The FBI: Losing sight of the forest for the trees

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As a retired FBI special agent, I have read recent op-eds by former senior FBI officials, in which they decry the public criticism of the FBI and worry over the impact it’s having on the institution. I share their pain.  

Yet, their defense — especially of former director James Comey, whom a former executive assistant director this month described as “revered” while calling the current criticisms “calculated, brutal, disgusting” — completely misses the point. It strikes me as short-sighted, parochial, even dangerous.

{mosads}And therein lies the rub. How do the many of us active and retired FBI agents, who have watched with dismay the actions of Director Comey and other senior FBI officials, acknowledge the possible wrongdoing and, at the same time, defend an institution we believe in and love? How do we discuss these serious allegations, without tarnishing the dedicated men and women in the ranks who continue silently to answer their call to honorable duty and faithful service?  


It’s simply undemocratic and myopic to assert that the FBI should be above criticism. Should any institution in a democratic republic be above criticism? Would we want an FBI that can only be spoken of in hushed whispers?  

As a young semester-abroad student in the former Soviet Union in 1988, I thought I was standing across from KGB headquarters but wasn’t sure. So, foolishly, I approached a woman on the sidewalk and asked, “Is this Lubyanka?” Her face turned ashen and she ran. Is this what we want? Emphatically, no.  

The very mission of the FBI is to defend our democracy. What is happening now could never have happened to the KGB — prima facie evidence that the FBI is not a secret police force separated from its people. However painful today’s criticisms, this is exactly the way we want it to be.

Even more curious is that some of my former colleagues are so opposed to any criticism of the FBI, yet are perfectly accepting of former director Comey’s trashing of President Trump, and consequently the presidency, a far older and vastly more important emblematic institution of our democracy than the FBI. In that process, such critics also demean tens of millions of citizens who voted for and support him. 

This is dangerous. It’s this seeming blanket defense of unelected government institutions, while at the same time appearing to dismiss the democratic will of millions, which has helped to fuel the belief of some in the existence of a “deep state.”

It is every citizen’s right to criticize the president — and the FBI. Advocating that the one institution we have which is closest to a secret police force must be above criticism is dangerous. Almost without exception, FBI employees are outstanding patriots who scrupulously follow the law and should be protected. Yet, that does not mean wrongdoing by any bureau official should be hidden to protect the institution. We don’t even practice this in the FBI with its own employees; strong penalties are imposed on those who transgress FBI rules, and infractions and their consequences are published regularly to the entire workforce.

Most of all, I fear that these former officials’ inability to criticize the organization, or to tolerate criticism from others, will appear to Americans like the infamous “blue wall of silence” — the idea that law enforcement always protects its own. If you see that an institution as powerful and secretive as the FBI is involved in possible wrongdoing as serious as some of the allegations we all have read and heard, and that it refuses to accept accountability or even criticism, how could you be faulted for losing faith and turning against us?

I don’t want this to occur, nor does any FBI employee. We don’t want to see the public, even in small numbers, distrust and turn against the bureau. At this moment, it’s far more important that the bureau maintains faith with the American people than with ourselves.

To maintain that faith, as difficult as it is, we need to forbear, to be open to criticism, and to allow the facts to fall where they may. If that damages the institution, so be it. We need to be at the forefront of exposing wrongdoing, not responding to the investigations by others. We need to be critical of ourselves. If found guilty, we need to acknowledge and denounce that wrongdoing, to hold to account former colleagues who did not acquit themselves to our standards.

As long as we follow the bureau’s motto — fidelity to truth and justice, bravery to acknowledge wrongdoing, and integrity to our principles — we will recover.   

If the facts show the FBI did everything by the book (which I and many of us sadly doubt, given public revelations), then we can stand in unity and defend the bureau.  

But let’s not lose sight of the role of the FBI in our democracy, lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Jonathan Bowman became an FBI special agent in 1995 and retired in 2016 as an assistant special agent in charge of national security programs in the Honolulu field office. He worked on counterterrorism, counterintelligence and Russian organized crime investigations, and was the FBI’s assistant legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for three years. Before joining the FBI, he was a CIA analyst. 

Tags Dismissal of James Comey Donald Trump Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections United States Department of Justice

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