Behind FBI Chief's Decision to Quit: Too Many Brown-Bag Lunches

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Leaving: FBI Director Louis Freeh

Louis Freeh, who led the FBI for nearly eight turbulent years, announced Tuesday he was leaving the Bureau.

Appointed as director by President Clinton in 1993, Freeh was employed at the FBI for 27 years, and accrued a reputation for sometimes brutal honesty and a dedication to his own strict ethical code.

TIME Washington correspondent Elaine Shannon, who has covered Freeh for years, spoke with Tuesday.

Did Freeh’s announcement that he was quitting come as a surprise to anyone?

Elaine Shannon:No. Freeh has played this retirement question both ways for some time — speculation has been going on for at least three years now. Nobody ever thought he'd do the whole ten–year term at the helm of the Bureau. And at various junctures you’d hear he was talking to this or that law firm, which he’s always denied. Or you’d hear about people calling around on his behalf. He’d also deny those rumors.

But those rumors weren’t something the press invented. Everyone from rookie agents to the senior executives at the FBI talked about this. If you ran into Freeh at a social event, and you asked him about the rumors, he’d say "My wife would sure like to see that!"

I’m told Freeh informed field agents last weekend that he was leaving and that he doesn’t have a job yet; he plans to spend the summer with his kids. He didn’t feel it was ethical to look for a job while he was still actively employed as the FBI director. And although he has a fairly controversial personality, he won’t have any trouble at all landing a very lucrative post after all his years of experience.

Why is he leaving now?

Economics may have played a role in his decision to step down: He brown- bags lunches, has six kids. Lives a spartan life. On the other hand, he genuinely enjoyed being FBI director — it’s well known that this was a lifelong dream for him. This is someone who really believes in the mission of the FBI.

The rumors that he was considering leaving swirled around through the middle of Clinton’s second term. And then came Monica. And word came out that Freeh was really appalled by Clinton’s lying and what he perceived to be some kind of chicanery in campaign contributions. Conventional wisdom was that Freeh would not leave and allow Clinton to name him successor.

Then, when the Bush transition team came to town, they spoke to some candidates, including Jack Lawn, about heading the FBI. But eventually they ended up asking Freeh to stay for a while, and I’m told Freeh was very flattered. And then the Robert Hanssen spying affair came up and Freeh wanted to see that out.

The consensus among Louis-watchers is that he would leave when there was about six months of reasonably good news and no really bad news making the FBI look bad. Freeh has managed to convince the oversight committee on the Hill that once he found out about Hanssen he went after him vigorously. And other things have been going pretty well for the FBI. The Waco furor has pretty much died out. And as anyone who watches the financial markets will tell you: It’s always good to sell when your stock is high.

Any idea who might be named to succeed Freeh?

This might be a time Bush would consider appointing the first African American or Hispanic FBI director, or even a woman. On the other hand, we might see Bush look to one of dozens and dozens career prosecutors who are Republicans.