The FBI is in crisis. It pains me, as a former special agent and the former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, to warn that if we don’t fix it now, we risk irrevocably breaking not only the greatest law enforcement agency in the world, but America’s trust in this invaluable institution.
If you needed any more graphic evidence of institutional and cultural rot affecting the bureau, just this week Charles McGonigal, the former special agent in charge of counterintelligence in the FBI’s New York field office was arrested for ties to Oleg Deripaska, a sanctioned Russian oligarch.
It should be common sense that a senior agent should not be working for a criminal, any criminal, let alone a Russian oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin, but apparently common-sense ethics are no longer common, and that speaks volumes about the state of the FBI.
The seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is seen outside its headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 15, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
From this most recent and staggering security vulnerability, to leadership failures and a lack of accountability at the top, to a seemingly creeping lack of accountability in field offices and the appearance of politicization across the FBI, much of the country now doubts the bureau’s credibility and integrity.
Many now believe that the FBI is merely an arm of one political party, and for a good portion of the country, they believe that the bureau is being “weaponized” against them or their political beliefs.
Why should we be surprised that Americans feel this way when the highest profile cases are handled not with discretion, focus and equal justice under the law, but instead with unwarranted partisan intent from the start?
Hunter Biden introduces his father, Vice President Joe Biden, during a World Food Program award ceremony on April 12, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Kris Cnnor/WireImage)
There is no shortage of cases tainted by politics. There was the poor handling of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election (one certainly further called into question with this latest arrest). The appalling management of the Hunter Biden investigation. The poor tactics in the plot against the Michigan governor. The alleged involvement in content moderation on social media platforms. The appalling double standard of the investigations into mishandling of classified information by both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden.
The House Judiciary Committee Republican staff wrote, “The problem lies with the FBI structure that centralizes high-profile cases in D.C., in the hands of politicized actors with politicized incentives.” It is the equivalent of the legal concept of the fruit from the poisoned tree, except instead of contaminated evidence, it is the cases themselves that are compromised from the start.
Why should we be surprised when Americans now doubt the efficacy of the bureau when stories of FBI malfeasance and illegal behavior appear regularly in the press: destruction of documents, accepting bribes from organized crime figures, alleged ties to Russia, and an FBI audit report alleging breaking their own rules over 700 times in 18 months when investigating “politicians, candidates, religious groups, news media and others.”
FBI agents approaching a crime scene. (Getty Images)
Not all agents are bad, and I contend there are far more good agents than not; but bad agents are a stain on the character of the bureau and an insult to their colleagues who follow the rules, uphold the law, and act with integrity.
If the bureau is to survive, it needs to take immediate action.
We need to make common sense common again, and that starts at the top. It must be made abundantly clear that working for or on behalf of a foreign agent – whether under sanctions or not – is not an acceptable post-bureau career option. There must be a cooling-off period for retired senior agents before even considering entering the employment of foreign agents, and there must be an ethics and accountability board reviewing these positions.
Charles McGonigal, the former head of counterintelligence for the FBI’s New York office, leaves Manhattan Federal Court on Jan. 23, 2023, in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
The FBI must remove politics from high-profile cases. This includes the Department of Justice lawyers. It is my sense that this is where the trouble begins.
To ensure compliance with DOJ and FBI guidelines and rules, a third-party review that is outside the prosecutor’s and agent’s purview should now occur at the outset of a public integrity case, before it goes to a judge. Ensuring that the bias is not the impetus will be crucial for DOJ lawyers and the FBI to regain the public’s trust and regaining the public’s trust must be the top priority.
FBI leadership must clearly communicate expectations of ethical behavior and take quick and certain action when anyone violates those expectations. This includes addressing agents’ vocal social media commentary highlighting political bias. There is no place for this in the FBI. There must be a pervasive working culture of ethics and accountability at all levels across the organization. Working agents need to see these high standards at work in their leadership every day.
The Justice Department in Washington, D.C. (Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images)
Congress must also resume its oversight responsibility. We cannot afford partisan politics to cloud the oversight of this most important institution.
Just as we cannot allow the FBI itself to become a partisan tool, we should demand that our elected representatives do their duty and provide the robust and consistent oversight of the FBI’s activities and hold the leaders accountable without political theater.
It is important to note that agents all over the country are following the FBI creed of fidelity, bravery and integrity, and risking their lives to make us safer. These agents deserve better and our country deserves better.
President Biden and FBI leadership must recognize this and act now, rather than play politics with the public’s trust.