A series of events have worked together to cause many to wonder if we are seeing the coming fall of the FBI. The most recent revelation that the FBI made more than one fatal mistake that might have saved the lives of 17 students in Florida has only intensified scrutiny of the agency that once was America’s top law enforcement agency.
In the past, the Bureau’s supporters have dismissed past criticism as politically motivated, but in the Parkland High School case, the FBI had no option except to publicly admit it had the opportunity to prevent Nicolas Cruz from going on a shooting rampage but failed miserably.
Now FBI Director Christopher Wray, after replacing fired James Comey, finds himself in the position of defending the bureau from well-deserved pressure from President Trump and Congressional Republicans. Wray has repeatedly defended the FBI’s independence and lauded his agents in an implied refutation of Trump’s criticism.
Over the last month he has fought the White House over the release of the classified Republican memo that accused the FBI of abusing its surveillance powers and publicly refuted White House accounts of domestic abuse allegations against former aide, Rob Porter.
Criticism of the FBI is nothing new. From its inception under J. Edgar Hoover until today there have been times when the agency found itself embroiled in political controversy, sometimes deserved and sometimes not.
But something seems different about the revolving seat of power at the Bureau today. Supporters and critics of the FBI are both asking some much needed hard questions. Progressives who have repeatedly defamed law enforcement now say it is unAmerican to attack any of our institutions. Conservatives rightly see the irony of this defense of the FBI.
This past week’s school shooting isn’t the first time the FBI missed an opportunity to prevent a major violent attack. When a white supremacist killed nine people at a historically black church in 2015, the shooter was allowed to purchase his weapon only because there was a breakdown in the FBI’s background check system. Under federal law, the purchaser has more than enough history to flag him.
In 2009, Congress criticized the FBI failures that preceded the shooting at Fort Hood, Texas that left 13 people dead. In that case, agents failed to act on emails that were exchanged between the gunman and Anwar al-Awlaki, a terrorist on Homeland Security’s watch list.
During Hoover’s 36 year stint as Director of the FBI, the bureau had a well-documented history of engaging in the politically motivated targeting of people like Martin Luther King.
One conservative commentator, while acknowledging these past problems with the FBI, observed that this round of Bureau troubles “feels different.”
The current round of problems for the bureau began in 2015 when FBI Director James Comey announced that the Department of Justice was not going to seek the indictment of Hillary Clinton. Then secretary of state Clinton failed to safeguard classified emails. When Comey jumped the gun and made that public announcement, some within the Bureau had to speak up.
When agents and senior managers gathered to discuss how to proceed with the investigation, more than one agent believed there was no doubt they had more than enough evidence to make a prima-facie case for espionage, obstruction of justice, and theft of government property charges.
The consensus at the time was to proceed with a formal criminal investigation.
It took another six months of foot-dragging by Comey before John Giacalone, the senior FBI agent in charge of the investigation, resigned from the case. Giacalone, the former chief of the New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., field offices of the FBI, said the case had gone “sideways” – law enforcement speak for “nowhere by design.” At the time of his resignation, he was chief of the FBI National Security Branch.
By 2016 it had become obvious to Giacalone’s successors that the goal was to exonerate Clinton, not determine if there was enough evidence to bring an indictment against her. When Clinton was finally interviewed – for only four hours – during which time the interviewers appeared to some in the bureau to be far less than aggressive, they came to the same conclusion as Giacalone: the case was going sideways.
Further evidence that Comey had no intention of pressing the case against Clinton came when several agents became frustrated by Clinton’s oblique reference to a recent head injury as the reason she couldn’t remember a number of vital details. Those agents sought to obtain her medical records to verify the extent of her injury so they could determine whether she had been truthful with them. Director Comey denied that request on July 4, 2016. Not to be deterred some agents found a way to obtain Clinton’s medical records to show to Comey.
When Comey learned of these efforts, he held his infamous news conference announcing that Clinton would not be indicted. His finding – her behavior, though extremely careless, was not reckless – the legal standard in espionage cases.
In October of 2016, just a month before the general election and when all seemed sure that Clinton would be elected president, evidence appeared that President Barack Obama communicated with Clinton regularly via her personal email servers about classified matters. Two months earlier Obama told CBS that he first heard about Clinton’s servers “on the news like everyone else.”
At the beginning of 2018, Andrew McCabe stepped down from his positions as Director of the FBI after intense pressure from President Trump. Though the left accused Trump of making the office political, McCabe has entered that territory before taking the position. He took over the Clinton investigation after Giacalone resigned. McCabe’s wife was at that time responsible for funneling $675,000 in lawful campaign funds for a failed 2015 run for the Virginia Senate.
So where does the FBI go from here? Liberal site Think Progress recently proclaimed: “Trump is eager to pick a fight with the FBI by twisting the bureau’s history and image in an effort to divert attention away from his scandal-plagued administration.
But a recent Reuters/IPSOS poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Republicans — nearly 75 percent — believe that “members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations.”
Former Attorney General Eric Holder told the Christians Science Monitor that the current distrust of the FBI threatens its credibility. The recent history of leadership at the Bureau shows that Comey and others have left little credibility to threaten.
If the President and Congress hold course, there must be a major change.