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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Louis Freeh : Is He Now Quelling the Fires That Surround the FBI?

November 19, 1995|Ronald J. Ostrow | Ronald J. Ostrow covers the Justice Department for The Times. He interviewed Louis J. Freeh in the FBI director's office

WASHINGTON — Louis J. Freeh came to Washington two years ago as a fortyish wunderkind. President Bill Clinton described him as a law-enforcement "legend." Administration officials cited his experience as a federal judge, prosecutor and FBI agent. Senators seemed to look on him as the ideal candidate to replace the discredited William S. Sessions as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Freeh moved quickly to satisfy those expectations. He cut red tape, reduced the FBI's headquarters bureaucracy, quelled turf wars with other federal enforcers, established unambiguous disciplinary rules and expanded the bureau's overseas operations.

Then, unexpectedly, he stumbled. The misstep involved Ruby Ridge, the Idaho siege in which an FBI sniper killed the wife of an anti-government fugitive while firing at an armed man. The FBI had intervened after a deputy U.S. marshal and the fugitive's 14-year-old son had been killed in a shootout. Although the incident had occurred a year before Freeh took control of the bureau, it was his job to deal with its repercussions.

Freeh, 45, initially took steps to discipline Larry A. Potts, the top FBI official involved in overseeing the siege. But in what he now acknowledges was a mistake, he also insisted on promoting Potts, a longtime friend and investigative colleague, to serve as the bureau's No. 2 official. The Ruby Ridge controversy continued to fester, and Freeh eventually had to remove Potts as deputy director and finally suspend him, along with five other FBI officials, while a criminal investigation of a possible cover-up and document destruction involving Ruby Ridge is conducted.

Freeh's subsequent handling of the matter has won more positive reviews. In testifying about the event before a Senate subcommittee headed by GOP presidential hopeful Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.), Freeh rejected advice to make a technical defense of the FBI actions in Idaho. Instead, he declared that tragic mistakes had been made, and spelled out steps he is taking to prevent them from occurring again.

But the FBI's role in Waco and Ruby Ridge have fueled anti-government extremists in their opposition to federal law enforcement, and the report by Specter's subcommittee on Ruby Ridge could reignite the controversy.

Freeh and his wife, a former FBI employee, have four young sons and are fervently dedicated to family time. In a recent discussion with former colleagues on the New York bench, Freeh allowed that he sometimes wishes he were still a judge deciding cases, secure in his lifetime appointment as a federal jurist. But those thoughts occur rarely, he said, and he fully intends to serve out the nearly eight years of his 10-year term.

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Question: On public mistrust and criticism of law enforcement, the president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Assn. says you have to go back to the late '60s and early '70s to find a time when law enforcement was under such assault. How serious do you regard this, and why is it taking place?

Answer: I think we're all concerned--people in law enforcement, but also people in government, about a growing perception that either government is unnecessary or, in particular, that the officials of government, including the police and the FBI, can't be trusted to perform their mission. I've seen the polls that have reflected growing interest and growing concern among the public. I think those are real issues that we have to be concerned about and we have to deal with effectively.

On the other hand, if you look at the progress of investigations in cases--speaking now only to the FBI, which I know best--I am not shocked. I am certainly not overly alarmed about a perception out there, or a distrust among the American people, that would inhibit the FBI from performing its job.

For instance, you take the World Trade bombing case, the second case which was recently convicted in New York, presided over by a very fair and distinguished jury. Many allegations, of course, were made against the FBI in that case--including by FBI employees. Allegations with respect to our laboratory, the honesty of the agents who dealt with the informants--a whole series of very serious charges which were brought up in the context of the defense. A very appropriate and very competent defense. The jury had no trouble with any of those issues. Convictions were across-the-board. They rejected all those defenses.

That's a very important litmus test for me as the director, looking at the jury, particularly a jury in New York, and having to try cases both as a prosecutor and a judge up there. New York juries are very cynical; they don't take things for granted--they certainly don't look at the police as a benevolent organization. They have a lot of mistrust and suspicion . . . .

Q: \o7 So it hasn't shown up in a lack of cooperation by citizens or informants no longer providing information.

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