The Strzok-Page texts are enough to make us want less transparency in government — not more

The Strzok-Page texts are enough to make us want less transparency in government — not more
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Greater transparency from the FBI in the Russian collusion investigation is something many have wanted. Be careful what you want.

We have now gotten an additional glimpse into this matter with the recent release of five months of text messages between FBI deputy assistant director of counterintelligence Peter Strzok and former FBI attorney Lisa Page. These texts — from Dec. 16, 2016, through May 23, 2017, which initially the FBI said it could not recover — were unearthed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general. If you have the time, and the stomach, you can read them. They are not an easy read.

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It is not easy to read because of all the redactions, the use of jargon and abbreviations. Yet, what makes it a particularly difficult read for someone, like me, who is part of the FBI family, is the realization that some of the bureau’s so-called leaders are totally lacking in character.

 

After reading these texts, the quote from the Jack Nicholson character in “A Few Good Men” comes to mind: “You can’t handle the truth!”

We already knew that Strzok and Page were biased against President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE. That was at least part of the reason Mueller removed them from the special counsel’s investigation. Now we can be revolted to find that these two individuals also behaved in ways that, to many current and former bureau staff, appear as being juvenile, self-absorbed, narcissistic, sycophantic and foul-mouthed.  

A current assistant director of the bureau told me recently, by way of explaining former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeFormer federal prosecutor joins Kavanaugh accuser's legal team FBI group defends agents amid Trump’s attacks Donald Trump’s Rosenstein dilemma MORE’s missteps, that there were simply “bad” people around “Andy.” Partly true, perhaps. But these months of texts seemingly point to at least three people in this relationship.

In the texts, Strzok and Page appear to be constantly concerned about what “Andy” thinks, and thinks of them. They worship him — “I am so proud of Andy,” one text reads — and, along with him, “we are a great team.” When texting about others, one finds repetitious expletives which The Hill won’t print. They disdain congressmen for asking questions concerning the “unmasking” of Americans; they demean hard-working field agents of the FBI, who they claim don’t think strategically “like we do.”

Part way through the reading of these texts, what has been hinted at elsewhere becomes clear: A small group, near the top of the pyramid at FBI headquarters, was doing it all. They texted about “going to London,” and about meeting with someone “from British [three characters redacted].” One has only to wonder if they are referencing MI5 or MI6. Shortly after James ComeyJames Brien ComeyDershowitz: Trump's lawyers could force Rosenstein to recuse himself from Mueller probe New York Times defends bombshell Rosenstein report Donald Trump’s Rosenstein dilemma MORE was fired as FBI director, they texted about now opening — “while Andy is Acting” — a case that they had previously discussed. They are choosing investigations, making decisions on the direction of the investigation, and often doing the investigating. When this happens, who reviews their work product? This is sheer folly. It was bound to end badly.

The hundreds of personal texts in this release lead us to another issue. In the federal government, there had been long-standing rules against the use of any government property for personal purposes. In the DOJ and FBI these rules were strictly enforced, to the degree that the personal use of a cell phone or copying machine could place an employee in jeopardy.

Janet Reno, the U.S. attorney general from 1993 to 2001, issued  guidance that occasional use of government property should not expose an employee to discipline. What she — and the bureau officials who would enforce this rule — understood was that this was to apply to emergency circumstances, as when one had to work late and could not pick up a child. Her directive came to be known as the “Reno Rule.”

One can’t imagine that she had in mind these 49 pages of texts between Strzok and Page.

Transparency is good, necessary, healthy. It also can be painful. These revelations certainly are. I and others in the FBI family are embarrassed by the texting of those who were among the individuals calling the shots at the bureau during a critical time in our nation’s history.

Yet, as embarrassing as it is, the truth and its lessons must be faced. A thorough housecleaning is in order. FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDem warns Trump: 'Obstruction of justice' to fire Rosenstein Donald Trump’s Rosenstein dilemma White House proposes executive order to Trump that would examine tech companies’ practices MORE have made a good start with the firing of McCabe and the appointment of well-regarded leaders as deputy director and associate deputy director. A lesson we can hope the bureau has learned is that case management should stay in the time-tested field-office model, allowing for layers of independent judgment and review.

And please, let’s re-emphasize “the Reno Rule” — so that, in a future inquiry, we can be spared some of these stomach-turning texts.

Tom Baker is a retired FBI special agent and legal attaché.