Why George W. Wanted Louis Freeh at the FBI — and Why Louis Wants to Stay

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FBI director Freeh agrees to stay on

For months now, Topic A around the FBI water coolers has been gossip that FBI director Louis Freeh was actively job-hunting in Manhattan's high- dollar law firms. Freeh, a career public servant with six young sons, no savings and a puritanical bent, alternately denied and encouraged rumors that he was just waiting out First Bad Boy Bill Clinton before he pulled up stakes and moved north.

But this week, the Bush camp put out the word that Freeh had been asked to stay on. And Freeh let it be known that, no, he will not become a fancy partner in some white-shoe Manhattan law firm, but that he intends to serve out his 10-year term, which ends in 2003.

What's driving Louis? For starters, he feels strongly that the top FBI job would be politicized if it were put up for grabs with every change in administration. For another, says a friend, it's pretty simple: "He likes being director."

The lonely splendor of the spartan but magnificently located office seven stories above Pennsylvania Avenue is a dream job to a poor but idealistic Jersey City boy who bootstrapped his way through law school aspiring to public service like his childhood heroes, trustbuster Teddy Roosevelt and gangbuster Tom Dewey.

Finally, associates say, Freeh has a lot of unfinished business. Tops on his agenda is expanding the FBI's global network of agents, allies and sources in the fight against international terrorism and transnational criminal rings. Freeh also hopes to remodel the FBI's electronic infrastructure and to beef up its ability to fight cybercrime. And, working with the Defense Department and CIA, he intends to revamp the federal counterintelligence effort to confront spying by traditional competitors, China and Russia, as well as "friendly" competitors, such as Taiwan.

What does Bush see in Freeh? Possibly a counterweight to attorney general nominee John Ashcroft, who is backed by certain libertarian conservatives who are deeply skeptical of all government power and are determined to rein in the FBI's power to conduct wiretaps and cyber-surveillance of suspects. Freeh is classic law-and-order guy and appeals to mainstream Republicans more worried about terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime than government snooping.

Freeh was persona non grata around the Clinton White house for his support of an independent counsel on campaign fund-raising and his aggressive cultivation of Senate Judiciary chairman Orrin Hatch and other key Republican leaders. Freeh and his circle made no secret of their active antipathy toward Bill Clinton personally and the Clinton White House. Yet, for the incoming administration, Freeh, as a Clinton appointee , retained Democratic party sanction that could lend a patina of bipartisanship to the Bush national security team.

In the long run, of course, Bush needs a new William Webster — righteousness incarnate, a man who can go on television and inspire and reassure people that he, and by extension the administration, will always do the right thing. In an era of good news — falling crime rates and dipping drug use figures — Clinton hasn't had anybody to put on the Sunday talking-head shows to grab credit. Neither Freeh or Attorney General Janet Reno would showboat for the administration. Drug czar Barry McCaffrey would, but the retired general's too-hot-for-prime-time style sometimes provoked backlash. Ashcroft may serve that function for Bush, or he may be viewed as too much of a pol, in which case Bush would be well served to go for a more charismatic FBI director when Freeh bows out.