America Deserves a New FBI

America Deserves a New FBI
De Jesus/Houston Chronicle via AP)
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The American people have finally seen the transcripts of the phone calls between President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and the then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

After the big buildup over the past three years they were pretty underwhelming — which is why the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) tried to keep them out of the public eye. So, thank you, FBI, for wasting our time.

It would be one thing if the FBI’s behavior in l'affaire Trump was a one-off, but it’s really standard operating procedure.

Since its founding in 1908, the Bureau has regularly infringed on Americans’ civil rights or just failed to do its job, to wit: the internment of Japanese-American citizens; the harassment of Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders; the shooting of innocent citizens at Ruby Ridge and Waco; the takeover of the Boston Field Office by organized crime boss Whitey Bulger; the betrayals by FBI agent Robert Hanssen; misunderstanding the significance that persons connected to Osama bin laden were enrolled in U.S. flight schools; pursuing and publicly naming the wrong suspect in the 2001 Anthrax attacks; ignoring a Russian warning about the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing; concocting fake terror plots; and ignoring an advance tip about the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

If these abuses happened in, say, Belarus, we’d have congressional hearings, a flood of op-eds; think tank panels featuring government officials and activists with “concerns,” and sanctions galore for the miscreants.

Instead, we had an FBI Director (James Comey) who claimed to have “a higher loyalty” and leaked contents of his discussions with President Trump in order to kick-start a fruitless two-year special counsel investigation of the president; a Deputy Director (Andrew McCabe) who leaked information,  lied about it, and was fired; and a chief counterspy  (Peter Strzok) who couldn’t cover his tracks and saw his harangues about President Trump (on a government-owned smartphone) splashed on the front pages, for which he was fired. Russian operatives in the U.S. probably got orders from Moscow: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

Initially, the FBI found Flynn did nothing wrong and moved to close the investigation but interest from the “seventh floor” (Comey and McCabe) kept it going. The FBI, and its Department of Justice (DoJ) colleagues, ignored numerous clear indications there was no case or that the data they had, i.e., the Steele dossier, was Russian disinformation, which leads us to the conclusion that the agents and their colleagues at Justice were complicit or incompetent.

The misbehavior also included rewriting the record of the FBI’s interview of Michael Flynn, the original of which is missing; lying about the fact that Carter Page was assisting the Central Intelligence Agency when requesting he be surveilled; and applying for surveillance warrants while withholding exculpatory material from the credulous judges at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). Things got so bad that the FISC finally barred several FBI and DoJ officials from appearing before the court.

So, why did the FBI keep the investigation going when it knew, in Peter Strzok’s words, “there’s no big there there.” Did the FBI fancy itself “the sword and the shield” or the “new nobility?”  Or maybe they were just political hacks hiding behind badges. Let’s hope it’s the latter.

What should America do with its dysfunctional FBI?

It can keep it as-is if the FBI promises, cross-its-heart-and-hope-to-die, to do right — but why take that chance?

Well, “police reform” is trending, so William S. Smith suggests breaking up the Bureau into several smaller agencies, each with a specific mission focus such as cybercrimes; counterintelligence; counterterrorism; complex white-collar crime and transnational organized crime; and kidnapping, bank robbery, and other violent crimes. (And after that give each agency to dedicated House and Senate oversight committees that will ride herd on them.)  

The new agencies shouldn’t be mini-FBIs run by mini-Hoovers who finally scored Domicile to Duty transportation in the armored Suburban. The filtration process may require the agents to recompete for jobs in the new agencies, which will have new missions that demand new cultures and new thinking. These organizations should draw on specialists and leaders from other agencies and the private sector and, in some cases may not even be designated as law enforcement agencies. And they shouldn’t be exempt from the Whistleblower Protection Act, as is the FBI.

Regardless of what option is chosen, the current leadership must be vetted because, though Comey, McCabe, and Strzok are gone, the public must be confident their “stay behinds” — the agents they mentored and promoted — are not a future threat to Americans’  civil rights.

After the election, it may be time to replace the current Director, Christopher Wray, who, instead of cleaning up the Bureau, is acting like it is his client and is denying the Senate access to FBI staff. It wasn’t until last month that Wray announced the FBI’s actions in the Flynn investigation will finally be investigated — by the FBI.

If there are reform-minded agents in the FBI they better speak up. The Senate is holding public hearings and plans to subpoena 33 witnesses, many of them FBI agents. U.S. Attorney John Durham is investigating if intelligence collection against the Trump campaign was “lawful and appropriate” and may file indictments on the eve of the November election.

In his testimony to the Senate, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein claimed the FBI withheld information from him and blamed it for “significant errors” in FISC surveillance applications. Rosenstein is looking out for #1, but he’s no dummy; he knows it’s best to be the first guy to testify as you can frame the debate.

The FBI is a guild and guilds, like the police and the priesthood, are biased against publicly disciplining wayward members. If the Congress and the President don’t see any signs of internal interest in reforming the FBI, including assigning some missions to other agencies better able to do them, they will know the FBI is immune to reform.

Also, an unreformed FBI interferes with the foreign relations of the United States. America’s diplomats can’t advocate for security sector reform when, back home, security service impunity isn’t a bug but a feature. Calls for an end to secret police amnesties, or promoting truth commissions and accountability, are just words from some Yankee cookie pusher when American security officials act as they please, then move on to book deals, speaking opportunities, and regular TV appearances, like Andrew McCabe’s gig on CNN. And on the day when the president announced over two million new jobs were added in May, NBC introduced a new hire: former FBI lawyer and Peter Strzok inamorata, Lisa Page.

Reform efforts will be enveloped in a fog about crippling America’s “premier law enforcement agency” but, if the Bureau is broken up, the top concern for its partisans — after talk about scary Russians fails — will be preserving the law enforcement officer pensions that allow “enhanced retirement benefits.” In America, money talks, even for cops, and a little top-up may be necessary to make them come along quietly and reduce their vulnerability to Russian and Chinese blandishments. It will be small change and worth paying to help usher in a 21st century FBI that serves the people and not itself.

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular writer on foreign policy and national security issues.  Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Central Asia.



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