The FBI -- is it salvageable?
Geoff Metcalf interviews former bureau agent Gary Aldrich

Editor's note: Gary Aldrich served as an FBI agent for 26 years, eventually winning a coveted position at the White House. What he saw there when the Clinton team took over in 1993 led him to write his New York Times bestseller, "Unlimited Access: An FBI agent inside the Clinton White House," a book exposing the many national security breaches Aldrich witnessed in the administration. In 1998, Aldrich founded the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to promoting the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and supporting the rights of citizens to engage in ethical dissent.

Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed Aldrich about the FBI and the chances, under the Bush administration, of a wholesale reorganization of the agency.

By Geoff Metcalf

Q: There has been a lot of talk and posturing in Congress about all the bad things that Butch Reno did to the FBI having to do with reorganization or restructuring. Are the systemic management problems that apparently do exist at the FBI fixable, and can or will this current administration do it?

A: I have some doubts. I think it can be done for a couple of reasons. The FBI increased in size by about 30 percent in the last couple of years of the Clinton administration. Understand we had gone along with about 10,000 agents for as long as I was an FBI agent -- which was about 26 years -- and growth in the agent population was slow. At the same time the number of violations that we had jurisdiction over was smaller.

Q: So where did this extra 30 percent go to?

A: I don't have any idea. I wish I could tell you. When you look at the federal and state crime rates [which have lowered] because of demographics and because of keeping a lot of violent predators behind bars these days, and when you look at the fact the Berlin Wall has fallen and the collapse of the Soviet Union -- that was a major scene that the FBI had to work on -- you have to scratch you head and wonder what all those FBI agents are up to these days.

Q: Allegedly -- and I realize there has been a lot of writing both in fiction and fact about this -- but the way I remember it, the FBI was responsible for everything in CONUS (Continental United States) and the CIA was supposed to handle all the intelligence stuff elsewhere in the world. Those lines have kind of gotten blurred, haven't they?

A: Well, yes and no. I don't think the CIA has much to do in this country. On the other hand, the FBI has increased its coverage around the world, but not in terms of manpower necessarily. I think the sum total of agents overseas is about 40. So whereas they may have opened a new office in a foreign land where they didn't have one before, they haven't sent agents wholesale over there but merely send them over as representatives to work with the foreign police agencies and intelligence agencies. But what concerns me in this country is there has been a shift of the FBI to begin to look at so-called "domestic terrorists," particularly after the Timothy McVeigh bombing of the Oklahoma City office building. That was used by the Clinton administration as an excuse, I believe, to use the bureau to keep tabs on people who were drastically opposed to the Clinton agenda. Of course, I was one of those people.

Q: Also, Louis Freeh, notwithstanding the recent criticism he has been hit with, has been a veritable jihad to undermine privacy as a concept.

A: Yes, the bureau has found all kinds of fascinating ways to get information we weren't able to get before. There were certain restrictions in place - well-known to FBI agents and prosecutors alike -- in terms of wiretaps and information you could never get. Now, we have this computerized technique called Carnivore. They call it something else now.

Q: They changed the name because it got too much heat.

A: They changed the name, but the idea was to use a kind of sifting devise to look for key words that were being used on the Internet that might signal someone was involved in some kind of nefarious conspiracy within the United States to commit harm to the government. And we have allegations of other sweeping agreements with foreign powers, for example, to gather information to be shared amongst the foreign entities.

Q: I started writing about Echelon over three years ago. That was (and is) like the elephant in the living room no one would admit was there.

A: That's true. You know what really is fascinating if you are a student of history, as I am, you realize that if the Nixon administration had been doing one-tenth of this kind of incursion into people's privacy rights, we'd have had wholesale riots in the streets.

Q: You wrote in your book about some of the systemic management problems. Frankly, a lot of it seems like petty ego stuff, but beyond that, did you know this I.C. Smith guy?

A: I.C. Smith is a man who rose up through the ranks and became the special agent in charge of the Little Rock FBI Field Office and held that post at the time of his retirement.

