Time for the FBI to Disclose, Discharge, and Disinfect

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When Christopher Wray was named director of the FBI in August 2017, he had two crucial tasks: clean the Augean Stables, which had been fouled by James Comey, and restore public confidence in the bureau. Comey presided over a carnival of misconduct. Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe, supervised all of it and handpicked most of the other agents involved.

Wray’s job was to muck out this mess, disclose the wrongdoing, fire the bad guys, and win back public support. To put it bluntly: he has failed at the job. He has failed the country, the president, and his fellow agents.

Firing Wray before the election would be too incendiary. It would instantly descend into a partisan food fight, like all American politics these days, and would cloud the important work of U.S. Attorney John Durham. But if Wray cannot be fired immediately, neither should he be allowed to block the public from seeing what went wrong at the bureau. That’s exactly what he has been doing, and it needs to stop.

Wray shouldn’t be allowed to hide or slow-walk the evidence that American citizens have every right to see. Remember, it was the current FBI team, not Jim Comey, that said it couldn’t find Peter Strzok and Lisa Page’s devastating text messages. It was the Justice Department’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, not Wray’s agents, who discovered the “lost” messages and thousands more. They were released by Rod Rosenstein, who was effectively running DoJ at the time. The FBI brass were not happy.

They weren’t happy, either, when the House Intelligence Committee, led by Devin Nunes, finished its 2018 report showing how the FBI and Department of Justice abused the secret intelligence court. That court approves warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (aimed at terrorists and spies working against America). Under Comey and his Justice Department allies, the act was also aimed at the Republican Party. Targeting the Trump campaign without extremely strong justification is a grave violation of our constitutional norms. It jeopardizes the fairness of our elections and turns federal law enforcement into a partisan instrument. The Nunes report exposed it.

Director Wray strenuously opposed the report’s release, saying it would harm “national security.” What it really harmed was the FBI’s reputation for honesty, adherence to standard procedures, and lawful behavior. Rebuilding that reputation was precisely why Wray was appointed. Although he was unable to block the report, Democrats on the intelligence committee did everything they could to discredit it and smear Nunes personally. They were led by Adam Schiff, Nunes’ fellow Californian, who issued a partisan counter-report and appeared on television constantly, denouncing Nunes and defending the FBI investigation, including the FISA warrants.

The Democrats’ main line of attack was that Trump had colluded with the Russians (“The evidence is in plain sight,” Schiff said), that the FBI had every right to investigate this criminal and possibly treasonous behavior, and that the FBI and DoJ carried out their work “by the book,” as approved by the FISA court. The mainstream media adopted that version of events as its own. This shared narrative did more than defend the Obama administration and its top law enforcement and intelligence officials. It implied that Trump was not legitimately elected since he won only by working with a foreign enemy.

Now, after reams of evidence have come out, we know how groundless Schiff’s defense of the FBI and DoJ really was. He knew all along that there was no actual evidence to back up the “Russia collusion” smear. All Obama’s senior appointees in law enforcement and intelligence told the House Intelligence Committee they had no evidence the Trump campaign was colluding, cooperating, or coordinating with Russia. Yes, the Kremlin did try to meddle in the election, but not with Trump’s help. That testimony was given under oath, behind closed doors. When the doors were opened, the same officials and Schiff himself stood before the cameras and said the opposite.

It is also increasingly clear that the multi-pronged effort to spy on Trump’s campaign was riddled with irregularities and legal problems. Those began with the flimsy memo that authorized the spying to begin with. Newly revealed documents undermine the rationale for the investigation, the Schiff report, and two years of clueless media hype. Nunes’ report stands vindicated. It laid out a valuable roadmap to the improper surveillance.

How did Director Wray respond when the Nunes report became public? Did he tell his agents it was a dark day for the FBI but one that would brighten as the bureau faced up to its errors and undertook fundamental reforms? No. Did he apologize for the FBI’s illegal actions and promise to do better? No. He simply reassured bureau employees that their “work will endure” and that others’ “talk is cheap.”

How did Schiff and the Democratic House leadership react? By blocking the release of all secret testimony for more than two years. They used the specious rationale that disclosing it would harm national security. That was untrue because all classified materials would be deleted. What the testimony would really harm was congressional Democrats, the Obama administration, and the mainstream media, which had worked together to promote the collusion story. That’s why, after Democrats won the House, they refused to release the testimony. It finally came out this spring, but only because Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell threatened to release it if Schiff did not.

This game of three-card monte, where the truth is hidden by adroit slight-of-hand, extended to exculpatory evidence found by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his deputy, Andrew Weissmann. The Mueller report didn’t disclose anything that would weaken their case against Trump or his associates. Their aim was clear: set the table for impeachment.

They played the same dirty tricks when they prosecuted Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, refusing to give his first team of lawyers the exculpatory information uncovered by the FBI and the special counsel, and only partially doing so in the face of relentless effort by his second attorney, the tenacious Sidney Powell. We still don’t have such key documents as the FBI agents’ first-hand report of their interview with Flynn. The bureau claims it can’t find it. The nation’s premier law enforcement agency sounds like shameless seventh-graders. The dog ate their homework.

How can citizens possibly understand the misdeeds of the FBI and Mueller team if essential information remains secret? The American people deserve to know what went wrong and why. We paid for this information -- not Jim Comey, Chris Wray, Andy McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, Loretta Lynch, John Brennan, James Clapper, Bob Mueller, or Andrew Weissmann. It was collected on our behalf; it belongs to us; and we deserve to see it. Let the Director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, scrub it of any classified material and then let Attorney General William Barr or the bureau disclose it. If those disclosures make the FBI, DoJ, or Office of Special Counsel look bad, even criminal, so be it.

Director Wray hasn’t merely obstructed the release of documents. He has failed to give a public accounting of what went wrong at his agency and a full-throated promise to correct it. That’s essential if the FBI’s culture is to change for the better. One measure of that culture’s corruption is that no whistleblowers came forward during the darkest days.

Since the FBI has been unwilling to come clean on its own, Barr needs to appoint someone who will do it for them. The perfect spot opened up this week when the FBI’s general counsel was forced out. Dana Boente had signed one of the false FISA warrants and resisted all pressure for disclosure. He was part of the problem. His replacement should be part of the solution. That will only happen if Barr makes the appointment himself and picks someone who is committed to transparency, not to covering up scandals.

America needs an FBI it can trust. It will only have it if the bureau is finally willing to “disclose, discharge, and disinfect.” It’s time to start spraying the countertops.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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