It was easy to get Louis Freeh’s FBI wrong. While he was in charge from 1993 to 2001, you went to the Quantico FBI Academy, to the Washington headquarters, to the field offices, and all you saw was talent: experienced, energetic agents and supervisors moving, it seemed, in every direction at once. If someone had a good idea, Louis Freeh would build a program around it. Visit the Hostage Rescue Team at Quantico and you would see the nation’s best and brightest–and, let me tell you, some of the brawniest–wrapping their talents and lethal experience around hairy scenarios involving fast-roping from helicopters, crashing into black night-close quarters battle, and knocking off “Tangos” (terrorists) with long-range rifles. Wow. In fact, double wow.

In those days, you walked down FBI corridors and you couldn’t miss the Director’s ethical maxims–placards were everywhere proclaiming his bright-line policy of zero tolerance for dishonesty and his core FBI values of respect for civil liberties. In the Freeh years, FBI reports led off with homilies by the director that treated agent misconduct like the first step to the Holocaust. He was training ethical G-Men at Quantico. Agents with Ph.D.s in philosophy drilled trainees in the moral logic of Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, and Kant, guiding them through tricky case studies in which a failure to turn in an errant fellow agent would eventually have that sinner mitigate his punishment by serving you up for not turning him in. Wow again.

You had to be impressed, amazed even, by some of the phenomenal FBI investigations of the Freeh years: Special Agent Brad Garrett dragging Mir Aimal Kasi back from Pakistan to be executed for shooting up the CIA in 1993; agents luring Ramzi Yousef from the Philippines to Pakistan and then to America to face trial and life imprisonment for the first World Trade Center bombing.

Sure there were screw-ups–the Olympic Park bombing fiasco where the Bureau spun its wheels trying to pin the crime on Richard Jewell before concluding that anti-abortion terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph was its man. There was the botched investigation of atomic scientist Wen Ho Lee, in which FBI mistakes turned a suspect widely believed to be guilty into a hero in some Asian and civil libertarian circles. There were the misplaced documents in the Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma City bombing case. And of course, Robert Hanssen. But hey, nobody bats 1.000.

I was infatuated with the Freeh Bureau, and at first 9/11 did nothing to break the spell. I was sure that, as in similar episodes in the past, a fair review would absolve the Bureau of blame for having missed signals that danger was near. Boy, was I ever wrong.

In none of its great historic cases –the gang-busting manhunts of the ’30s, the atom spy cases of the ’40s–did the FBI ever get the kind of breaks it got, and ignored, during the summer of 2001. True, Louis Freeh had left the Bureau on June 25 of that year, but by that time, the hijackers had all assembled and the pilots had been trained. Freeh has to bear responsibility for the politically correct obtuseness at headquarters that rejected Phoenix agent Ken Williams’s plea to survey flight schools for a pattern of Middle Eastern men seeking pilot training. That would have been “ethnic profiling,” and the FBI wouldn’t go there. The same headquarters supervisors blocked the Minneapolis field office’s investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French-born Moroccan flight student agents in Minneapolis had arrested on visa violations and who was probably intended to be the 20th hijacker on September 11, 2001.

I had gotten Freeh’s FBI all wrong. It was keeping its eye on everything except the ball–patterns of suspicious activity in communities where radical Islamists were likely to hide. But long before Freeh took over, the FBI had given up on domestic surveillance. It really deserved Richard Clarke’s mordant comment that “I didn’t think the FBI would know whether or not there was anything going on in the United States by al Qaeda.” According to the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks, the FBI under Freeh had become risk averse and politically correct, though those tendencies had begun to appear years before Freeh took over. If I had been a faster writer, in fact, the history of the FBI that I eventually produced in 2004 would have been a hymn of praise to the great days the FBI was enjoying under Freeh. Saved by a slow pen.

