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Remember the good old days? Remember when the FBI held both your admiration and your trust? Remember when J. Edgar Hoover was a hero for most of us?
No, it’s not just your imagination. I remember visiting the FBI headquarters when I was a boy. The lines were long and the place was crowded. The theme for visitors focused on the list of “The FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Men”—and the point was clear: The FBI always gets its man. Take that guarantee to the bank!
So I checked in again recently. More than 60 years later, are there any lines? Do Americans visiting Washington, D.C., still clamor to see this icon where the good guys met the bad guys so decisively? No, a clerk at a Washington visitors’ bureau told me. She said the FBI gets a steady flow—but nothing like it was 30 years ago.
So let’s be honest and admit that the slippage had started under Hoover’s dominance of the agency. Through the 1950s and ’60s, he had seemed indomitable. But a growing bank of darker clouds chiseled away at his reputation, and even Hoover’s loyalists were at least left wondering, if not disillusioned.
The IG’s report suggests that Comey and the team around him were determined to prevent the election of Donald Trump.
These days, of course, it’s not so unusual to lose the top man at the FBI. It’s become almost habit-forming. But when you sense the whole agency may be in free fall, it’s perplexing to watch the ethical collapse of yet one more top guy at the FBI. Last time around (just a year ago) it was James Comey, only the seventh man to hold the position; this year it’s Christopher Wray on the defense before a Senate Judiciary Committee. So the question is understandable—as we have asked in this column not long ago: Are we dealing only with a few occasionally corrupt individuals, or is the FBI community rotten to the core?
This is no longer an item for idle speculation. It is one of the main points of the June release of a report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, a supposedly nonpartisan expert who says explicitly that the FBI’s leadership team was guilty, if not of criminal offense, of unparalleled bad judgment over the last few years. Specifically, the IG report said, that leadership team had showed overwhelming bias during the 2016 presidential campaign. And it wasn’t especially that a few hundred lower level agents had exhibited this explicit favoritism, said the IG. The political bias was most evident at the FBI’s highest leadership levels.
Comey’s odd behavior during the campaign, of course, led to his falling out of favor with both political parties. But any fair reading of the IG’s report suggests that both Comey and the team he had assembled around him were determined to prevent the election of Donald Trump. The term “bias” is way too soft to describe what went on in an agency that is supposed to be scrupulous in its refusal to get politically involved. Read the IG report if you have any doubts.
All this, we know now, was going on while the stage was being set for an unending—but still unsubstantiated—charge that candidate and now-President Trump was nefariously engaged with Russian agents. If that isn’t a classic case of a sleight-of-hand artist engaging in the art of distraction, it would be hard to find one that might top it.
In any case, even Christopher Wray, the current FBI director, doesn’t seem to get it. A little realignment here, a little reminder there, he seemed to be telling the Senate committee, and everything will be just fine. “Because change starts at the top—including right here with me—” he said with distracting modesty, “we’re going to begin by requiring all our senior executives, from around the world, to convene for in-depth training on the lessons we should learn from today’s report.”
Thanks, Mr. Wray, but that misses the point. It wasn’t agents from around the world who got it so desperately wrong. It was the team at the very top. Can you assure us that none of them are around anymore? Some of us would really like to know: Did you get your man?