MAY 6, 2009
During his tenure as FBI director, Louis J. Freeh struggled to raise a family of eight on a government salary. By the time he stepped down in 2001, his house was heavily mortgaged and he could be seen flying in coach class. Since leaving the Bureau, however, Freeh has earned a handsome salary. He first spent several years as a top lawyer for the credit-card giant mbna before opening his own firm in 2007, Freeh Group International, which bills itself as "a global consulting enterprise," specializing in advising a "select" group of (mostly undisclosed) clients on the niceties of international accounting and anti-corruption laws.
In the grand scheme of post-government careers, this might not seem so extraordinary were it not for one remarkable member of Freeh's "select" clients: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. Currently accused of illegally siphoning as much as $2 billion from a Saudi-British arms deal, Bandar has hired Freeh as his lawyer.
The two are an unlikely pair. Freeh is a character from the Untouchables--an altar boy from New Jersey. Bandar is a large-living billionaire and an ex- fighter pilot. He is also a Washington legend: a friend to multiple presidents, CIA directors, and media giants, as well as a renowned broker of Middle Eastern realpolitik. Bandar's adult life has been about moving in the shadows. Freeh's has been about shining a light into the shadows. The story of how the G-man and the prince came to be friends and then business associates is a story about terrorism, politics, money--and hidden Washington machinations.
Our heartwarming tale of friendship begins in terror. On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb exploded outside the Khobar Towers complex housing U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia. The attack killed 19 U.S. soldiers and wounded 372. Dispatching hundreds of his agents to Saudi Arabia, Freeh took an almost fanatical personal stake in the case, meeting for hours with the families of the slain soldiers near a scale model of the devastated building, complete with faux bomb crater. "The meetings lasted three days, and I was there for every moment of them and every meal: morning, noon and night," Freeh recalled in his 2005 memoir, My FBI.
But Freeh quickly grew frustrated with the Saudis' refusal to grant his men full access to several arrested suspects, and arranged a meeting with Bandar, the one Saudi official he knew, albeit faintly. From the start, Freeh was keen to develop a relationship. "I had come alone," he wrote, "because I felt the more the prince and I could put matters on a personal footing, the greater progress we would make, now and in the future." Bandar pledged to cooperate.
And Freeh left the meeting a little smitten. His memoir introduces the ambassador-prince as a man "who lives at the crest of diplomatic and political society," and "practically has his own key to the Oval Office." His parties were "legendary" and his political analysis "excellent." A friendship soon blossomed. Bandar would drop by Freeh's office, where he alone was permitted to smoke cigars. Freeh, in turn, would visit Bandar at his McLean, Virginia compound, which featured a 38-room home and a 12-bedroom dormitory for staff. On visits to the kingdom, Freeh would dine with the royals. At one dinner in Riyadh, Freeh recalls how "the elegant Saudi ambassador"--that would be Bandar-- "reached his well-manicured hand into a roast baby camel's rump, drew out a fistful of meat, and deposited it on my plate--a great honor."
Despite Bandar's pledge of help, the Saudis still didn't grant the FBI access to the suspects, who were telling their captors that they had been directed and trained by the Iranians. One reason for the obstructionism was Saudi sharia law, which bars foreigners from questioning criminal suspects. But the Saudis were also afraid of the consequences that might follow a U.S. retaliatory strike against Iran. To Freeh, however, the biggest obstacle to cooperation was President Bill Clinton--a judgment that meshed with his well- established loathing for the president's slippery fundraising and infidelities. (In 2001, Freeh sent a letter to Kenneth Starr hailing his "uncompromising ... integrity.")
According to Freeh's narrative, Clinton and his deputies feared being drawn into a confrontation with Iran at a time when they were seeking a rapprochement with its new reformist president. "It soon became clear," Freeh later complained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, "that Mr. Clinton and his national security advisor, Sandy Berger, had no interest in confronting the fact that Iran had blown up the towers. "
Freeh's memoir captured this purported spinelessness with a headline- grabbing scene: Meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah at Washington's Hay-Adams hotel, Clinton was scripted to press the Saudis for greater cooperation. But Freeh's book alleges that the president took a dive. Clinton "briefly raised the subject ... only to tell the Crown Prince that he certainly understood the Saudis' reluctance to cooperate. Then, according to my sources, he hit Abdullah up for a contribution to the still-to-be built Clinton presidential library." Freeh, who wasn't present, hangs the scene on "usually reliable sources." But the press picked up on his shocking accusation: Bill Clinton sold his integrity for Saudi dollars.
