FBI Director Louis Freeh says that Janet Reno should appoint an independent counsel to investigate campaign fund-raising abuses, and is dismayed at the sluggishness of the Justice investigation.
Not since the legendary J. Edgar Hoover played hardball with JFK has an FBI director been so ready to challenge a sitting president. As was the case with the Kennedy brothers, it is the attorney general who has become the lightning rod in a growing legal and political storm between the bureau and the White House. While Attorney General Janet Reno--to the relief of President Clinton--remains unmoved by congressional calls for the appointment of an independent counsel to probe the Democrats' Asian-money trail, FBI Director Louis Freeh has become even more convinced that a special prosecutor is needed.
And he's making no effort to disguise his concern at the way Reno has handled the allegations of fund-raising wrongdoing.
Insight has, learned that Reno's refusal to recommend appointment of an independent counsel -- she has declined GOP requests four times -- has become the source of mounting conflict between the Justice Department and the newly emboldened FBI director. According to sources both in the bureau and on Capitol Hill, the differences between Freeh and Reno are being compounded by the FBI director's frustration with what he sees as a less-than-zealous Justice inquiry into 1996 Democratic Party fundraising practices.
At the back of Freeh's mind, say sources close to him, is the fear that the bureau will get stuck with the blame if federal inquiries into illicit fund-raising are less than exhaustive. Freeh, who doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of Filegate and find himself once again the butt of allegations of political favoritism, has tried spur the Justice task force forward. He even has enlisted the help of GOP lawmakers in a bid to pressure Reno indirectly to get the probe to shift up a gear.
The director's efforts at forging alliances with GOP congressmen have antagonized the White House but, at the same time, have earned him some unlikely Republican admirers. Last spring, House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald Solomon of New York, who has been kept abreast of the progress of the Justice probe by Freeh, urged his GOP colleagues to back off criticizing the director for the failings of the FBI crime lab and they responded -- including Republicans still unhappy with Freeh about high-profile FBI debacles such as last summer's botched Olympic-bombing investigation.
"He's fast becoming someone worth trusting," says a congressional GOP source. "What a difference a few months make -- last year a lot of Republicans were baying for his blood, now people here are noting he seems determined to be his own man. He is signaling very clearly that he's going to be no one's tool."
Freeh's current popularity among GOP lawmakers stands in stark contrast to how Reno is viewed. Solomon, for example, lavishes praise on Freeh, remarking, "I have the utmost respect for the FBI," but adds, "I can't say the same about Janet Reno." The attorney general's refusal to appoint an independent counsel recently provoked House Speaker Newt Gingrich to compare her to John Mitchell, Richard Nixon's attorney general who spent 19 months in a federal prison following a Watergate conviction for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. Leaving the hyperbole aside, even the normally reticent Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, who prefers to operate quietly and pursue compromise, flashed irritation with Reno at a recent Senate hearing.
GOP lawmakers aren't alone in questioning why Reno won't appoint an independent counsel. The attorney general's continuing insistence that Justice can handle the inquiry has produced critics beyond Republican ranks -- among them Democratic Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. With more details emerging daily concerning dubious White House and Democratic National Committee, or DNC, fund-raising practices, Reno's explanations for refusing to press for an independent counsel appear increasingly fragile to her critics. …