Former FBI Director Louis Freeh on the FISA court decision, the war on terror, and his support of Rudy Giuliani
HH: We begin with former FBI Director, Judge Louis Freeh. Judge Freeh, welcome to the program, good to have you on.
LF: Thank you, Hugh, a pleasure to be with you.
HH: Judge, today, a district court struck down the FISA reform that was passed. Before we get to the politics, what’s your reaction to this latest ruling by a federal district court in the intelligence business of the United States?
LF: Yeah, well, you know, it’s a very important decision. Judge Marrero has ruled previously on other provisions of the Patriot Act, a decision which is now under appeal. But this one expanded a little bit, striking down basically a group of provisions that allowed the FBI to seek the national security letters, and he did it on the basis of separation of powers and 1st Amendment. So you know, it’s an early stage in the legal process, and the determination of this provision. If you remember, his first decision was followed by the Congress enacting a new statute which, you know, now of course is at issue. So you know, I think this is exactly the way in the United States we want our Constitution to be protected as well as interpreted, and ultimately, if necessary, decided by the courts. So the balance of powers between the executive and the judicial, although sometimes disruptive, is really the essential part of our democracy. And I guess maybe it’s my prior bias as a judge, you know, I think it’s although a disruptive process, it’s basically a sound one.
HH: You know, a disruptive process doesn’t often matter, Judge Freeh, but when it’s about FISA and intelligence gathering, you saw how the judge up in Detroit got it completely wrong. Is this a place, and taking this specific case off, that judges ought to go very carefully, drawing on your hat from your years chasing terrorists?
LF: Absolutely. They should proceed very carefully. But if you’ll notice, Judge Marrero basically stayed his order for 90 days, giving the government a chance to get some emergency relief. So I think we can see from that that he was very conscious of the importance of this, and not intending to disrupt ongoing matters as we saw in Germany the other day. I mean, we have to be very, very careful about any diversion at all from this examination.
HH: Another high profile story on the front page of today’s paper calls to mind some chapters in your memoir, My FBI: Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton and Fighting the War On Terror. And that is the fact that Norman Hsu, a $23,000 dollar contributor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, who also bundled untold number of contributions, is a fugitive. He skipped a $2 million dollar bail. Now would it be useful to law enforcement, Director Freeh, to have the names of the people whose contributions he bundled for Hillary in order to find him now?
LF: Well, of course, I mean, if I was working the fugitive’s case, first of all, I can’t…I don’t want to criticize the state judge there, but I mean anybody who would let a fugitive go without his passport, I mean, I don’t understand that. But leaving that aside for a moment, sure. If I was working the fugitive lead back in 1975 as a work agent in New York City, I’d want to know all those things, because those are all leads.
HH: Is he likely to contact the people who he’s been close enough to solicit money from?
LF: You know, I don’t know enough about him. I don’t know how smart he is or how planned this was, or how practiced he would be as a fugitive. But I mean in an ongoing investigation, those would be very logical leads that you would want to pursue.
HH: What was your reaction when you heard there’s another Clinton fundraising scandal?
LF: Well, (laughing) I mean, we investigated the campaign contributions case for several years, and if you remember the Attorney General and I disagreed. Unfortunately, that became a public matter as to whether or not there should be an independent prosecutor. You know, I thought there should be, she disagreed, that’s fine. She was the Attorney General. But you know, the problem with this is not just for these particular donors, but any donor is, you know, you don’t do a background investigation on your donors, particularly if they’re on the internet. So you know, you run the risk of being embarrassed or being compromised. I think the reaction of the campaigns was appropriate. They immediately got rid of the money, and (laughing) hopefully, you know, we find this guy and as you saw the Department of Justice has opened up a criminal case on the campaign contributions. And to answer your previous question, they will very carefully look at the bundling, and see whether there was reimbursement, or other illegal activity.
HH: Should the campaign dump the bundled contributions as well?
LF: Well, you know, I mean, if I was advising the campaign, or if I was the candidate, I certainly would do that. But legally, they have some grounds to resist that, if they assume the bundling is legitimate. But I don’t think anybody knows that at this point.
HH: I want to get to the Giuliani campaign, You’re a surrogate for the Mayor. He did well last night, done well the whole campaign. It’s really a two or three person race at this point. Why are you a Giuliani guy, Director Freeh?
