Louis J. Freeh

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Louis J. Freeh

Appointed director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1993, Louis J. Freeh (born 1950) was selected for this promotion because of the reputation he had earned in federal law enforcement. As an FBI agent and then a federal prosecutor, Freeh had helped win convictions in high-profile criminal cases. Despite controversy that swirled around the FBI during his watch, Freeh remained committed to running the bureau for as long as he could be effective.

The son of Beatrice and William Freeh, Sr., Louis Freeh was born on January 6, 1950, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Although a youth of considerable promise and ambition, Freeh came from a family of modest means. As a result he attended local public universities and worked to defray his expenses. His family lived in three rooms on the first floor of their house, renting the second story, after his father, a transplanted Brooklynite and real estate broker, moved the family to Hudson County. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University in 1971, Freeh earned his law degree in 1974 from Rutgers Law School at Newark. In 1974-1975 he served as a law clerk in the Newark office of New Jersey's Republican senator, Clifford Case, leaving in 1975 to accept an appointment as an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Assigned to New York Office

Assigned to the FBI's New York office, Freeh worked in the organized crime unit. His diligence and skills were fully demonstrated in a major investigation he headed of corruption on the New York waterfront that resulted in the conviction of 125 union and waterfront officials on federal racketeering charges. Anthony Scotto, the president of the International Longshoremen's Union, was one of those convicted. For this achievement Freeh was awarded a special FBI commendation and was promoted to supervisor in the Organized Crime Unit at FBI headquarters in Washington. While employed as an FBI agent Freeh met his future wife, Marilyn, at the time employed as a clerk at FBI headquarters. They became the parents of five sons.

Freeh's demonstrated skills and close cooperation with federal prosecutors earned him a further promotion in 1981 to assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York (New York City). Concurrent with this assignment, Freeh attended New York University Law School, earning the LLM degree in 1984. From 1988 to 1992 he served as adjunct associate professor at Fordham Law School. His matriculation and part-time teaching reflected his desire to enhance his knowledge of criminal law and his credentials for promotion in the federal judiciary.

Rose On His Record

His impressive record as prosecutor ensured such promotion, with his most important case involving the successful indictment and eventual conviction in 1987 of 16 of 17 crime leaders in the so-called Pizza Connection case. This complex criminal case involved a Sicilian-based drug-dealing (heroin) and money-laundering operation stretching from Turkey to Brazil that in the United States used pizza parlors as fronts for money laundering. Freeh not only won the respect of the law enforcement community for his skill in recruiting informers and tracing the elaborate ruses employed to sell drugs and launder money, but even defense attorneys praised his fairness when arguing the government's case in court. An innovative prosecutor, Freeh, for example, secured the cooperation of second-level criminals who provided the testimony that helped convict high-level Mafia leaders by setting up a U.S. witness protection program for foreign informers.

The successful prosecution of the Pizza Connection case led in 1987 to his promotions first to head the Organized Crime Unit in the New York office and then, in January 1989, to deputy U.S. attorney. In addition, in 1989 he received the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Achievement Award.

A Leading Prosecutor

Recognized as one of the leading prosecutors in the nation, Freeh was selected by Attorney General Richard Thornburgh in May 1990 to head a special federal investigation into the mail bombing deaths of Federal Judge Robert Vance of Birmingham, Alabama, and Savannah (Georgia) alderman and NAACP official Robert Robinson. Freeh masterminded a nationwide investigation that culminated in the arrest and conviction of Walter Lee Moody for terrorist acts (which also included sending mail bombs to other civil rights offices throughout the South). His handling of this investigation earned him the Attorney General's Award for Distinguished Service in 1991 and then, in July 1991, his nomination by President George Bush and Senate confirmation as federal district judge in the Southern District of New York.

Only 41 years old at the time of his appointment to the federal bench, Freeh's meteoric rise was based on his credentials as a skilled investigator and prosecutor and on his ability to work closely and effectively with others. Unlike others whose judicial appointments had been based on political connections, Freeh had never been directly involved in partisan politics.