Q: He's got this 800-page monster manuscript [the FBI] has been sitting on for over six months. They don't want to release it, arguably, according to him, because it is so critical of them -- the "suits." You had a very similar situation when you presented them with "Unlimited Access."

A: Yes, I did. The FBI is mandated by federal law to review quickly any manuscript produced by FBI personnel, FBI agents or support people. In fact, they are supposed to get back to the writer within 30 working days to give their opinion of what can be published and what shouldn't be published.

Q: Apparently they came back to Smith with something like 85 objections, and he responded to them. But this has been dragging on for months and months.

A: That's what happened to me. Essentially, when we submitted my manuscript in December of 1995, they took us on an endless journey of objections. My attorney, one of the best in the business in terms of constitutional law, got right back to them and cited case law that held they could not delay the book for the reasons stated by the FBI. And then they would back off of that and give us whole new rounds of objections. It was an endless journey and a very costly one, I must say, because in order to get through this maze one must have an expensive lawyer.

Q: And they count on that.

A: Oh, yeah. They count on that. They wear you down, and they never did approve my book. So I finally went ahead and published it, but not before the legal fees had topped $100,000. Of course, that ate up every single dime of the royalties the publisher had paid me.

Q: OK, so after being dragged on this never-ending journey of potholes and obfuscation, you went ahead and published your book anyway. So what happened? I know they leaked a copy to the White House to help with spin control, but did they threaten you with anything?

A: My attorney and his law firm had expressed an opinion in writing to me that even if the Department of Justice and the FBI ended up suing me for the royalties, the worst that could happen is that they would just get the royalties. So we decided to just go ahead with it because case law held that I had a constitutional right, a First Amendment right, an absolute right to publish this book. So the decision was made by my wife and I that we would go forward with it.

Q: I know the British have some type of official secrecy act. Have we got something similar?

A: Actually, no. In fact, the law was crafted by former Attorney General Griffin Bell during the Carter administration. I have since had an opportunity to speak with him personally about his intent when this law was crafted and signed into law by Jimmy Carter. Griffin Bell told me it was his absolute intent to protect the First Amendment right of federal employees by crafting a law that would allow the government to protect itself against disclosures of classified material but at the same time give FBI agents and others the right to publish works that they thought might be in the public interest. And that's the way the law is written. The FBI has an absolute obligation to only withhold approval for a manuscript when it is clear that the material is classified in nature.

Q: You say the FBI has a "palace guard" mentality. Does this go back to J. Edgar Hoover days, or is this something new?

A: I think the bureau always had an attitude. I guess you could compare us to 747 pilots or fighter pilots.

Q: You were cocky!

A: Of course, we were cocky. We were told over and over again that 10,000 would apply and only one would be taken. And in fact, that is the truth and still is today. Of all the people who apply for a position as an FBI agent, only about one in 10,000 are chosen. So once you make it through the training you go on to your field office assignment and you begin the long journey up through the ranks, as I did. I ended up in the White House, a very premier assignment. But the entire FBI career is a journey in achievement and, hopefully, excellence, and agents like me enjoy that kind of thing.

Q: So, Gary, where is the disconnect between "Duty, Honor, Country" and territorial imperative and political expedience?

A: Geoff, I don't think you're going to be reading too many stories about rank and file line agents (like I was) getting into too much mischief. I think where you're going to find the major problems is in the management ranks. For decades, agents that I worked with in different field offices -- and I worked at big ones -- complained all the time about management -- about how inept it was, how incompetent it was, how petty, how personally vindictive some of these managers were. And we began to realize that when agents find that they can't meet the challenge of actual FBI work, when they are not high achievers, when they are not able to move ahead on merit, they are quite often interested in the administrative side. Maybe they are more political, and that's easier for them to do than to solve a major case. In the Hoover days, agents were promoted because of merit. But when Hoover died, a shift began away from meritorious promotions, and they began to select agents for promotion because they could "get along" and had the "go along to get along" mentality.

Q: I've had many conversations with Col. Dave Hackworth about the same thing in the military. He calls them "perfumed princes." I've made the observation that the best job I ever had in the Army was as a company commander as a captain. Once I made field grade, things noticeably changed. It seems at least to me that in the military, once someone gets that eagle and they are an O-6 full colonel, they stop being a solider and are compelled to be a politician.

