The FBI has one last chance to reform itself.
The Republican minority on the House Judiciary Committee released a report on Friday, Nov. 4, which runs over 1,000 pages. It damningly details cultural rot within the FBI. Its opening statement asserts the rot emanates from the top of the Bureau and the centralization of decision-making in Washington. The report includes new information from whistleblowers describing “a systematic culture of unaccountability” and specifically cites the FBI’s continuing lack of responsiveness to congressional inquiries.
With the final election results, the report’s authors are on their way to the majority. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio is to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and in January, his plans for an investigation of the FBI will get underway.
The report is a warning for the FBI, as well as a road map of what needs to be fixed. There is a narrow window for Bureau leadership to start on the needed self-reform before drastic changes are forced on them by Congress. Many of the necessary reforms can be handled by the Bureau itself — if there is the will and the recognition that these matters need to be fixed. Others are matters that will require legislative action.
Part of former director Robert Mueller’s drive to make the FBI more like an intelligence agency was the centralization of case management at FBI headquarters in Washington rather than in Field Offices around the country. Levels of review — and independent judgment — were eliminated. The phenomenon was noted in the House report’s opening statement. This centralization of case management at FBI headquarters must be put behind us. This is something the FBI can change itself.
Former Directors William Webster and Louis Freeh insisted that the FBI respond promptly to any congressional request. In those days, a congressional committee didn’t need a subpoena to get information from the FBI. These former FBI leaders often reminded us of Congress’s legitimate oversight role. This was particularly true for the “Gang of Eight” — the two party leaders in each house of Congress and the chairs and ranking minority members of both the Senate and House intelligence committees, which were created by statute to ensure the existence of a secure vehicle through which congressional leaders could be briefed on sensitive counterintelligence or terrorism investigations.
Those of us who worked for Webster and Freeh made sure they and Congress got prompt responses. Congressional relations at the FBI were then handled by a career agent manager who knew where in the FBI bureaucracy to find the answers to congressional inquiries.
The Mueller-Comey years saw outside professionals brought in to handle the FBI’s Congressional relations. Some were politicians and some were media veterans. They lacked the insider’s knowledge and identification with the FBI and its culture. The most recent among this parade was slammed in an August 2021 DOJ Inspector General report for carrying on a sexual affair with a subordinate and causing disruption in the workplace — another example of continuing cultural rot.
The FBI’s relationship with Congress needs to be restored to one of mutual respect. The “Gang of Eight,” the time-tested vehicle for sharing sensitive information, should be used again. The head of the Bureau’s Office of Congressional Affairs should come from the agent ranks.
The reform of the FISA process is something Congress must address. But the Bureau and the DOJ need not wait for Congress to act. An internal standard of avoiding the use of FISA to target an American citizen can be adopted before Congress forces even more restrictive controls on counterintelligence investigations. In the wake of IG’s findings, the Bureau has instituted additional rules and guidelines for FISA. These will have to be vigorously enforced. Recall that with the Comey clique, the previously existing guidelines were simply ignored.
Most importantly, an emphasis on the Constitution as a cornerstone of the Bureau’s work is needed. Special Agents have always been instructed about our Constitution. After all, it is they who interview suspects and conduct searches. A new category of employee has arisen under the post-9/11 paradigm, Intelligence Analysts, who now play a major role in the Bureau’s mission. These are the employees who deal with intelligence estimates. Their actions also ultimately affect people’s liberty. It is imperative that they, too, receive ongoing training about our Constitution.
To change culture, many things must be done consistently, both big and small. The first would be to recognize the problem. Wray has been reluctant to do this by taking shelter in the fact that the malefactors — “the bad apples” — are no longer employed at the FBI.
Ideally, the work of the House Judiciary Committee, like the Pike and Church committees of the late 1970s, should be bipartisan. After all, these abuses threaten those on the Left as well as the Right. Sadly, that is less likely in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere. Nonetheless, the FBI itself has a chance to reform and give hope to all Americans.
Thomas J. Baker is the author of The Fall of the FBI.