His reputation for fairness and ability to provide leadership earned him the unprecedented promotion, given his youthful age of 43, to the post of FBI director. President Bill Clinton's decision to fire FBI Director William Sessions came on July 19, 1993, owing to questions raised beginning in October 1992 about Sessions' personal abuse of office. Sessions was known to travel in an armored limousine and in a private jet at taxpayers' expense. Now the president needed the appointment of someone who could lead the bureau at a transitional time in its history and at the same time win quick confirmation. Nominated on July 20, 1993, Freeh's reputation in the law enforcement community and with leaders of the Senate (notably Senators Daniel Moynihan, Sam Nunn, and Joseph Biden) resulted in a trouble-free and speedy Senate confirmation on August 6, 1993.

Freeh's appointment came at a critical time in the history of the FBI, confronting as he would the twin problems of redefining how the FBI should respond in the post-Cold War era to the international character of organized crime and religiously-based terrorism and at the same time finally settle the legacies of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's controversial 48-year tenure. Under Hoover the FBI had strayed away from law enforcement to monitor and seek to contain the influence of dissident political organizations, had avoided hiring and promoting women and ethnic and racial minorities as agents, and had been constrained from instituting more innovative procedures and revised priorities to ensure successful prosecution of organized crime, political corruption, and white collar crime. Hoover's successors had moved slowly to contain FBI political surveillance, to increase the recruitment and promotion of women and minorities, and to adopt more flexible procedures and innovative strategies to address the more complex problems confronting the law enforcement community. Internal conflict within the bureau hierarchy, moreover, had slowed the pace of these administrative and personnel reforms.

Toward the end of 1993 Freeh traveled to Sicily to honor an Italian official assassinated by the Mafia. The visit and his words became a pledge to curb the Mafia.

Not Without Controversy

Further into his 10-year term, Freeh was beset by a series of embarrassments that tarnished the reputation of the FBI as well as his own. In 1996, the FBI was maligned for being overzealous in its pursuit of Richard Jewell, suspected of detonating a bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Jewell turned out to be innocent. The bureau's crime laboratory was found by the Justice Department's Inspector General in 1997 to be so sloppy in its practices that it potentially tainted hundreds of cases. "We're going to get hundreds, if not thousands, of motions that are going to encompass every part of the lab, from latent-fingerprint comparisons to tire-tread analysis," said one ranking FBI agent.

On a different front, Freeh quarrelled with the Clinton White House over whether agents investigating possible Chinese influence on elected U.S. officials told National Security Council aides receiving information from the investigation that they could pass it on to their superiors. Clinton maintained the agents told the security council aides they could not pass the information, and Freeh contradicted the president. An associate of Freeh's leaked an advance copy of an unflattering book about the White House written by a former FBI agent. The same associate also provided "hundreds of personal files" to White House security aides. In response to the charges, Freeh made it harder for the White House to obtain sensitive material from the FBI. The director recruited a scientist to run the FBI lab and made numerous procedural changes as well.

Freeh also was criticized for showing favoritism to his friends, micromanaging bureau operations, and being aloof from the news media. Freeh's defenders lauded the director for cutting "chair-warmers" from bureau staff, streamlining the organization, getting in closer contact with agents working in the field, and fostering cooperation with the rival Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It also was noted that Freeh abandoned the personal excesses of his predecessor, opting to ride in a minivan instead of a limousine and fly on commercial jets instead of a private plane.

Despite the controversies, Freeh had the support of agents in the field. "In spite of well-publicized difficulties, the director's support within the bureau is largely intact," John J. Sennett, president of the FBI Agents Association told The New York Times in 1997. "Yet agents are very disturbed by recent negative press. Freeh's most significant shortcoming in the minds of agents has been his apparent unwillingness to get the bureau's story out."

Despite the FBI's image problems, Freeh said he intended remain director until the end of his term or for as long has he can be effective running the large bureaucracy with an annual budget of about $3 billion and about 25,000 agents.

Further Reading

Freeh is the subject of a brief biographical sketch in Who's Who in American Law, 1992-1993. His role in the successful prosecution of the so-called Pizza Connection case is briefly described in Ralph Blumenthal, Last Days of the Sicilians: The FBI's War Against the Mafia (1988), and the controversy leading to Sessions' dismissal and Freeh's appointment as FBI director is sketchily surveyed in Ronald Kessler, The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency (1993). See also Leslie Grove's "The FBI's Freeh Agent" in Vanity Fair (December 1993). Researchers might more profitably consult the various news stories in national newspapers and periodicals (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Newsweek, TIME) at the time of his nomination and confirmation as FBI director in July-September 1993 and the confirmation hearings held in August 1993 by the Senate Judiciary Committee on his nomination as FBI director. □