Outside Voices -- Somerby Is Howling For "60 Minutes" To Be Freeh

Each week we invite someone from the outside to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we asked Bob Somerby, master of many trades. You may know him as the author of the Daily Howler, or in his other life as a stand-up comedian. Some may even remember him as a grade-school teacher, an op-ed writer for the Baltimore Sun or even as a former Harvard roommate of Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones (as the legend goes). Here, he offers his thoughts on a recent "60 Minutes" segment featuring former FBI director Louis Freeh that has garnered some discussion (editor's note: PE addressed this story here). As always, the opinions expressed in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours and we seek a wide variety of voices. Heeere's Bob:

Do Ask, Make Them Tell

To state the obvious, "60 Minutes" is one of America's most heralded news shows. One would like to add "deservedly so," but the vultures began to circle last year after the program on President Bush's Guard service. Does "60 Minutes" want to re-assert its famous standards? I began to wonder when I watched Mike Wallace interview Louis Freeh on Sunday, October 9.

Freeh, former head of the FBI, made an intriguing subject. He was promoting his new best-seller, "My FBI." For my money, the problems begin with this much-discussed passage from his book -- the first passage Wallace quoted:

"The problem was, with Bill Clinton, the scandals and rumored scandals, the incubating ones and the dying ones never ended. Whatever moral compass the president was consulting was leading him in the wrong direction. His closets were full of skeletons just waiting to burst out."
To a Democrat's ear, that's classic Freeh -- and an echo of the worst parts of the Clinton "scandal" era. In this statement, Freeh unapologetically blends something called "rumored" scandals in with the un-rumored variety, and he tosses in "dying" scandals too -- scandals that apparently didn't pan out.

There were many of those in the Clinton years, and Democrats think there's a reason for that; they think a gang of scandal-mongers simply invented a lot of these "scandals." And Freeh is often accused of this failing. To my mind, this gave Wallace the perfect chance to bring out his debunking skills -- the skills that made "60 Minutes" so famous.

But uh-oh! It didn't quite happen. Fairly quickly, Wallace asked Freeh about his most ballyhooed charge -- the charge being used to sell his book. In 1998, did Bill Clinton push the Saudis to help find the bombers of Khobar Towers?

Freeh says that Clinton didn't push -- that instead, he asked the Saudis to donate money to his future presidential library. This is a nasty, remarkable charge. But here's how Wallace handled it:

Wallace: "Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar, told you the only way you'd get access to the [Saudi-held Khobar Towers] 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."

But how did Freeh know that was a fact? How did he know that this "fact" really happened? Surprisingly, Wallace never asked. We now know -- from other programs -- that Freeh wasn't actually present at the meeting he describes. And we know -- because Tim Russert asked him -- that he isn't willing to identify his source; indeed, with Russert, Freeh wouldn't even quite affirm that his source had been present at the meeting in question. But on "60 Minutes," Freeh's remarkable charge was lodged -- and not a single question followed. To my ear, we were back in the Clinton days -- when the accusin' was easy.

Wallace did provide Clinton's rebuttal. "It's a strong charge and we wanted Mr. Clinton's side of all this," he said. "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 advisor, Sandy Berger, told us that Mr.
Clinton did press the Saudis to cooperate with the FBI." But when someone makes so nasty a charge, shouldn't viewers see him answer the obvious
question: How do you know that actually happened? I recalled all the times when Wallace has fought, poked, prodded and challenged his guests. To state the obvious once again, we need that kind of journalism today. In this case, we just didn't get it.

"Don't ask, don't tell" is a thing of the past. Louis Freeh was making a nasty charge–but was this another "rumored" scandal? When he was making "60 Minutes" (deservedly) famous, wouldn't Mike Wallace have asked?