A: Agent supervisors around the country will try to convince you otherwise. They'll try to tell you they are still FBI agents.

Q: I'm asking you for the reality check. At what point do they cease being agents and become politicians?

A: First, let me say they don't all go that way. We had many, many supervisors and special agents in charge of field offices about whom we could say, "That man or woman was 'an agent's agent'" -- someone you really wanted to work for, a true leader. And we were happy to have them on board. Unfortunately, there are too many of the other kind.

Q: And when does that happen?

A: When they leave the so-called "squad supervisor" ranks. The squad supervisor is a man or woman who has some experience (less these days), but that person is generally supervising a squad of somewhere around 15-30 special agents. That's generally in the field office. But after they do that for a period of time they are brought back to FBI headquarters -- we call it "The Puzzle Palace." There, they go through a series of training sessions and transfers which take them away, far away, from the agent ranks.

Q: Indoctrinations.

A: Indoctrinations. But I have to say there's also the realization they have made a mistake. They are away from the real FBI work, and all they are doing is pushing memos back and forth. It's pretty dismal.

Q: Regarding the systemic management problems, we've heard talk now about major reorganization. I get the impression -- and this is just a visceral feeling on my part -- that you don't really need to reorganize the structure but that it is the individual players with whom you have a problem. Is that accurate or not?

A: I think it's accurate. I think part of the problem is they abandoned the J. Edgar Hoover management model after he died and installed something that was more like an old-style IBM management program, which, by the way, IBM has long since jettisoned because it wasn't effective for them. We adopted it. In fact, I think we bought it from IBM and tried to install it at the FBI. So all the managers who came up through that very complicated system have been indoctrinated by it, and I think too many of them have been basically ruined by it. I don't know how frankly you take an ever-expanding agency with this kind of systemic management problem and reverse course. I just don't see how it is possible.

Q: Do they have to blow it up and start all over again? Does the FBI have to go away and be replaced with some new animal with a similar kind of structure but different players? Or can they take the framework that exists, the infrastructure, and basically clean house?

A: They've got a great training program. First, start with that. Then you have a lot of young agents. In fact, I think a third of agents on board now were hired during the Clinton administration, to give you an idea just how young they are. You have a good resource to work with. But my feeling is the FBI is too large, and one good way to solve that problem is to split it off and take the so-called domestic investigations about national security and terrorism and put that into one agency. Then take the criminal work -- which is really the backbone of FBI work -- and split it off into an agency that deals with nothing but criminal activity and prosecutions to the federal court. I think that would trim the entities down to manageable sizes. As long as you keep them together, there is always incredible competition between these two entities within the FBI for resources.

Q: The big question is about Attorney General John Ashcroft. Is he the guy on the white horse or is he part of the problem?

A: I wish I could give you an absolute answer one way or the other. We're talking about a man now who has been in the U.S. Senate for a time, and he's been part of the U.S. government scheme for years. He was the former governor of his state, and now he's shifted into the Department of Justice with the administration. I have a concern about a mindset that he may have that comes when you have spent entirely too much time inside the government. I think the FBI could benefit from a private sector look-see.

Q: They might benefit from that, but there ain't no way/no how they are going allow that to happen. Come on.

A: Then, in fact, I am answering your question, am I not? One thing I like that General Ashcroft has said is that he is having a private sector management team come in and look at the bureau and try to find out what can be fixed, if anything. But what's going to happen is they are going to submit their report, and they are going to find dramatic issues raised about the FBI. But the FBI will be allowed to respond to these findings, and what will be left over, I guess, will be a kind of homogenized view of the world. Then from that, General Ashcroft and the White House -- believe me, the White House will be part of this -- will then decide what, if anything, can and will be done to the FBI. After they have done that, then comes the real work: trying to convince these very, very tough folks who have been doing it their way for all these years that they must change dramatically and move in directions that may be totally alien to them.

