ONCE upon a time, J. Edgar Hoover was revered as the country's "top G-man," a tireless crime-fighter who was responsible for the capture of such gangsters as "Ma" Barker and John Dillinger. Nowadays, after a revisionist biography has redrawn his image in the public's eye, he is ridiculed by late-night comedians.
The deterioration of Hoover's public image coincides, to a large extent, with a change in public fortunes for the agency he once headed and whose headquarters building is still named for him.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's public image, built upon a slew of hagiographic movies and TV shows, first suffered a blow in the 1970s when it was revealed that the agency had wiretapped and harassed antiwar radicals. More recently, the FBI has been embarrassed by minority agents' lawsuits charging the bureau with discriminatory hiring and promotion practices. And just a few weeks ago, William Sessions became the first director in FBI history to be fired for financial improprieties.
That's the bad news. The good news is that, by all accounts, Louis Freeh may be the right man to turn the agency around. Mr. Freeh, whose nomination to become FBI director is expected to be approved by the Senate this week, comes to the job with a reputation as a model "G-man."
Freeh told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that his "boyhood dream" was becoming an FBI agent. That dream came true in 1975, when the Rutgers Law School graduate joined the FBI's Manhattan office and went undercover to expose corruption along the waterfront.
In 1981 Freeh left the FBI and joined the US Attorney's Office in New York, where he headed the Organized Crime Task Force that cracked the "pizza connection" case of heroin smuggling by the Sicilian Mafia. He lead the investigation that led to the 1990 conviction of Walter Lerody Moody for the letter-bomb murders of a federal judge and a black alderman in Alabama and Georgia.
That experience - capped off by service as a federal district judge in New York since 1991 - exposed Freeh to every level of federal law enforcement. It also earned him the respect of everyone from street agents to United States senators.
"Freeh was one of the government's toughest investigators, a ramrod-straight and ferocious crusader against the mob...," Ralph Blumenthal wrote in "Last Days of the Sicilians," a book about the pizza connection case.
If any question hangs over his nomination, it has to do with management experience. Freeh stressed during his Senate confirmation hearings last week that he has supervised large task forces of federal agents and prosecutors. But he has never run an agency as big as the FBI, which has more than 10,000 special agents and a budget of almost $2 billion. His only experience at the agency was as a mid-level employee.
"A lot has changed since he was an agent," says one government official who follows the FBI. "He's only 43 years old. Will he be able to come back and stand up to people who were his bosses when he was a young agent?"
Freeh's job, by any standard, will not be an easy one. As the FBI has expanded its list of assignments, the bureau has become increasingly difficult to manage. Mr. Sessions and other directors since Hoover were often criticized for not firmly grabbing the reins of power.
"The old challenges have not gone away," former Director William Webster says. "Organized crime is still there. Regardless of the change in world climate there'll still be those who want to steal America's secrets. White-collar crime is still important."
But Webster adds there's a host of newfangled problems for the bureau to fight: "The FBI has to be a key player in fighting drugs and terrorism. It will have to apply its expertise to help local law enforcement fight street crime. And the training the FBI offers local law enforcement needs to be upgraded."
A continuing challenge that Freeh confronts is the need to keep the agency free from political interference. Some Republicans charge that that independence has been imperiled recently by the White House - a charge adamantly denied by the administration. During Freeh's confirmation hearing, he promised to turn away any contacts from the White House.