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Jewish World Review June 18, 2002 / 8 Tamuz, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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The FBI is rebounding … 10 Minutes with Ronald Kessler | Few American journalists have had as much access to the inside workings - and the secrets and blunders - of the FBI as best-selling author Ronald Kessler.

In 1993 he wrote the authoritative "The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency." Now he's written "The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI," which, among many other things, documents how former director Louis Freeh's mismanagement during the 1990s contributed to a string of major embarrassments and left the FBI unable to foresee the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

I talked to Kessler this week by telephone from his home near Washington, D.C.

Q: Let's start with the big question everyone wants to know - did J. Edgar Hoover really wear evening dresses?

A: No. I went into that and the source of that tale was Susan Rosensteil. Her credibility was not exactly sterling. In fact, she was convicted of perjury. Still, an author ran with that story and it's been accepted as gospel.

It's just common sense that Hoover could not have gone into the Plaza Hotel with all these witnesses present wearing a dress and having sex with young boys, as she said, and it not leak out at the time. And it never did, because it never happened.

Q: More seriously, how bad did the FBI blow it in regard to the Sept. 11 terrorists?

A: Well, they knew nothing about the al-Qaida and nothing about the plot. They were just totally behind the ball when it came to counter-terrorism.

Their computers were primitive. They had 386 and 486 machines that nobody would even take as donations to churches. They were getting leads that they didn't know what to do with. There was a risk-averse atmosphere at headquarters and I trace most of these problems back to the director, Louis Freeh, who was director for eight years and just mismanaged the bureau.

In the book, I trace how each of the recent fiascoes - the Richard Jewel case, the Wen Ho Lee case, the FBI laboratory scandal, the failure to turn over the documents in the McVeigh case - all go back to Freeh's decisions.

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Freeh didn't like to hear countervailing views, didn't like to hear bad news. So pretty soon the whole FBI became corrupted essentially. He would banish people for telling him the truth.

The new director, Bob Mueller, who took over a week before Sept. 11, is just the opposite. He encourages people to tell him what's going on.

Q: Is the FBI capable of doing a good job of fighting terrorism?

A: I think now they are getting back up to speed. The FBI actually stopped about 40 terrorist plots in the past five or six years, including the al-Qaida plot to blow up the tunnels around Manhattan.

They do a very good job in most other areas of crime like organized crime, and they do prevent crimes. They were just not up to taking on this global threat, where not only do you have to have informants and information from intercepts, but also you have to go beyond that and analyze a huge amount of information - "connecting the dots" as we now say - and come up with very pro-active investigations.

Q: Was the FBI wasting too much time and resources on the drug war or on any other aspect of crime-fighting to the detriment of terrorism?

A: In retrospect, of course, they should have been devoting more resources to foreign counter-terrorism. There's sort of an assumption that we have to keep the size of the FBI the same and shift the resources around.

I think we should double the FBI. There are so many other areas that are critically important - organized crime, white-collar crime, political corruption, espionage - where we need the FBI to make an impact.

Why is organized crime still around? The FBI has had a big impact, but it could have even more. The number of agents in the bureau is 11,500, compared to 40,000 police officers in New York City alone.

Over the years there have been these civil liberties concerns and the number of agents has been part of that equation. But the fact is that the FBI since Hoover has not violated the law as an organization.

Q: Is the FBI really as incompetent or as blundering or as dangerous to America as we've been told it is during the last 10 years?

A: It's really been these high-profile cases that Louis Freeh screwed up that have created this impression that the FBI is a bunch of bunglers. They really are not. The agents are very talented and dedicated. You saw with the Phoenix agent and the Minneapolis agents that they really are on top of things.

But when you get behind the scenes to what actually happened with these other major cases you find that Louis Freeh really screwed them up.

Q: How much of the FBI's problems the last 10 years were attributable to Louis Freeh?

A: I think 100 percent, because under William Webster the FBI operated very smoothly. There were hardly any problems. Over the years, the problem in the bureau has been the leadership, going back to J. Edgar Hoover, who engaged in massive abuses, and Freeh, who was director for eight years and just really decimated the FBI.

Q: Was the FBI as good under Hoover as we were sort of brainwashed into thinking for 50 years?

A: They were good at very simple crimes like kidnapping or catching gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde. But they could not possibly have taken on something like organized crime or complex white-collar crimes or political corruption - and they had no desire to, because under Hoover he didn't want to risk losing his job.

Therefore he didn't go after the really powerful figures, and the same time he kept blackmail material on members of Congress, presidents, celebrities, again, to keep his job. I have the first real evidence of that in the book.

Q: Was Hoover as strange as he was alleged to be?

A: He was a very queer duck. On the one hand he did build the FBI into a great organization, originally. He was farsighted when it came to technology, for example. He started the FBI laboratory.

But he also had so many quirks and engaged in abuses ranging from illegal wire-tapping to tape-recording Martin Luther King's sexual activities and trying to leak it to the press to using FBI funds to maintain his home and finally maintaining the blackmail files.

Q: Would you say he was a dangerous man who did more to hurt the country than help it? Is that a fair question?

A: That's a fair question. I happen to think that if people abuse their position that that outweighs any good they might do.

Hoover really terrorized the country and contributed to the material that Sen. Joseph McCarthy used to engage in a witch-hunt against people who were law-abiding citizens, but were tarnished as communists. So, in my mind, Hoover's abuses outweigh whatever good he did.

Q: What was the worst thing Hoover did?

A: Besides the things I mentioned, he was aware that four innocent men were sent to jail in Boston by FBI agents.

Q: Informants?

A: Yeah. At that point he wanted to get into organized crime because Bobby Kennedy was pushing him. He was attorney general. In order to maintain Mafia informants, Hoover allowed innocent men to go to jail. I don't think it gets any worse than that.

Q: When you did this new book, what did you find out about the FBI that shocked you the most? Anything new?

A: I think it was how colossal Freeh's mismanagement was… . I think it was a year and half ago that the FBI did not enough money for gasoline for its cars because of Freeh's mismanagement and about half of the cars were parked for four months. It's just unbelievable. If that happened in a local police department, the chief would be fired.

Q: If there is one big thing Americans should know about the FBI they don't know now, what is it?

A: Well, the FBI can be trusted and it does do a good job. If your kid were kidnapped you'd want the FBI on your side. The new director (Mueller) is getting them back in shape. And the FBI already is much more nimble than it was before he took over. So I think there's a happy ending to the story.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

06/14/02: U.S. News opens closet of Secret Service
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05/30/02: FBI saga gets more depressing
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04/05/02: Looking into the state of American greatness
03/25/02: The American President and the Peruvian Shoeshine Boys
03/22/02: Troublemaking intellectual puts Churchill in spotlight
03/20/02: 10 minutes with ... Bill Bennett
03/18/02: Suddenly, it's cool again to be a man
03/12/02: 10 minutes with … Ken Adelman
03/08/02: TIME asks the nation a scary question
03/05/02: 10 minutes with ... Rich Lowry
02/26/02: 10 minutes with ... Tony Snow
02/12/02: Has Soldier of Fortune gone soft?

© 2002, Bill Steigerwald