Peter's 'principles' damaged public's faith in FBI

Disgraced FBI agent Peter Strzok spent a long Thursday on Capitol Hill, trying his best to sell the idea that his own words are not indicative of how he acts. What a third-grader would recognize as absurd, nevertheless got the full political-theater treatment by an oversight committee that seemed to miss the point.

Peter Strzok’s text messages with former FBI attorney Lisa Page were disgusting. They were harmful to the FBI and, ultimately, to the American people. He should have apologized for them on their face. They are not words any FBI agent with such responsibilities should have uttered, regardless of whether or not they indicated bias. There is a higher principle at play here, but one he apparently didn’t recognize, since no apology was forthcoming.

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Instead, he expressed regret that others used his irresponsible words to attack the FBI. Nice deflection attempt, Peter, but you own those words, despite your weak-chinned efforts to separate yourself from them. You, not others, did the damage to the FBI, the institution you professed to “love.”

 

Mr. Strzok may have convinced himself that he wasn’t biased but there apparently wasn’t a single member of the two House oversight committees who believed him. The Republicans attacked him because they thought he was biased against the president. The Democrats defended him because ... they thought he was biased against the president. And there, in the kind of hearing that makes Congress’s low approval ratings understandable, oversight got bogged down in a playground argument.

Seemingly lost on Mr. Strzok and the oversight committees is a higher principle worth fighting for. You see, the FBI is more than an institution or an agency. It is an ideal of trust and fairness. It would be hard to name another agency more vital to the health of the Republic. It is the FBI that most directly preserves from corruption, on a daily basis, the underpinnings of democratic processes and protects the citizenry from abuse by those to whom it has granted authority.

If the FBI, through the careless words and actions of a few of its executives, even appears to be less than impartial or objective, then the country suffers a profound loss. To whom does the nation turn if the agency charged to conduct investigations — unperturbed by cultural, political or moneyed interests — becomes commonly perceived as subject to manipulation? For all of our sakes, the FBI, as an ideal, must be protected.

And so, congressional oversight must lift itself out of this “Yes, you are biased” “No, I’m not biased” political circus and start asking the right questions that will truly help reveal whether some in the FBI misused their authority, or played completely within the rules.

The American people deserve to know. The FBI, after all, derives its immense authority from their consent.

Congressional oversight can start by probing whether those who initiated and conducted the counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign did so within the carefully constructed Attorney General Guidelines that dictate what the FBI can and cannot do. These guidelines, barely 40 years old, were established precisely to protect the American people from unfounded FBI investigations. All good FBI agents embrace the guidelines, and the vast majority of agents are good and trustworthy.

The guidelines clearly outline what kind of predicating information is required before the FBI can conduct a counterintelligence investigation, particularly against a U.S. citizen. Or direct a confidential source against a U.S. citizen. Or tap the phones of a U.S. citizen. Oversight should want to understand if all these activities were conducted in accordance with the guidelines.

These questions aren’t being asked with fidelity by Congress. In fairness, the guidelines are complex. Just ask fired FBI director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyComey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Trump calls Brennan ‘a very bad person’ after Putin criticism Buck Wild: 'Is President Trump paranoid or is the Deep State out to get him?' MORE who, by agreeing to refer to the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Dem pollster: GOP women have a more difficult time winning primary races than Dems Mellman: (Mis)interpreting elections MORE email investigation as a “matter,” revealed that he had no familiarity with the Attorney General Guidelines.

Which is more than a little concerning, since it appears that the Trump-Russia investigation was initiated and conducted by FBI headquarters executives, specifically the offices of the deputy director and director, rather than an FBI field office, where all other investigations are carried out. It cannot be overstated how unusual this is. FBI field offices are routinely familiar with the Attorney General Guidelines. FBI headquarters executives, perhaps, not so much.

The FBI, for its part, cannot endure many more days like the Strzok hearings where the FBI general counsel is seen blocking the most anodyne questions that they believe fall under their overly broad umbrella of case-related information. The FBI cannot compound the errors of Strzok and others by falling into a defensive crouch and playing into fears that there is something to hide.

There is no investigation — I repeat, no investigation — that is more important than the American people’s trust in the FBI. Transparency breeds trust. If mistakes were made, the FBI, the world’s greatest investigative body, should be proactively surfacing them, owning them, fixing them and affirmatively pushing their findings to Congress. If, on the other hand, everything was done by the book, then the FBI should show it and reassure the nation.

America wants to trust the FBI. That’s a principle worth fighting for.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and the first principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.