Josh Campbell is a CNN law enforcement analyst and former FBI supervisory special agent. The views expressed are his own.
With all eyes on the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General and its forthcoming report on the conduct of FBI officials during the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, Justice leadership chose to act on a subset of the IG’s findings and fire McCabe without providing underlying details.
In a press statement focused mainly on process, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his decision to remove McCabe after a nearly 22-year career with America’s premier law enforcement agency — based on a vague allegation that McCabe was untruthful when questioned about a media leak.
A decision of this magnitude should not be announced via press release. The inspector general and Justice Department owe it to the public to promptly release their findings in full, so the American people can draw their own informed conclusions.
Full disclosure: I briefly served as McCabe’s special assistant once he became acting director, following the firing of my former boss James B. Comey. McCabe is a dedicated public servant with a distinguished career protecting America against threats from terrorists and foreign adversaries. I also believe he should face the same internal affairs processes and consequences that any FBI special agent would face in similar circumstances.
Regardless of the merits, the timing of the announcement — 10 p.m. on a Friday, and a mere 26 hours before McCabe was eligible to retire — will long be debated as to its appropriateness. McCabe’s ousting will no doubt make its way into Washington lore alongside other politically charged dismissals, such as President Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre. With so many unanswered questions, it is unrealistic to expect the American people to accept the firing as fair when they have no factual basis on which to inform their thoughts.
McCabe — a career FBI public servant (and a Republican, by the way) — has faced slings and arrows from elected leaders with partisan agendas. If you pay close attention to some of his most vocal critics, one aspect that appears to unite them is their bizarre inability to accept the FBI’s investigative conclusion in the Hillary Clinton case. Even more disappointing is that some of these critics decided to set their sights on McCabe’s wife, who ran unsuccessfully for public office as a Democrat in 2015. Not only was it open season on the FBI, but family members also became fair game for political operatives.
Should McCabe have recused himself sooner in the Clinton case, out of an abundance of caution? Maybe. Is it possible the agents and analysts working the case would have allowed him to politicize their investigation if he made leadership decisions inconsistent with the facts they unearthed? Not a chance. The inspector general will determine the full extent of any alleged political impropriety at the FBI, but those who know the organization and know McCabe see these attacks as pure smoke.
Some of the things the public needs to know: What, specifically, did McCabe say, or not say, to investigators to cause them to conclude he “lacked candor”? McCabe maintains his role in providing information to a reporter on the Clinton case was highly routine and done with the knowledge of others at the bureau, including the director. What was the basis for concluding it was an unauthorized disclosure?
The attorney general appears to have done a disservice to the American people by announcing the conclusion of a high-profile investigation without providing the public with a full accounting of the facts. In today’s polarized climate, the absence of truth makes it easy for members of the public to retreat to their political corners, form narratives and draw conclusions that can be nearly impossible to alter, once baked in.
As any FBI special agent will tell you, investigations are complicated. It is possible to hold two seemingly competing but accurate thoughts in one’s head at the same time, namely, that McCabe could have been not fully candid with investigators and that Justice leadership could have politicized his firing. If he committed wrongdoing, McCabe should be held accountable, but this incident should not define his service to the nation.
But there is a bigger principle at stake here than one FBI agent’s career. The public must not be manipulated by the selective release and withholding of investigative information by the Justice Department. The inspector general’s findings that were the basis for the action must immediately be presented in full.