60 Minutes ' Mike Wallace failed to press Freeh on suspicious, weakly sourced Clinton accusations

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

On the October 9 broadcast of CBS' 60 Minutes, former FBI director Louis Freeh claimed that former president Bill Clinton did not pressure Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah during a 1998 meeting to allow the FBI to question suspects detained by the Saudis in connection with the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 Americans were killed. But 60 Minutes and host Mike Wallace refused to allow any on-air rebuttal from Clinton administration officials who actually attended the meeting in question. Nor did Wallace question Freeh about his anonymous source or point out that Freeh himself was not at the meeting.

Freeh's accustations are detailed in his newly released book, My FBI: Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Fighting the War on Terror (St. Martin's Press, October 2005). On page 25 of My FBI (hardcover), Freeh wrote that "usually reliable sources" informed him that at the meeting with Prince Abdullah to discuss the Khobar Towers bombing, "Bill Clinton briefly raised the subject only to tell the crown prince that he certainly understood the Saudi's reluctance to cooperate. Then, according to my sources, he hit Abdullah up for a contribution to the still-to-be-built Clinton presidential library."

As Media Matters for America noted, news reports indicated that CBS initially refused to interview former Clinton officials to rebut Freeh's accusations. Following widespread criticism, including a "Take Action" call by Media Matters, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz reported on October 9 that CBS agreed to read a statement from Clinton national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, who was present at the 1998 meeting, claiming that Clinton "strongly raised the need for Saudi officials to cooperate with us on the investigation into the attack on Khobar Towers," and "did not raise in any fashion the issue of his library." Kurtz also reported that "Clinton spokesman Jay Carson said he told CBS's Mike Wallace that he had supportive accounts from five other former officials who were at the meeting, including those briefed about a private conversation between Clinton and Abdullah." Kurtz previously reported on October 7 that former Clinton counterterrorism official Daniel Benjamin said Freeh is "factually wrong" and that Clinton "pushed the crown prince quite hard."

As Kurtz -- but not Wallace -- noted, the Saudi royal family did contribute to Clinton's library in 2004 -- six years after Freeh claims Clinton solicited Abdullah for funds.

In his interview with Freeh, Wallace did refer to Berger's denial of Freeh's accusations, noting that Clinton "declined to talk to us but told his spokesman to say the assertion that he asked the Saudis for funding for his library while he was president is absolutely false. And Mr. Clinton's former national security adviser, Sandy Berger, told us that Mr. Clinton did press the Saudis to cooperate with the FBI."

But despite these denials from Clinton spokesmen and their claims to have numerous eyewitnesses who can refute Freeh's accusations, Wallace failed to question Freeh's source of information, or to even note that Freeh himself was not present at the 1998 meeting. Instead, Wallace punctuated the Clinton camp's denial by saying: "Nonetheless, Freeh says the FBI got access to the Saudi suspects only after he got help from another president, the first President Bush."

From Wallace's interview with Freeh:

WALLACE: But Freeh says the president failed to keep his promise. The FBI wanted access to the suspects the Saudis arrested in Khobar, right?

FREEH: That's correct.

WALLACE: Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar told you the only way you'd get access to the prisoners would be if the president, Clinton, personally asked the Saudi crown prince to let the FBI see them. And did the president, Clinton, help you?

FREEH: No. He did not.

WALLACE: You write this: "Bill Clinton raised the subject only to tell the crown prince that he understood the Saudis' reluctance to cooperate, and then he hit Abdullah up for a contribution to the Clinton Presidential Library.

FREEH: Well, that's the fact that I'm reporting.

WALLACE: It's a strong charge, and we wanted Mr. Clinton's side of all this. He declined to talk to us but told his spokesman to say the assertion that he asked the Saudis for funding for his library while he was president is absolutely false. And Mr. Clinton's former national security adviser, Sandy Berger, told us that Mr. Clinton did press the Saudis to cooperate with the FBI. Nonetheless, Freeh says the FBI got access to the Saudi suspects only after he got help from another president, the first President Bush.

Athough Kurtz followed up with an article reporting that CBS had agreed to read the Berger statement, he has not reviewed the actual broadcast. Vaughn Ververs, editor of CBS News' Public Eye weblog, commented on the uproar over Freeh's 60 Minutes interview in an October 7 entry. Ververs noted 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager's statement that Clinton "would not sit down for an interview, but our job is to make sure the story is fair to him and we have been in touch with his people to make sure of his positions on some of the points made in the story," and suggested that "[p]erhaps we'll have an opportunity to revisit this one next week." As of this posting, the Freeh interview has yet to be revisited on Public Eye.

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