Partisan claims that Donald Trump’s attacks on certain senior executives in the FBI are having a deleterious effect on the bureau’s morale are disingenuous. With absolute certitude, some agency observers claim that this criticism is actually affecting the FBI’s ability to do its job of protecting the American public.
These charges are hogwash.
Many of those warning that long-lasting and irreparable harm has been effected by the president’s comments and tweets about James Comey and Andy McCabe are pursuing a political agenda. Or their naïveté simply impedes their understanding of the FBI that I served for a quarter-century.
The FBI has a proud and storied history. And during the late 1980’s, while serving as a U.S. Army Officer, I happened upon the book, “Donnie Brasco,” written by a former FBI undercover agent, Joseph Pistone, and I found my calling. When I entered bureau ranks in early 1991, there were still many vestiges of J. Edgar Hoover’s legacy, by way of culture and tradition. I certainly understand that in 2018, the popular position is to blindly submit to the current historical purge and ignore “context” in every activity, until it suits your own purpose.
And though Hoover was a complex figure and committed some offenses worthy of condemnation, he built the modern FBI and stewarded it through 48 years, serving eight presidents, while forming the nucleus of an agency widely considered the world’s premier law enforcement agency.
So when I cut my teeth under a number of bureau gumshoes who had served under the first director, I was immediately taught the values that had kept the organization in alignment during some turbulent times in our nation’s complicated history. The FBI’s sacrosanct motto of “fidelity, bravery and integrity” has indelibly withstood the test of time.
But recent events have caused many to question the apolitical posture of the FBI. This isn’t the first time the bureau has come under scrutiny.
Bad actors in our ranks at the agent and executive levels have exposed shameful episodes such as COINTELPRO, warrantless eavesdropping, spying on Martin Luther King, the anti-communist crusade, and of course the lack of apparent diversity amidst our ranks.
The narrative about our “whiteness” and Hoover’s “racism,” of course, never take into account that African-American males have been serving as special agents since James Wormley Jones took the oath in 1919. So the FBI integrated its ranks almost three decades before President Truman integrated the Armed Forces and a staggering 45 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed.
Yes, for all the bad press — earned and unearned — the FBI has been stolidly fixated on following the evidence, ignoring any partisan criticism, and doing the right things to keep America safe.
But, of recent, some fairly unusual events have occurred, thrusting the agency into a spotlight it generally seeks to avoid. In late June of 2016, a sitting attorney general meets privately with the spouse of a presidential candidate under investigation, in the back of a government plane parked on a hot Phoenix tarmac.
And then some curious and unusual provisions are afforded that same candidate during an FBI interview conducted over a weekend in July of 2016.
Followed by a mind-boggling decision to allow an FBI deputy director to remain far too long in oversight of the investigation, despite a glaring and obvious conflict-of-interest.
Then FBI director James Comey reacts to this by assuming an unprecedented posture of public investigation discussion, by announcing his decision not to seek charges against the candidate. He assures all within earshot that neither the White House nor Department of Justice (DOJ) have been briefed on his decision.
The Inspector General at DOJ secures text message exchanges between a deputy assistant director and bureau lawyer — both with involvement in the email case and the Russian election meddling investigation.
And damning exchanges between the two refute the FBI director’s claim of no coordination between White House and DOJ, while exposing egregious partisan bias that may have infected a number of actors on the seventh floor stage at FBI headquarters.
All of this leads to the director’s firing at the hands of an unpopular and unconventional president, and leaves us with the country as divided as it has been since, possibly, the Civil War.
And much like the deep partisan divide the country is currently experiencing, the FBI — no monolith of ideas or political adherences — is dealing with its own fissures.
Some former agents have argued that the FBI’s fractious relationship with the Trump administration, coupled with the GOP’s push to release a ubiquitous memo related to a FISA application targeting members of the Trump campaign, has placed our national security in peril.
I reject this notion that our national security is at risk and I speak for a large swath of current onboard employees and retired special agents who view the wailing and gnashing of teeth by former bureau employees as counter to our implacable, noise-resistant ideals.
Look, there is no doubt that the president’s use of Twitter as a cudgel to punch down at Comey’s leadership team has resulted in altering the public’s perception of the FBI. A recent Axios SurveyMonkey poll indicates that only 49 percent of those polled had a favorable opinion of the FBI.
That’s both disappointing and troubling. And yes, the president’s words contribute to the loss of trust in the bureau. But so do some of the reported actions of a miniscule number of its senior executives. And so does the hand-wringing by partisans concerned that criticism of indefensible actions weakens law enforcement institutions and makes us less safe.
Fidelity: it’s why we in the FBI do what we do. Fealty to constitution and the FBI’s mission.
Bravery: it’s what we do, whether confronting terrorists or gangbangers or a politician who asks us to ignore our value system and defy our oath.
Integrity: it’s how we must approach every obstacle, decision, or criticism.
That’s who we are as the FBI, past and present.
And the American people should know this about us.
James A. Gagliano is a 1987 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Following his service as an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army, he entered the FBI, serving in a myriad of positions in the investigative, tactical resolution (SWAT), undercover, diplomatic and executive management realms. He was a member of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) and has posted to assignments in Afghanistan, Mexico City, and parts of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. He retired in December of 2015 from the FBI’s New York City Office. He currently serves as a Law Enforcement Analyst for CNN, provides Leadership consultation for corporate clients of the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) at his alma mater, and instructs undergraduates at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, where he earned an M.P.S. in Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Leadership in 2016. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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