Q: About a month ago, I made a suggestion on the air that if Congress is serious about this and aren't just blowing smoke, what they might consider doing is get everybody involved a copy of "Unlimited Access" and a copy of these 800 pages of I.C. Smith's manuscript, and go through the two of them to see if there are any points of commonality. And if there are similar problems that have been identified by two very experienced former agents, use that as at least a starting point for the renaissance.

A: That's an excellent idea, and thank you very much for the plug. But thinking about the FBI for just a moment and what the agency is supposed to do should be enough to get this job done. Very much like flying a 747 or operating on somebody's brain in the operating room, what the FBI does to individual citizens' lives is dramatic. That alone should put everybody on their toes and on their best behavior at all times, because we're taking liberty; we're taking property. As an FBI agent, you can also take a life. So you have this extraordinary power, the same, as I said, as a pilot of a 747 has in his hands. It should always be taken very, very seriously, very professionally, and you should not have these kinds of errors occurring on the job.

Somehow, agents, especially in the management ranks, have lost sight of the mission. And the mission is just exactly what I said it is, and it isn't anything else. The primary mission of an FBI agent is not to advance through within the ranks of the FBI. I'm afraid too many of our agents have fallen victim to this thing called "careerism," where they are burned out and really don't care about the mission any more very much, and their primary mission is to get ahead in the agency.

Q: Back in the dark ages of the last administration, I frequently made the observation that those FBI files that the Clinton administration got their hands on -- and to the best of my knowledge, they still have a copy of somewhere -- contain raw data. This isn't an indictment followed by a trial followed by adjudication at the end. It's someone calling up and saying, "Hey, Geoff Metcalf is beating his wife." You send some guys out to check it and determine no, he wasn't. But there is a piece of paper somewhere that you followed up on that.

A: Yeah. Basically, these kinds of investigations are done just for the benefit of the executive branch. In other words, to tell the White House what's floating around about someone out there. Now, we don't just take wacky, wild allegations and stick them in the file.

Q: Is it possible that the Democratic Party got a hold of these files inappropriately, still has them and may use them? A whole bunch of people have suggested that anytime the Republicans fold like a house of cards on something, we hear allegations that they've got an FBI file on them. Is that possible?

A: I think it's very possible. As a matter of fact, I think both parties maintain some kind of intelligence-gathering apparatus.

Q: Not good enough on some guys like Congressman Condit, apparently.

A: Who knows? He was a man who had voted many times with so-called conservatives up on Capitol Hill. He had that reputation. I don't suggest the Republicans were blackmailing him, but you raise a good issue here. If you recall when Clinton was accused of having this affair with Monica Lewinsky, one man who should have been very, very vocal about this, who should have been crowing from the rooftops about it, was one Newt Gingrich, who was then speaker of the House.

Q: Whose skirts were also dirty.

A: We find out later that Speaker Gingrich was involved in an illicit relationship with a young staff member while at the same time he was making the rounds at political events. I attended quite a few of them. He was with his wife, Mary Anne. They were introduced as husband and wife, and they were friendly. In fact, I was a bit embarrassed because I was looking forward to my wife meeting Mary Anne and Speaker Gingrich at an event we attended. All the time, he was dating this young staff member. It was quite embarrassing for me personally to have to go through that with my wife. Now we can understand a little better why Gingrich's attitude and behavior toward Clinton was a bit muted. Perhaps state secrets didn't trade hands, but what I'm saying is when you are carrying around that kind of guilt and burden and fear of discovery, I think you do tend to pull your punches.

Q: I can remember once upon a time, not too long ago or too far away, the perception of impropriety is what every Army officer, every FBI type, every member of Congress was frightened of. It wasn't necessarily even that you were involved in something that was inappropriate or illegal. It was the perception of impropriety. When did all that go away?

A: I think this is perhaps since the 60s. We're going back quite a bit in time here, but I remember the first time an FBI employee came dressed to work with long hair and facial hair and the bureau took on that employee and said that that didn't meet the FBI strict dress code. The employee went out and hired a lawyer and beat the agency in a lawsuit. The judge said you couldn't tell someone they cannot wear their hair long.

Q: When were you guys no longer required to wear white shirts?

A: Shortly after Hoover died. When Acting Director Gray came to work, he allowed us to wear multi-colored shirts and pastels and also to grow facial hair. I was one of the first agents in the Los Angeles division to grow a mustache.

Q: Figures. You were in L.A.

A: But I was still punished. The six others who grew mustaches and I were punished by the special agent in charge who didn't give a hoot what the acting director thought about it or said, and we all received some kind of administrative punishment for growing mustaches.

Q: I was in Special Forces, and certain dress codes were a little more relaxed. When I changed branches to Military Police, my mustache was still kind of long and curled. My new boss and rater told me to cut it. I started to explain to him the technical application of Army Regulation 600-dash-whatever, and his response was: "I don't care what the regulation says. I fill out your OER (Officer Evaluation Report). Cut it!" To which I responded, "Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!"

A: Actually, that is very much the way things do happen in the FBI. You may not get punished for precisely what it is that you have done, but it may come at you from another direction, and you may never know how it happened. That's how it happens. Peer pressure can normally keep agents in line. Over the years, we were forced to take so many people because of the diversity requirements, affirmative action requirements foisted upon the agency. We had some agents who clearly were not capable of maintaining the standard.

Q: So they lowered the standards.

A: Yeah. Then you had them on board, and you couldn't get rid of them. There could be accusations of gender discrimination or other accusations against the agency made by these agents who were substandard, and this tended to undermine morale for the entire agency. Good agents began to grouse -- why should I be working myself to the bone here when these guys are doing absolutely nothing and are not only not getting punished but are sometimes getting promoted ahead of us?

Q: Last November, I interviewed Notra Trulock, and I remember one of the things he said about the Clinton administration was abuse of power under the color of authority "had never been as bad" in his 25-30 year career as he witnessed during the Clinton years. Do you agree or disagree?

A: I do agree with him. I do. That's what concerned me enough to cause me to take the extraordinary risk I took in writing my book.

Q: Clinton is gone. There's a new sheriff in town. Is it going to get better, or did Clinton just exploit the systemic problems that were already there?

A: I don't think it's going to get better, because unless you recognize that you have a weakness and fix that weakness, it will just continue. These acts of abuse may not be coming out of the Bush White House, but the agencies have weakened to the point where someone can abuse them. Politicians can abuse them. That's the whole point. You have to have a firewall between an agency such as the FBI and these politicians to protect the agency from being misused by the powerful politicians, whether they happen to be on Capitol Hill or they happen to be in some cabinet position or they happen to be in the West Wing of the White House.

Q: It is a double-edged sword, but we frequently heard that those career bureaucrats who don't get elected hang around from administration to administration regardless of party affiliation, that they are really the ones running the show. That can be good if there is that objectivity, but if or when their political agenda is either influenced by whoever is in power or is different from those in power, I don't know how you fix that.

A: There used to be a time when the bureaucrats would bail out when they found abuse coming. They felt their principles were important enough to stand up for and they walked away with a resignation in their pocket. But in the last eight years, we saw very few resignations from career bureaucrats, and I guess one agency that really stands out is the Department of Justice. The place is filled with so-called ethical officers, each one an officer of the court, each one an attorney, and we saw very, very little movement out of the Department of Justice when it was taken over by the likes of Janet Reno and run by Hillary Clinton from the White House.

Q: Janet Reno's conduct and performance and the way she abused power and functioned pretty much as a puppet for whatever the administration wanted was so egregious that it is just astonishing to people who took the time to read the Bill of Rights that she could get away with what she did.

A: That's true, Geoff. And I guess my big disappointment is now we have a new administration. He's taken office and he, George Bush, has an opportunity to look back at the last eight years and acknowledge that there were some serious things that happened there that were wrong. He's got the opportunity to fix the system so that those things can't happen again when he leaves office. Let's give George W. Bush the benefit and assume he is not going to abuse his power. That doesn't mean that the guy coming after him is not going to abuse his power. George W. Bush has an opportunity to put some safeguards in place so that the citizens of this country can enjoy some protection from their own federal government, but I don't see any movement in that direction. In fact, I don't even see an acknowledgement that Bill and Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno abused their authority.