady erosion, compounded by a change in management culture that has affected everything from field agents to computer cursors.
"For years, the bureau just hasn't been as good as it has pretended to be," one former agent says.
While no one questions former Director Freeh's commitment to the Bureau or his integrity, many of the problems can be traced to the way he ran the department, critics say.
"The problem was, Freeh didn't like to manage," says Oliver "Buck" Revell, a former FBI associate deputy director. "As a result, it is now run more like the General Services Administration or the other agencies than it is the old bureau."
From the moment he arrived at FBI headquarters in 1993, Freeh sent the message he would be changing things, particularly in Washington.
One of his first big initiatives was moving 600 agents from deskwork to the streets - and moving hundreds of agents from headquarters to field offices. In fact, Freeh held a press conference to announce the move saying, "With crime so grave ... we need fewer agents behind desks and more on the streets investigating and arresting criminals, corrupt public officials, spies, drug dealers, mobsters, gang members and terrorists."
The move was popular on Capitol Hill, but agents claim it proved detrimental in some ways.
"He threw out the baby with the bath water," Mr. Revell says. In particular, Freeh erred in sending the bureau's two associate deputy directors, who oversaw much of the bureau's day-to-day operations, into the field, says Revell.
One of the people moved out of Washington was Agent I.C. Smith.
Mr. Smith says he had a good relationship with Freeh personally, but was often astounded at how the bureau was using its people. After the Oklahoma City bombing, for example, he says he witnessed top-level managers "I mean the top four or five people in the bureau" working with individual agents.
That kind of micromanaging "isn't a wise use of resources," Smith says. "As time goes on I think Freeh's time will be viewed as a mixed bag. He was honest, but he had a antimanagement bias and limited background."
Smith, says that counterintelligence - where he worked before being moved to the field - was hit particularly hard with Freeh's changes. He notes that on the Wen Ho Lee case - in which the bureau believed a Taiwanese-American scientist was selling nuclear secrets to China - the agents made tactical errors that might have been avoided if the proper counter-intelligence personnel had been involved.
Lee, who spent months in solitary confinement, was charged with 59 counts of mishandling classified information. He pleaded guilty to one felony count and has filed a defamation suit against the government.
One of the other findings to surface in the hearings are the results of a yearlong review of FBI technology done by Bob Dies, a former IBM executive brought in by Freeh to examine the bureau's systems. Mr. Dies found that "For a variety of reasons, the FBI information technology has had no meaningful improvements in over six years."
More than half of the bureau's computers are four to eight years old, Dies says, with many not even including "mouse technology." Many of the smaller field offices also have relatively slow Internet access.
Smith says one of the reasons for the lag in technological improvements was that the Bureau would raid its technology budget when it needed money for other areas. As Louis Freeh expanded the FBI, making it an international law-enforcement agency, money was always needed.
"Frequently the bureau would take money from the technical sides and apply it to needs elsewhere - cases that arose," Smith says. "It was a cash cow."
Still, Freeh does have his supporters. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, for one, lauds the former director for extending the reach of the bureau and making it more effective in combating terrorism. While critical of the culture of the agency, Senator Hatch has credited Freeh with "doing a good job in very difficult circumstances."
Freeh did, in fact, maintain tight relationships with many in Congress. And some say in the end, that may have contributed to keeping the Bureau's problems hidden for so long.
"Republicans in Congress loved him for taking on the president [Bill Clinton] and Janet Reno," the former agent says. "That may have blinded them a bit."
The former agents also say the bureau has grown lax in monitoring its own people. The lost guns and laptops are an illustration of a larger problem with accountability within the agency.
"You used to sit down once a year at inspection and be told to present all your bureau property, your briefcase, your credentials, your gun. It was regular and systematic," one former agent says. "I have spoken with some agents today who say they haven't been through in inspection in years."
Smith says when he was transferred to the bureau's Arkansas field office, his agents had to produce their bureau property, but when items turned up missing, nothing was done to discipline agents.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor