WASHINGTON — Allegations of improper behavior by the FBI in connection to the Russia-meddling and Clinton email server probes are taking a toll.
“I can tell you that when you walk out onto the squad areas here, there are usually large-screen televisions that are there to monitor the news so that we don’t miss anything. Those televisions are off,” said Thomas O’Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association.
O’Connor, who’s based at the Washington Field Office, has learned of similar behavior at other locations.
“A lot of them that I’ve noticed walking around are not on their normal news channels, because it’s depressing to sit there or walk by and see that the only thing on there is negative this and negative that. I’ve noticed a lot more televisions that are blank screens, than on.”
Taking great pains to point out he doesn’t speak for the FBI as an institution, but for the agents that work there, O’Connor said the FBIAA wants to make sure Americans know that “FBI agents are people of strong integrity.”
Still, the harsh glare of recent public criticism stings.
“In these times right now, where we’re getting a lot negative press … it does hurt morale with agents. There’s no doubt about it,” O’Connor said.
They’re not whining about it though, he added. Instead, they’ve chosen to ignore the media and the naysayers.
“Agents are still out there every day doing their job, and they are doing it extremely well,” he said.
But while FBI agents are able to turn off the television sets, they can’t escape the torrent of negativity. It follows them home.
“At 5:30 in the morning, I’m walking my dog and I ran into a neighbor walking his dog. The first comment is about the negative news about the FBI,” said O’Connor.
The questions don’t just stop with the agents. Many have discovered it’s seeped into their family life.
“If you have kids, they’re going to schools and their friends are hearing the same thing. They know their mom or dad works at the FBI. Those are questions that people have to answer when the kids come home.”
The international impact of the criticism
Beyond domestic disparagement, one of the key problems for the FBI is how all the criticism in the U.S. will impact its work abroad.
“We do have responsibility for overseas investigations. We have people posted overseas, and teams that deploy overseas regularly to work with our counterparts. Clearly it will make a difference,” said O’Connor.
He believes the personal relationships FBI agents establish with their counterparts in foreign countries will overcome the adverse and false perspectives here in the U.S.
But former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, who worked as an FBI agent for five years, worries the bashing will create significant intelligence problems outside of the U.S.
The attacks on the FBI by both Democrats and Republicans have trickled into Russia’s internal propaganda machine, Rogers told WTOP.
“What happens,” he said, “is what exactly we saw happen in Russia last week.”
According to Rogers, “A famous talk show host said on his program: ‘Can you believe it? The secret services of the United States were attempting to undermine and overthrow the president of the United States.’ That’s going to be [Russian intelligence services’] narrative.”
Beyond smearing the FBI’s reputation inside Russia, that narrative, Rogers believes, will have a chilling effect on current and potential U.S. spies there.
“It’s meant for people whom our CIA and FBI are trying to convince that they should help us by giving us information about what the Russian military is doing, or what the Russian intelligence service is doing or what the Russian nuclear program is doing.”
Their objective, Rogers said, “is to create this aura” among disaffected Russians considering turning on Moscow or those who already have, “that you can’t trust [U.S. intelligence].
“Are you going to trust them with your life and basically commit an act of treason against Russia for these people who are undermining democracy in America?” Rogers said.
The origin of the criticism
What started as an intense stream of Democratic complaints during the Hillary Clinton email server investigation has crossed the aisle and exploded into a flood of Republican accusations against the FBI.
FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28, 2016, indicating that new emails had been found that appeared “to be pertinent to the investigation.”
Numerous Democratic supporters of the 2016 party nominee accused Comey of costing Clinton the election.
Later, after the election was over, the Justice Department began an investigation into Russian election interference.
After text messages between two FBI employees working on the investigation were revealed earlier this year, the cascade of anti-FBI messaging strengthened.
FBI Agent Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, a lawyer, shared texts appearing to denigrate candidate and later President Donald Trump and showing favor to Clinton.
In early February of this year, Trump — in a rocky relationship with the FBI since before firing Comey — took aim at his own appointee Christopher Wray after a memorandum from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee accused the FBI of abusing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
According to the memo: FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) actions “1) raised concerns with the legitimacy and legality of certain DOJ and FBI interactions with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), and 2) represent a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses related to the FISA process.”
On Feb. 2, Trump tweeted: “The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans — something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. Rank & File are great people!”
The FBI responded with a statement: “The FBI takes seriously its obligations to the FISA Court and its compliance with procedures overseen by career professionals in the Department of Justice and the FBI. We are committed to working with the appropriate oversight entities to ensure the continuing integrity of the FISA process.”
The statement was critical of the way the memo was handled. “With regard to the House Intelligence Committee’s memorandum, the FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it.”
Delivering the first public sign of how deeply worried the FBI was about the memorandum, the statement said, “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
On Feb. 1, the FBIAA responded to the mounting criticism, saying in part: “The men and women of the FBI put their lives on the line every day in the fight against terrorists and criminals because of their dedication to our country and the Constitution. The American people should know that they continue to be well-served by the world’s pre-eminent law enforcement agency. FBI special agents have not, and will not, allow partisan politics to distract us from our solemn commitment to our mission.”
The Strzok and Page affair highlights the fact that members of the FBI make bad choices, which reflect on the entire organization.
And Rogers, while defending the FBI, is quick to point that out.
“I’m not defending that the FBI does everything right, that they’re always 100 percent right, that they don’t make mistakes. I think they do. That’s why you have oversight. You should find the individuals that have not handled themselves appropriately and take corrective action.”
O’Connor said that’s what happens. The FBI has always had a very robust internal investigations unit if somebody messes up somewhere in the FBI or there is some accusation of some wrongdoing. And when those investigations are done, they weigh in on the side of very strict guidelines. Agents who may have had problems are held to a very high standard.
FBI agents, according to O’Connor, don’t sign up by mistake. It’s a very deliberate second career for many who start the job in their 30s.
“There are a lot of steps you have to go through — written exams, oral boards — and it culminates in an oath to uphold the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic,” O’Connor said. “It’s not just something you stand up and say, it’s something that you believe in.”
Regardless of the level of negativity they face, he insisted, “FBI special agents have not, and will not, allow partisan politics to distract us from our solemn commitment to our mission.”