Why Agents Like the New Acting FBI Head

  • Share
  • Read Later
A day or two into the uproar over the Tim McVeigh execution delay, we encountered FBI deputy director Tom Pickard and terrorism division chief Dale Watson trudging glumly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Justice Department to the Hoover building. These two had had the unhappy task of informing Louis Freeh about the eleventh-hour discovery of a few thousand stray documents in the McVeigh case. We remarked that they didn't look too bloody for a couple of guys who had been at ground zero when the Director went off like a bushel basket of grenades.

Pickard flashed the lopsided grin that proves, in addition to his beanpole build, that he was separated at birth from Brit comic Hugh Laurie (best known on this side of the Atlantic as the sweetly goofy Bertie Wooster of Masterpiece Theater's "Jeeves and Wooster" series.) "The scars are hidden by the suits," he laughed. "Our heads are hanging by threads."

Tom Pickard's ability to make a joke in the darkest of times is one reason his colleagues were delighted to see him take over the bureau as acting director until President Bush finds a permanent replacement.

In fact, many hope Bush will consider Pickard for the post. The 51-year-old is liked within the bureau because, while his standards are no lower than Freeh's, he is more, well, human. "He really listens to people," says Barry Mawn, the assistant director in charge of the New York Field office. And, Mawn adds, "he's no yes man. He often was the one to give the director bad news, but he didn't tell him what he thought he wanted to hear."

Pickard's open manner may solve one of the bureau's worst management problems. Many agents respected Freeh for his integrity, but his penchant for killing messengers and turning minor screw-ups into felonies earned him the nickname, "The Queen of Hearts" Not surprisingly, bad news sometimes didn't get to the Director until it had festered to really rotten. Case in point: the McVeigh mess, which began to crop up last January but which was kept from Freeh until it was leaking to reporters.

Pickard is considered more approachable than the remote Freeh. "I never met anybody who was afraid of Tom," says former Assistant Director Lou Schiliro, who worked closely with Pickard when both were senior managers in the New York field office dealing with the TWA 800 tragedy. "He's a kind man, a very genuine person."

Before coming to Washington in 1996, Pickard spent much of his career in the bureau's flagship New York office, where he played a crooked accountant in the Abscam undercover case and later supervised the World Trade Center bombing investigation, the extradition and prosecution of terrorist mastermind Ramzi Yousef and the espionage case against FBI turncoat Earl Pitts.

It says something about Freeh that, though he has heaped praise upon Pickard and trusted him to run the bureau during his own frequent travels, he made Pickard play the same guessing game as everybody else when it came to Freeh's plans to step down. It was not until late last week that Freeh told his inner circle and Ashcroft he intended to make his farewell to the staff on Friday. By that time, according to FBI sources, Pickard was taking a long postponed holiday with his wife. Freeh's abrupt announcement forced Pickard to disrupt his leave.

Still, for the foreseeable future, it's now Director Pickard, the fulfillment of a childhood dream. The other dream, which he may not get, is a day or two off from the flood of bad news that has inundated FBI headquarters over the past months.