No president, Democratic or Republican, has done as much damage to the operation and success of the FBI than President Trump. His most recent rants against the FBI follow his firing of FBI Director James B. Comey and attacks on other senior FBI officials.
There are at least five aspects to this.
First, Trump has repeatedly and falsely accused them of being leaderless and demoralized. At least in one case, we have factual evidence the White House simply lied about the FBI to make its own actions look better. The Lawfare blog reports on the results of its Freedom of Information Act Requests for documents relating to internal discussions after Comey was fired:
It also shows that no aspect of the White House’s statements about the bureau were accurate—and, indeed, that the White House engendered at least some resentment among the rank and file for whom it purported to speak. As Amy Hess, the special agent in charge in Louisville, put it: “On a personal note, I vehemently disagree with any negative assertions about the credibility of this institution or the people herein.”
Before detailing the story these documents tell, let’s pause a moment over the story they do not tell. They contain not a word that supports the notion that the FBI was in turmoil. They contain not a word that reflects gratitude to the president for removing a nut job. There is literally not a single sentence in any of these communications that reflects criticism of Comey’s leadership of the FBI. Not one special agent in charge describes Comey’s removal as some kind of opportunity for new leadership. And if any FBI official really got on the phone with Sanders to express gratitude or thanks “for the president’s decision,” nobody reported that to his or her staff. . . . The bottom line is that the documents tell a remarkably consistent story about the reaction inside the FBI to Comey’s firing, and it is not the story the White House has told about an agency in turmoil.
One sure-fire way to depress morale, impede recruiting and promote retirements is to falsely claim it’s a rotten organization and poorly led. Former FBI supervisory agent Josh Campbell spoke out publicly. He wrote recently that he is leaving the FBI so he can “join the growing chorus of people who believe that the relentless attacks on the bureau undermine not just America’s premier law enforcement agency but also the nation’s security. My resignation is painful, but the alternative of remaining quiet while the bureau is tarnished for political gain is impossible.” If six months or a year from now recruitment is down and retirements are up, we will have a pretty good idea why.
Second, the FISA court process will in all likelihood be affected, and not in a good way. Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, appeared before the FISA court approximately 20 times. “No question there are discussions going on at the FBI and among the FISA judges on how to handle this moving forward,” he told me. “It will change some behavior. I hope the result will not be fewer FISA requests.” The inclination will be to put less information in the applications, providing a thinner record and impeding future oversight. Given the choice between putting something in writing and verbally conveying material to the judge on camera, the inclination will be to do the latter. The result then is less transparency.
Third, by falsely suggesting FISA applications are flimsy and Americans can be easily surveilled, Trump and the GOP erode public support for a key counterintelligence tool. The irony is that the FISA application regarding Carter Page, plus the multiple extensions, had to have met a very, very high standard contrary to the impression left by the cherry-picked memo from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). “It is extremely difficult to get a U.S. person covered by a FISA request,” said Figliuzzi. For one thing, “You have to disclose exculpatory information.” In other words, if the suspect tells the Russians to buzz off, the FBI must return to the court and the surveillance must be stopped. Moreover, the FISA warrant “actually has to be producing information.” In other words, during the time in question the court would have to find Page’s connections to Russia continued and that the surveillance was providing helpful counterintelligence. Right-wing media cavalierly accusing the FBI of “corruption” — with no proof it did anything wrong — and abusive (the worst scandal in American history!) do more damage than the Church Commission and left-wing anarchists ever did to convince Americans our FISA counterintelligence operations should be restricted or halted, thereby giving our enemies a free pass on recruitment of Americans.
Fourth, it makes our recruitment of spies in other countries that much harder. “I’m most concerned about a drop in RIP’s [Recruitments in Place],” says Figliuzzi. “Imagine when you try to recruit a Russian or a Chinese intelligence officer to spy on his country and to remain in place as a double agent. Now he’s going to say, “Are you out of your mind?” The appearance of disarray, incompetence and inability to keep secrets will mean we have fewer human assets and therefore, worse intelligence.”
Finally, the oversight process itself almost surely will be hampered. Intelligence entities won’t want to share information; Congress will have less ability to exercise oversight and to produce legislation that might address ongoing concerns (either abuses or the need for new intelligence and counterintelligence tools). If you think it is strange that many Democrats are apoplectic about this, it may derive from a fear of returning to the pre-Watergate reform days when there was a hostile relationship between elected leaders and our intelligence community, leading to actual abuses. If you wanted to create incentives for hording information you couldn’t have come up with a better scheme.
It may take years to repair the injury to our intelligence community wrought by Trump and the GOP. And let’s not forget the serious damage Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing. What’s he done? Nothing, and that’s a problem. While he is recused (supposedly) from the Russia investigation, he has declined to stick up for the FBI, a large portion of the department he leads. “It would be helpful if the attorney general would just stand up and defend the work being done,” said Figliuzzi. Whatever your views on former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., his remarks in early January that “it is something that is both disturbing and heartbreaking to see them being unfairly attacked, and to have nothing but silence coming from the 5th floor of the Justice Department” ring true.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday on the floor, “It is inexplicable to me that the president of the United States and his allies are far more concerned with attacking American law enforcement agencies than standing up to Russia.” You wonder if the voters will notice.