Numerous Clintonites vehemently disputed this account of the meeting. And, in their version, it was Freeh who succumbed to a Saudi prince, in this case Bandar. A gumshoe trained in mafia cases, Freeh was no match for the slick geopolitical deal-maker. "Louis Freeh was fed a bill of goods by Bandar," says a former senior Clinton administration official. The Clintonites felt sure that Bandar never shared Freeh's passion for justice--and that he exploited his proximity to Freeh to buy cover for Saudi intransigence. Top Clinton officials, including Sandy Berger, concluded that Bandar was making demands of the Americans that he knew to be unreasonable. Bandar, for instance, allegedly pressed the White House to say in advance how it would respond to hard information about Iran that the FBI might extract from the bombing suspects, something Berger and others adamantly refused to do. "Bandar was playing a game to avoid giving us the access," says the former Clintonite.
One also wonders what Freeh may have been thinking privately at the time. He is, after all, hardly the first senior U.S. official to wind up on the Saudi dole after leaving government. It has become shamefully routine for former U.S. ambassadors to Saudi Arabia to land on the kingdom's payroll. "If the reputation ... builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office, you'd be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office," Bandar once quipped, according to The Washington Post.
Bandar now needs his friend Freeh more than ever. In June 2007, British press reports, citing UK officials, alleged that a huge 1985 fighter-jet deal that Bandar brokered between Saudi Arabia and Great Britain featured secret clauses in which the prince received roughly $2 billion in payments from the giant British arms company BAE Systems. Bandar denies the charge, saying that the money went to Saudi government accounts as a legal fee. But prosecutors say the accounts were effectively for Bandar's personal use. One payment came in the form of an Airbus 340 jet, ostensibly for official use, but which Bandar had painted in the blue-and-silver colors of his beloved Dallas Cowboys and has used for extensive personal travel.
Here the story takes a particularly disturbing turn. With British prosecutors bearing down in 2006, Bandar allegedly made a personal visit to Prime Minister Tony Blair. In that meeting, according to an official 2007 House of Lords report, Bandar delivered a threat from the Saudi royal family to cut off cooperation with the United Kingdom on counterterrorism if the case delved into the royals' Swiss bank accounts. Fearing the worst, Blair buckled. The British ambassador to Riyadh warned London prosecutors that "British lives ... would be at risk" if the investigation continued, the report said. Freeh, so fulsomely indignant at the idea that Bill Clinton would compromise a terrorism investigation for political or financial reasons, now appears untroubled by evidence that Bandar did the same thing--only worse, insofar as Bandar's threat involved the specter of future violence.
Last week, Freeh made his first public appearance on Bandar's behalf when he defended his friend and now client in an episode of "Frontline" focused on the BAE case. Identifying himself as Bandar's attorney, Freeh called the core allegations "totally false," saying that the money in question had gone to the Saudi government, not Bandar personally, and that those charging fraud were applying "a U.S. corporate governance matrix to another country and another culture that operates quite differently." (Freeh's office said he was traveling and unavailable to comment for this article). When his interviewer mentioned an FBI supervisor, Dennis Lormel*, who had examined Saudi bank accounts in the United States, Freeh replied, "Yeah, I know Dennis very well." Which is presumably the point of hiring Freeh.
In recent months, Bandar has entered one of his fabled black periods. He is persona non grata in Obama's Washington, where even some former admirers now believe that the BAE charges are at least partly true. So now, with his reputation stained and his power depleted, he has vanished from public view, possibly struggling with his long-rumored depression. "He's out of sight," says Simon Henderson, a Saudi expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
As for Freeh, Henderson says: "He's just making a fool of himself," by trying to cast the BAE payments as a legal commission. Yet perhaps Freeh grew so enchanted with Bandar that the corruption charges truly anger him. After all, Freeh has always seen himself as a man of principle--a sensibility he lyrically described in the commencement address he delivered at Hillsdale College last May. Freeh implored the young graduates to remember their core values: "Your integrity and your honor are what's most important at the end of the day."
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.
*CORRECTION: FBI Supervisor Dennis Lormel's name was incorrectly spelled "Hormell" in paragraph 14. We apologize for the error.