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Opinion The FBI’s latest scandal should be strike three for Christopher Wray

An FBI seal is seen on a wall on Aug. 10 in Omaha. (Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo)
4 min

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has presided over arguably the worst internal infiltration scandal since FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen was arrested for spying for the Soviet Union (and later Russia) in 2001. But this is at least the third instance of gross mismanagement during Wray’s tenure.

That raises the question: Why is he still there?

The Post reports, “The FBI’s former top spy hunter in New York was charged Monday with taking secret cash payments of more than $225,000 while overseeing highly sensitive cases, and breaking the law by trying to get Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska removed from a U.S. sanctions list — accusations that shocked the cloistered world of his fellow high-ranking intelligence officials.” A separate criminal indictment arising out of D.C. accuses Charles McGonigal of “hiding payments totaling $225,000 that he allegedly received from a New Jersey man employed decades ago by an Albanian intelligence agency. The indictment also accused him of acting to advance that person’s interests.”

We need to learn all we can about what McGonigal did at the FBI from August 2017 to his retirement in September 2018, the period covered by the first indictment. But without question the presence of a compromised senior official operating on the most sensitive counterterrorism cases is a black eye for Wray.

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But that arguably was not even Wray’s worst error. The report that the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol released found ample evidence that the FBI had significant, credible information of the potential for violence at the Capitol. “Prior to January 6th, numerous government agencies received intelligence that those descending on The Mall for a rally organized by the President were armed and that their target may be the Capitol. The intelligence community and law enforcement agencies detected the planning for potential violence directed at the joint session of Congress,” the report (Appendix 1) found. And yet that intelligence was never operationalized by the FBI.

The Jan. 6 committee report’s damning conclusion: “Federal and local law enforcement authorities were in possession of multiple streams of intelligence predicting violence directed at the Capitol prior to January 6th. Although some of that intelligence was fragmentary, it should have been sufficient to warrant far more vigorous preparations for the security of the joint session.” The report added, “The failure to sufficiently share and act upon that intelligence jeopardized the lives of the police officers defending the Capitol and everyone in it.”

Shockingly, Wray did not conduct a top-to-bottom self-evaluation and share its findings and specific recommendations with the public. The Jan. 6 committee had limited insight into the specific failures that led to the FBI’s failure to adequately prepare for and head off an act of domestic terrorism, essentially blaming the impossibility of predicting “the fact that the President of the United States would be the catalyst of their fury and facilitate the attack was unprecedented in American history.” Really? Given the streams of information, Trump’s call to action, the groups involved and the weeks-long campaign to overturn the election, that explanation is inadequate at best.

One would think that a failure of this magnitude would set off an exhaustive self-investigation coupled with detailed findings and steps to remedy the problems uncovered. That omission would seem to be a failure of leadership nearly on par with the operational failure itself.

There is more. As I have written, the FBI has failed to follow legal requirements to track domestic terrorism, according to a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee report released last year. Is there an institutional aversion to information-gathering and tracking violent domestic terrorism, as some former FBI officials have argued?

The problem isn’t new. Back in 2019, a Brennan Center report documented significant shortcomings in the department’s approach to domestic terrorism, including failure to prioritize such crimes, a lack of resources and failure to build community trust.

In sum, there is more than sufficient reason to conclude Wray is not the right man for the job at present. Aside from major blunders, he seems to lack the will or capacity to take a hard look at his own department and adjust to a changing environment in which domestic right-wing terrorism poses a more severe threat than foreign terrorism.

FBI directors get a 10-year term, but they serve at the discretion of the president. (Donald Trump installed Wray in 2017 after firing James B. Comey.) The question for President Biden is whether Americans can afford to have him around for another four years.

Surely, there are perfectly qualified candidates, Republicans and Democrats, who have shown courage in examining governmental failures and fully appreciate the domestic terrorism threat. Perhaps Liz Cheney is available.