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The FBI ‘just needs to clean house’ former agents say

February 6, 2018 GMT

Former FBI agents say it may take a long time to wash away the stain of political bias accusations lobbed against the bureau, which had long been viewed as the nation’s premier law enforcement agency.

The criticism of the storied bureau has been bipartisan, with Republicans pointing to accusations the agency mishandled the justification for spying on a Trump campaign figure. Before that it was Democrats furious at the FBI’s handling of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s email failures.

In between were a slew of embarrassing text messages from an agent involved in both the Trump and Clinton investigations, revelations of top officials’ partisan ties, and a wave of demotions and ousters.

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“If people start looking at the FBI as a political organization the taint will be incredible,” said James Wedick, a 34-year agency veteran who now works as an investigator.

Credibility allegations have taken a toll on the bureau. The New York Times last week published a piece from Josh Campbell, a former supervisory special agent who said informants may be less willing to come forward in a terrorist investigation, or a jury may not give an agent testifying at trial the same expectation of truth it once would have.

Mr. Campbell wrote the piece to announce he was quitting the FBI in order to take a public role in defending it, blaming President Trump and his allies for unfairly sullying the bureau.

“A small number of my current and retired colleagues have said that we should simply keep our heads down until the storm passes. I say this with the greatest respect: They are wrong,” Mr. Campbell wrote. “If those who know the agency best remain silent, it will be defined by those with partisan agendas.”

Ex-agents’ disagreements over the cause of the taint spills over into the prescription for fixing it.

One agent said the usual oversight process may help restore confidence, while another said it’ll take FBI Director Christopher Wray to step in and fix things. Another agent said it may take a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the bureau’s behavior.

“It looks to me like some FBI executives violated the law by filing a fraudulent affidavit to spy on an American citizen,” said Mr. Wedick. “That’s going to warrant a special prosecutor. I don’t see how they avoid this.”

If a special prosecutor is not appointed, Lewis Schiliro, former head of agency’s New York office, suggests using the inspector general to release a comprehensive report on the FBI’s activities.

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But Sanford Unger, director of the Free Speech Program at Georgetown University and author of a book on the FBI’s history, said a special prosecutor would further politicize the battle over the bureau’s behavor.

“Another line of independent inquiry that is subject to political manipulation is not a good idea,” Mr. Unger said. “To inject another probe could risk harming the bureau in ways that even Mr. Trump wouldn’t want it harmed.”

He said Mr. Trump could help restore faith in the bureau by cooling his criticisms, which Mr. Unger described as short-term political calculations.

“If you tear down an institution like this you can’t just build it back up next week,” he said. “You have to be careful about tearing down institutions that are the bedrock of our democracy because you will cause irreparable damage to the government that maligned it.”

The latest dent to the bureau came on Friday when a House intelligence committee memo claimed the FBI applied for a FISA warrant to spy on Trump campaign aide Carter Page using the discredited Steele Dossier, a collection of unverified reports which was funded by the Clinton campaign for use against Mr. Trump.

“There was a perception that the FBI had lost its objectivity with how it handled the Hillary Clinton investigation and now the FISA memo just adds to that,” Mr. Schiliro said.

Politicians of every stripe, from Mr. Trump on down, insist they aren’t questioning the integrity of the 13,000 agents, 3,100 intelligence analysts and 19,000 other support staff.

But the leadership has been in turmoil for months, with Mr. Trump firing then-Director James Comey last year, and Deputy Attorney General Andrew McCabe speeding up his retirement this year amid allegations he slow walked the Clinton email investigation.

The inspector general is reviewing why Mr. McCabe, the second-highest-ranking official at the FBI “appeared not to act for about three weeks” after new Clinton emails were discovered just weeks before the election. Mr. McCabe’s wife, Jill, ran for state senate in Virginia and had accepted a campaign contribution of nearly $500,000 from Gov. Terry McCauliffe, Virginia Democrat, who chaired Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

“When I was at the bureau, the question was never ‘is it wrong?,’ it was ‘does this look wrong?’” Mr. Wedick said. “If it didn’t look good you weren’t allowed do that. How McCabe’s wife took that money, given his position, is incredible to me.”

The FBI’s troubles deepened last year when Agent Peter Strzok was revealed to have sent bureau attorney Lisa Page, his alleged mistress, multiple texts in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations, while simultaneously blasting Donald Trump.

Mr. Strzok was the agent running the investigation into Mrs. Clinton use of a private email server while Secretary of State and, briefly, a member of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team probing possible links between Russia and Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.

The agency’s embarrassment over the situation was heightened last month when it admitted last month that it lost nearly five months worth of texts exchanged between Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page due to “misconfiguration issues.” It took the FBI’s inspector general to recover the missing texts.

“How does the FBI - with the top cybersecurity technology in the world - go to the microphone and announce the texts are missing?” Mr. Wedick said. “That just gives everyone an insecure feeling that they have no idea what they are doing.”

Mr. Schiliro said the bad publicity surrounding the bureau is because of the actions of a few top level officials.

“The working agents are out there every day, doing their job and leaving politics at the door,” Mr. Schiliro said. “But perhaps Comey and others at the top allowed this continue unimpeded.”

John Lagito, who spent 20 years at the Bureau, said it’s up to Mr. Comey’s successor to restore confidence.

“Wray just needs to clean house now,” he said. “The FBI needs to heal and show everyone who the bad apples are.”

Mr. Lagito accused Mr. Wray of being slow to act, noting that Mr. McCabe did not leave until allegations of his alleged slow walking the Clinton e-mail investigation surfaced or that Mr. Strzok was transferred only after his texts to Ms. Page were disclosed.

“Just the affair allegations, which may or may not be true, would have been enough to have an agent suspended when I was at the bureau,” he said.

The former agents believe arrests in high-profile FBI investigations could heal some wounds. But such announcements could take a while and may be overshadowed in the media by the political climate in Washington.

“A string of good news will impact the public,” Mr. Schiliro said. “I guarantee you that discussion is going on in the director’s office.”