FBI ‘Fears Lasting Damage’ from Politicization of Investigations
A confusing new report from the Washington Post.
The WaPo story headlined “Inside the FBI: Anger, worry, work — and fears of lasting damage” is confusing. I’ve excoriated President Trump and Congressional Republicans for their release of a memo claiming an FBI conspiracy in the Russia probe. I agree with John McCain that this action aids the Putin regime in undermining public confidence in our political system and the rule of law. And I can think of several ways that these events would create fear of damage to the ability of the FBI to do its job.
But the report doesn’t get to any of that. Here’s the lede:
In the 109 years of the FBI’s existence, it has repeatedly come under fire for abuses of power, privacy or civil rights. From Red Scares to recording and threatening to expose the private conduct of Martin Luther King Jr. to benefiting from bulk surveillance in the digital age, the FBI is accustomed to intense criticism.
What is so unusual about the current moment, say current and former law enforcement officials, is the source of the attacks.
The bureau is under fire not from those on the left but rather conservatives who have long been the agency’s biggest supporters, as well as the president who handpicked the FBI’s leader.
First off, the opening examples are of actual malfeasance by the Bureau under the odious J. Edgar Hoover. Second, aside from being unexpected, it’s unclear why having attacks come from Republicans is any more harmful than having them come from Democrats. The problem is that the attacks are unfounded, not that they’re coming from the wrong side of the aisle.
Bureau officials say the accusations in the document produced by House Republicans are inaccurate and — more damaging in the long term — corrode the agency’s ability to remain independent and do its job.
Right. Partisan attacks undermine confidence in the independence of the investigatory process. But, rather than continue in that vein, the piece goes back to the previous point:
One law enforcement official summed it up bluntly: “There’s a lot of anger. The irony is it’s a conservative-leaning organization, and it’s being trashed by conservatives. At first it was just perplexing. Now there’s anger, because it’s not going away.”
So, again, the source of the anger is that it’s Republicans, who have long championed the Bureau, doing the attacking. That’s not particularly interesting.
For decades, the FBI has been trusted to investigate corruption inside the government, even at the highest levels, including the White House. In the 1970s, the FBI’s probe of the Watergate break-in led to the resignation of President Nixon. In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton came to detest then-director Louis Freeh, but their distrust did not lead to withering public attacks from the president himself.
Okay, we’re now back to a relevant point: the FBI has always been controversial and created resentment of those in its crosshairs. But, previously, even presidents whose political careers were put in serious jeopardy by FBI investigations refrained from personally attacking its motivations. So, Trump is violating an incredibly important norm.
Rather than drawing out that point, though, the article goes off on a tangent:
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the agency was retooled to focus primarily on preventing terrorism, and public confidence in its work grew. In the past two years, however, the probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state and a separate Russia investigation are testing whether the FBI can maintain the trust of Congress, the courts and the country.
Right. But, as noted yesterday, there was legitimate reason to criticize former Director Jim Comey for his handling of the Clinton email investigation. While I have defended his actions in that case multiple times—and continue to think he made the best choices out of the bad options he had—Clinton and her fellow Democrats had every reason to be angry at the unprecedented announcements coming at particularly bad times in a presidential campaign. There is, however, no evidence presented in the story—or of which I’m aware—that the courts have lost any confidence in the FBI. But, sure, political criticism from both of the 2016 major party presidential nominees is bound to undermine public confidence.
Rather than expounding on that point, however, we get several paragraphs of discussion on new Director Christopher Wray’s decision to keep a low profile. We don’t get back to supporting the headline thesis until paragraph 21:
The public attacks from the president have diminished morale inside the FBI, according to current and former officials. Among themselves, senior officials and rank and file frequently debate the best way forward. Several law enforcement officials said they agreed with Wray’s low-key approach, as a means of what one called “getting back to Mueller’s FBI.”
But, really, this is a re-statement of the thesis rather than further evidence or articulation of it. That’s followed by some more navel-gazing about FBI leadership philosophy and the best way to deal with the environment.
Then, we get this:
A HuffPost/YouGov poll last month found that 51 percent of the public say they have a fair amount of trust in the FBI — down 12 points from 2015. Most of that drop was driven by Republicans and independents, the poll found.
That’s useful information! Trust is down! And it’s among Republicans and independents. But, alas, the linked story is even more poorly written, so we’re not given apples-to-applies comparisons. We see that Republicans have dropped 22 points and independents 15 points in their confidence in the Bureau since the 2015 survey. But how does that compare to the Democratic confidence level? It doesn’t say.
Going to the 2015 and 2018 poll data themselves, though, we see that Democrats actually have more confidence in the FBI than before! In 2015, 60 percent of Democrats had at least a “fair amount” of confidence in the Bureau. Now, that figure is up to 69 percent. Republicans went from 76 to 45—a massive drop. And Independents fell from 56 to 41 percent. Presuming the YouGov poll methodology is reliable, then, we see something of a scattershot.
But—again assuming that one survey is a reliable indicator—I’m not sure what we’re supposed to draw from this. Even though I find Trump’s actions here outrageous, it’s not at all obvious how much the drop in confidence among Republicans—let alone Independents—is attributable to his Tweets and statements. It’s entirely plausible that it’s the FBI’s prominent role in investigations that have major partisan implications, not the reactions of partisans to those investigations, is the primary driving factor.
Regardless, the whole kerfuffle is creating some strange bedfellows. Not only are the Democrats now the leading advocates of the FBI—a major role reversal—but we even have the ACLU on their side in this one.
Privacy advocates — whose mission often centers on trying to rein in what they view as the FBI’s overbroad and unchecked surveillance powers — have found themselves defending the agency in the current fight, saying the GOP’s claims of privacy abuses lack a factual foundation.
“For a long time we’ve had a concern about the process for obtaining surveillance, a warrant to surveil an American citizen, and abuses in that process,” said Christopher Anders, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office. “And with Congressman Nunes’s memo raising concerns that there were abuses in that process, of course that’s something that would concern us. The memo itself, though, doesn’t prove the case. It doesn’t have the kind of evidence in it that you would need to see to say that there was an abuse of that authority.”
We’ll see how this all shakes out. As a #NeverTrump erstwhile Republican with strong civil liberties leanings, I both generally admire the FBI as an incredibly professional law enforcement agency and recognize that there is always a propensity for overreach and abuse once investigators think they’re on the scent.
While they’re very different cases, it’s simply inevitable that Republicans who support Trump are going to turn against the FBI when they perceive that they’re being heavyhanded in their investigation of him, just as Democrats did in the email investigation. In the current environment, everything that can be looked at through a partisan lens will be.