Freeh to face tough job as FBI head Morale is low throughout agency


WASHINGTON -- Federal Judge Louis Freeh's Senate confirmation hearings as FBI director begin today and are expected to be swift and bloodless. The headaches follow: He will take over a demoralized, rudderless department that is losing agents while picking up new responsibilities.

Judge Freeh's first order of business, FBI officials and observers agree, is to unravel the gridlock created by the leadership vacuum during the last several months of William S. Sessions' tenure. Mr. Sessions' feuds with former Attorney General William P. Barr, who brought charges of impropriety against him, and with Mr. Barr's successor, Janet Reno, who tried to get him to step down before he was fired July 20 by President Clinton, affected department morale, turned key aides against him and postponed important policy decisions.

"I think the first thing he [Judge Freeh] has to do is to address the impact of a long period of uncertainty," said William H. Webster, who preceded Mr. Sessions as FBI director.

Oliver "Buck" Revell, who has held top positions at FBI headquarters since J. Edgar Hoover and was a senior aide to Mr. Sessions, agreed. "Without any question, morale at headquarters has been down the tubes," said Mr. Revell, now in charge of the Dallas field office.

But Mr. Revell said the underlying problem -- the feud with the attorneys general -- will disappear when Judge Freeh, a U.S. District Court judge in Manhattan, takes over.

Even as he works to solidify his control at the FBI's helm, Judge Freeh, working with Ms. Reno, must decide on the strategic objectives of the FBI as it begins to downsize from more than 10,000 agents now to an estimated 9,000 in three years.

"He will have to think hard about what a small agency like the bureau can and must achieve," Mr. Webster said.

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