FBI director details dispute with Reno Freeh says he favors outside counsel to probe fund-raising

December 10, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- FBI Director Louis J. Freeh told Congress yesterday that he disagreed "on a matter of law" with Attorney General Janet Reno when she decided against seeking an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising phone calls by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

But Freeh said his recommendation in favor of an outside counsel did not mean that he thought "any particular person has committed a crime or has done anything improper."

In his first public statements on what he called the "worst-kept secret in Washington" -- his public split with Reno, his boss, over her decision last week -- Freeh said he believed his advice that she seek an independent counsel "had a sound basis in law and fact."

But in back-to-back appearances with Reno before a House oversight committee yesterday, the FBI director refused to provide details about why he concluded that an independent counsel was warranted. And both he and the attorney general played down their disagreement, with Freeh stressing that there was no "professional rift between us."

Though Reno's appearance consumed the bulk of the hearing yesterday -- with harsh criticism from Republicans for her refusal to ask for a special prosecutor -- the star attraction was Freeh.

His disagreement with Reno became public after the news media reported that Freeh had written a memo to the attorney general that outlined his opposing position.

Although his testimony had been eagerly anticipated by Republicans who hoped to isolate Reno in her conclusion that an independent counsel was not necessary, Freeh defied several lawmakers' attempts to unearth the substance of his disagreement with Reno or to cast doubt on the integrity of her decision.

"I have total respect for her decision," the FBI director said.

Freeh added, "I can assure you that the FBI is not impeded in any way in conducting this investigation."

But he suggested that among the factors that influenced his recommendation to turn the investigation over to an outside counsel was his belief that the attorney general faced a conflict of interest in investigating top White House officials, notably the president who appointed her.

Asked whether he was concerned about such a conflict for Reno, Freeh said, "I certainly had some concern about it to the point where I did make the recommendation I did."

For her part, Reno insisted that she faced no such conflict and would be ruled only by the facts and the law, not political pressure.

"I'm not ducking anything, and I'm not trying to protect anybody," she said. "If the president tells me to do something wrong, I'll just say, 'Bye, Mr. President,' and I'll get in my truck and go explore America."

But the committee chairman, Rep. Dan Burton, a leading critic of Reno's handling of the Justice Department's investigation into 1996 political fund raising, remained unconvinced. "This has all the appearances of an attorney general protecting the president," the Indiana Republican charged.

Before he testified yesterday, Freeh sat behind the attorney general during her entire five-hour session with the House panel, in which she vigorously defended her decision. The two chatted cordially during breaks.

Reno sought yesterday to make light of her public disagreement with Freeh, saying she would not want to be surrounded by " 'yes people' telling me what they think I want to hear."

The attorney general said she and Freeh had a "strong, amicable working relationship that I don't think anybody's going to bust up."

In his testimony, which is to continue today, Freeh acknowledged that he perceived "problems" in the Justice Department's investigation, and he hinted that there have been some tensions between department prosecutors and FBI investigators.

"From time to time, investigators have expressed frustration with the pace of things," Freeh said.

Asked whether any of his agents ever felt impeded by Justice Department officials, he said: "Not impeded in the sense that they were unable to conduct what we believe was the requisite investigation."

But he added, "There have been complaints; there have been differences between the prosecutors and agents" regarding the pace of the investigation, specifically involving the interviewing of witnesses.

Asked whether the White House had turned over all documents to the Justice Department, he said, "I am not confident we have all the documents yet."

After Freeh's memo to Reno became public knowledge, there had been speculation that White House support for the FBI director might be waning. In one news conference, Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, fueled that speculation by pointedly offering only lukewarm support for Freeh.

Both Freeh and Reno stressed repeatedly that, although the attorney general has decided against an independent counsel to investigate phone calls by Clinton and Gore, the Justice Depart- ment's investigation into various potential fund-raising abuses would continue.

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