LF: You know, Hugh, I’ve known him a long time. Back when I was an assistant U.S. Attorney in New York City, I had mostly organized crime drug cases. Rudy came into the office as the U.S. Attorney, so I worked with him during his tenure. We got to be you know, close associates, very good friends. I developed a great respect and affection for him personally. Professionally, I admire his leadership, his integrity. When he became Mayor, the Bureau, he became Mayor just about the same time I became Director, and we worked, continued to work very closely in the Bureau with the New York Police Department. In fact, the Joint Terrorism Task Force up there, it preceded Rudy, but it also was enhanced by him during his tenure. You know, we deployed that team over to places like Khobar Towers, the Embassy bombings, the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen. And we actually had New York City police detectives with overseas assignments together with FBI agents. So I think…look, I think he’s a great leader. I think there’s some other great candidates for sure. But I know him, I trust him, I think the way he managed New York City, I mean, long before the tragedy of 9/11, you know, he’s got it. He understands what has to be done in terms of public safety and protecting the country.
HH: Stay on 9/11 as we’re approaching the six year anniversary, Director Freeh. We’re coming up next week to that. The DVD of The Path To 9/11 is not being issued by Disney. First of all, did you see the TV series?
LF: You know, I did not see it, Hugh, to be honest with you.
HH: Do you think it’s right for Disney to sit it on the shelf?
LF: Well, you know, I don’t know. I’d probably have to see it to evaluate that and give you an intelligent answer. So I just really don’t know the answer to that.
HH: All right, one of the controversies that continues to linger, it’s all through the Looming Tower, the wonderful book by Lawrence Wright, it’s in the Path To 9/11, it’s how close John O’Neil and his team, and their counterparts operating for the CIA in Afghanistan, got to bin Laden. Louis Freeh, how close did we get, in your understanding, to either killing him or grabbing him?
LF: Well, I think we got close at a couple of critical intersections. You know, a year before the Embassy bombings in 1998, the CIA director and I stood up what we called the Alex Station, which was very unique, It was a very covert team of FBI agents working together with CIA officers. It had never been done before. And their job was to target, collect and implement strategy to arrest or incapacitate Osama bin Laden, which is why when the bombings occurred in August of ’98, we knew very quickly, because of our collected data, telephone numbers, pocket litter, as they call that stuff found on the person of these people, that this was an al Qaeda operation. You know, we put him on the Top Ten list, we indicted him, we brought back many of his co-defendants, tried them in New York. I went over to see Musharraf, I tried to get him to help grab bin Laden, who was across the border protected by the Taliban, which was then allied, if you remember, with the Pakistani authorities, including the inter-agency intelligence service. Musharraf was no help to me. But you know, that was a law enforcement initiative. The Agency had some covert opportunities. None of them worked out. They had authority to kill him. They couldn’t find a safe place in their estimation to do it. I respect that. The military ruled out incursions into Afghanistan, so really, we were close, but no cigar. If we were going to really seriously get him, we would have had to be willing to do, prior to September 11th, which of course we weren’t, and that is invade Afghanistan, and take out his command and control. And the country, quite frankly, didn’t have the will to do that.
HH: If Rudy Giuliani is the next president, do you expect that he’ll be better, the same, or less effective as George Bush and Bill Clinton at hunting down these head terrorists, these big name terrorists?
LF: You know, I don’t know that he would be more effective. I mean, you have to put it in the context of his authorities. You know, was George Bush more effective than President Clinton in hunting these terrorists down? Yes. But you know, he had authorities, he had Congressional resolutions, he had resources, and I don’t criticize President Clinton for not having that authority. I mean, if you remember, before September 11th, no president, no member of Congress stood up in the Capitol and said you know, I think we need to invade Afghanistan, because this guy’s blowing up Embassies and ships. And you know what? He just issues a fatwa to kill Americans anywhere. So would Giuliani be more effective? He would be very, very effective, because I think he’s got it on terrorism. He would stay on offense, and he would hold people accountable for results, which I think is a key part of his leadership.
HH: Former FBI Director, Judge Louis Freeh, thank you for joining us. Look forward to talking to you again.
End of interview.