Was there anyone who saw before 9/11 that things were really not so hunky-dory at Freeh’s FBI? There was one voice crying in the wilderness: journalist Ronald Kessler, who charged that FBI agent morale had collapsed under Freeh and that Freeh was personally responsible for mishandling key cases. We should have paid attention, but many felt that since Kessler had almost single-handedly brought down William Sessions, Freeh’s predecessor, he was just angling for another director’s scalp. In fact, Kessler was right on all counts. Go back and read his two books on the Bureau after you read Freeh.

I do think you should read this book. Remarkably, Freeh is only the second FBI director to have left us his memoirs–the other was Clarence Kelley, who succeeded Acting Director L. Patrick Gray, who came after Hoover. For the record, Kelley was succeeded by William Webster, later Director of Central Intelligence, and then came William Sessions and Freeh. As for J. Edgar Hoover, his memoirs consist, as far as history is concerned, in the noxious marginalia he penned on his agents’ reports dealing with the Bureau’s harassment of Martin Luther King Jr.

Like a thin coat of whitewash, Freeh’s My FBI actually highlights much of what went wrong with the Bureau under his leadership, although that was certainly not what Freeh intended. Freeh’s aim was to draw a contrast between his straight arrow at the FBI and Bill Clinton’s sleazy behavior over at the White House. According to Freeh, the FBI’s greatest frustration during his years was the administration’s resistance to the Bureau’s efforts to track down the terrorists, probably Iranian, who bombed the Khobar Towers military barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans. Freeh accuses the Clinton administration of refusing to press the Saudis to cooperate with the Bureau because the investigation might have interfered with Clinton’s efforts to improve relations with Iran. In the unkindest cut of all, he implies that Clinton solicited a Saudi contribution to the Clinton Library as a sort of payoff for not pressuring the Saudis–indignantly denied by the Clinton people.

One of the most explosive revelations of the book is Freeh’s complaint that he was unable to work with Clinton because, as an officer of the law, an FBI director could not have any contact with the president “because he was already the subject of a criminal investigation.” Freeh wouldn’t go to the White House to watch movies with the Clintons because Clinton might be dirty. He turned in his White House pass so no one would think that he was meeting secretly with an investigation target. He didn’t even want to brief Secretary of State Madeline Albright on the Chinese campaign contribution scandal, since she might pass along information on the investigation to Clinton.

Look, as a person, Freeh was great, and a lot of the book (too much) is about the days before he became director when he was terrific as an agent, a prosecutor, and a judge. But it turned out that Louis Freeh, for all the fine things he did for the Bureau, was the wrong man at the wrong time to be FBI director. Clinton was president of the United States, and to paraphrase LBJ, Clinton was the only president Freeh had, whether Freeh liked it or not. For the good of the FBI and the good of the country, to say nothing of the good of the president, Freeh had to work with Clinton. If he found it violated his principles to do so, he should have resigned. He explains that if he had, “quite frankly, I was worried about whom he might appoint as my successor, even on a temporary basis.” But if he resigned, Freeh would have been in a strong position to stop Clinton if he had tried to appoint someone unsuitable.

What we expect from Freeh’s memoir is an explanation of what went wrong and kept the FBI from stopping the attacks. We don’t get it. Freeh goes over the pre-9/11 events, and, while he concedes that if the Bureau had handled its leads better “then perhaps 9/11 never would have happened, or would have happened at a lesser scale,” he still doesn’t explain why the FBI failed.

Freeh liked to say that the Bureau was and always would be reactive, not proactive. As an American law enforcement agency, it would always obey the Constitution.

Fine and good. But under Freeh the Bureau saw its job fighting terrorism as gathering evidence after a crime and bringing the guilty to justice. After 9/11, it seems evident to everyone, but not to Freeh, that the FBI should have been proactive. The Bureau’s success in bringing terrorists to justice after the fact wasn’t good enough. The point was to stop those attacks from happening.

