Richard Levick, CEO, LEVICK
Right now, somewhere in the Midwest, there are undercover FBI agents putting themselves in peril as they stake out a suspected opioid dealer. On the East Coast, a different team of FBI field operatives are surveilling someone armed and dangerous with known connections to organized crime.
On the West Coast, or in the South, or along the Canadian or Mexican borders, or scores of other locations in the U.S., there are FBI agents – right now – planning an early-morning raid on a haven of violent gang members. None of them know exactly what’s behind that door. But they’ll carry out their mission anyway. Because that’s what FBI agents do.
Now think about these scenarios for a second. When FBI agents knock on doors, or track down a suspect’s neighbors or work associates, or approach local law enforcement officials, as they flash their badges and introduce themselves, don’t we want people to instinctively trust them and help them bring criminals to justice?
The politicians and media bloviators currently throwing brickbats at the FBI need to understand the consequences of their accusations. As we’ve learned in recent years, not every American can shrug off reckless rhetoric; too many take it to heart. If the relentless attacks on the bureau’s integrity trigger distrust among ordinary Americans, it could undermine law enforcement in this country, putting agents at an even greater risk, and making our society more dangerous.
Sadly, the attacks seem to be working – at least to a degree. Nearly three-fourths of people who identify as supporters of President Trump believe that the FBI is biased against him, according to an early February poll conducted by HuffPost and YouGov.
Have we reached the point where, while answering a knock on the door, certain Americans would refuse to cooperate with a federal agency that has protected this country for more than a century? Probably not, despite the discouraging poll numbers say friends who happen to be FBI employees.
But if it’s reached the point where we’re even asking ourselves that question, aren’t we treading in dangerous waters? Do the president and his defenders really want to risk drowning the FBI’s reputation?
I won’t get into the Carter Page-FISA controversy, or the national security ramifications of the Nunes memo, or how it all affects Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections. There’s no shortage of pundits weighing in on those topics. Their voices are so deafening we often can’t hear what they’re actually saying.
Instead, I want to keep the focus on the bravery and sacrifice of the people who work every day at the FBI – and who will never get the credit they deserve for keeping us safe.
Here’s what my friends want the bureau’s detractors to do: take a deep breath and a big step back and think about the repercussions of impugning the FBI. Certain critics are trying to say, “It’s not the rank-and-file members of the FBI we’re concerned about. It’s the leadership.”
To which my acquaintances and thousands of other FBI employees scratch their heads and say, “Huh? How can you distinguish between the two?”
To FBI employees, whether they work at headquarters in Washington or in field offices, there’s little to no distinction between “leadership” and “rank-and-file.” Most leaders in the FBI rose up through the rank-and-file. Regardless of title, they’re all part of the same mission.
Is there grumbling about the people in charge from the folks down the chain? Sure: they’re human.
Does the FBI make mistakes? “You bet,” wrote former agent Josh Campbell in a February 2 op-ed in The New York Times. “Because they are not infallible, the bureau is subject to a robust system of checks and balances, including its internal affairs division, the Department of Justice inspector general, congressional committees, and the courts.”
The inspector general’s office is currently looking at the bureau’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email matter – as it should. It was a high-profile investigation that could probably have been handled more deftly.
Was former director James Comey at fault for allowing the Clinton probe to be foot-dragged or cherry-picked or mischaracterized? Maybe. But remember: never in our history was there a campaign as volatile as 2016’s; questions and criticisms are inevitable. The inspector general needs to get to the bottom of it – in a calm, dispassionate, methodical way befitting the FBI’s tradition, not in a hothouse atmosphere tainted by recrimination and groundless charges.
I know this much. My friends and most other FBI employees admired and respected Jim Comey, despite what Americans have been told by certain officials. Even if some employees disagreed with Comey’s decision on the Clinton investigation, most still respected his leadership of the FBI.
On one of Comey’s first days in office, he hosted a town hall for the workforce where he outlined his vision for the FBI. He would repeat those messages in his visits to FBI field offices across the country.
Comey emphasized the need for them to find “joy” in their work. After all, they were getting to work at a place that helped break up Soviet spy rings. Now they had to summon that same energy to fight terrorism. “We get paid to do good for a living,” he would famously say.
Comey stressed the need to work hard. After all, taxpayers paid their salaries; the American people were owed a return on their investment.
He went on to highlight the priority of keeping a healthy and rewarding life outside the FBI. Comey drew applause when he said that he expected every individual in the FBI, no matter what they did or what their title, to be treated with the same level of dignity and respect.
Finally, the former director discussed something he called “the gift.” That gift was the reservoir of trust and credibility left by FBI agents and employees who have long since passed. Nothing, he said, was worth jeopardizing that gift.
If only the politicians taking potshots at the FBI could appreciate the importance of that gift.
Josh Campbell, a tireless counterterrorism investigator, chose to leave the FBI so he could speak out against the assault on the bureau’s effectiveness. How many more agents like Campbell have to depart before the decriers realize the damage they’ve wrought? Not just to a federal agency, but to this country’s safety and national security?
New director Christopher Wray recently addressed the workforce in response to the current controversy. He reiterated his support for the FBI’s unique mission, encouraging them to “Keep Calm. And Tackle Hard.”
The FBI tackled hard when it got Dillinger and Baby-Face Nelson. It nabbed Hitler’s saboteurs before they could blow up our military bases or munitions plants. It helped us win the Cold War.
FBI agents helped clear the rubble at Ground Zero, sifting through the remains to find victims and clues. They canvassed the world to interview people who may have seen something, or knew someone, or heard anything that may have been relevant to the 9/11 attacks.
The FBI has a long Wall of Honor that commemorates those agents that have made the ultimate sacrifice.
I share my friends’ conviction that the FBI will ultimately survive today’s political attacks. But at what cost? And what do those attacks say about us?