Freeh knew how to do that. He was the expert in the enterprise approach to organized crime that–in large part through his efforts–had taken down the Mafia. What was needed was the same task-force approach using foreign and domestic security agencies to understand, locate, and uproot the al Qaeda conspiracy. Freeh–and this is his most important legacy as director–had built up terrific relationships with foreign security agencies, and so he had the weapons he needed for effective intelligence against terror, overseas at least. Freeh writes that relationships between the FBI and the CIA were just fine on his watch. They were not. Walls between intelligence gathering and criminal investigations had been thrown up over the years in the Bureau and became thicker under Janet Reno and Jamie Gorelick without protest from Freeh. By the time Freeh left, there might be two agent teams working on a terrorism case–a “clean” team working the criminal side, a “dirty” team digging up intelligence–and the two couldn’t share files, couldn’t even talk to each other.

Since Hoover’s death, the Bureau has faced a permanent opposition–in Congress, the press, and the public–that bashes the Bureau in times good or bad. Whether the Bureau deserves it or not, there are civil libertarians who feel that it is always a good thing for the country to rip the Bureau any chance they get. All that Bureau bashing may have been good for the souls of the bashers, but the consequences have been disastrous for the Bureau: The country was left, before 9/11, with an FBI that no longer wanted to gather, and was not gathering, information about potential dangers on the home front because it knew it would get its head handed to it if it was caught. Its idea of fighting terror was catching terrorists after they had done their dirty work, and preserving evidence at the crime scene for the trial, if there was a trial. Freeh essentially internalized the values and outlook of the Bureau’s most extreme civil libertarian critics. When I asked a top FBI official before 9/11 what the Bureau was doing to fight terrorism, he told me, “We aren’t violating anybody’s civil liberties.”

Not too convincingly, Freeh blames the Clinton administration for stymieing Bureau investigations with its own political correctness. Under Freeh, an ostentatious concern for morality, or at least the appearance of morality, was everywhere. After 9/11, the moral earnestness that had impressed me so much about the FBI began to look suspiciously like a one-size-fits-all excuse for taking a pass whenever a domestic intelligence investigation might get anywhere in the neighborhood of bruising anybody’s civil liberties.

The question remains, why, despite a monotonously steady succession of fiascos, did Freeh essentially get a free pass from Congress, the public, and most of the press, until 9/11 made it impossible to ignore the Bureau’s breakdown any longer? And why would Freeh, writing four years after 9/11 and after his Bureau had been raked over the coals by a presidential commission, a congressional commission, and several think-tank reports, feel confident that he could still claim, despite everything, that his record was, overall, a great success?

Had he been J. Edgar Hoover, we would just say, hey, he’s got the goods on everyone. But people in the know, and even most not in the know, knew that Freeh’s Bureau didn’t have the goods on anyone, not even the people it should have.

Freeh managed to triangulate the differences between partisan Republicans and Democrats. He knew how to keep both of them off his back and at each others throats. His abhorrence of Clinton put him in good stead with the Clinton-hating Republicans, while the Bureau’s campaigns against the militias and other gun nuts pleased the Democrats, who were trying to get political mileage out of linking the Republicans with violent right-wing extremists.

But the real secret to Freeh’s success–PR success at least–was that he had thoroughly mastered the contemporary American penchant, especially strong in media and legal circles Freeh had to worry about, for valuing process (and good intentions) over results. Freeh may have failed more than he succeeded, but by God, he failed in the right way–with affirmative action, strict adherence to a high sounding code of ethics, and ostentatious concern for procedures and regulations, and he generally aligned himself with Bureau critics whenever the Bureau was caught screwing up, throwing up his hands and saying, what can I do with these guys? Agents used to say that whenever there was a mess, management would visit the battlefield to bayonet the wounded. Freeh evidently believed that he and the Bureau would be treated more severely for succeeding the wrong way–by using controversial methods–than for failing the right way, dotting the ethical “i”s and crossing the legalistic “t”s, no matter what the cost to the country.

Richard Gid Powers is the author of Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI, and three other works dealing with the Bureau.

Richard Gid Powers is the author of Broken: The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI, and three other works dealing with the Bureau.