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The GOP uses FBI ‘secret society’ charge to overplay its unbeatable hand

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I cringed on Tuesday as I witnessed usually stolid Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) discuss information Congress had apparently received from an informant about “corruption at the highest levels of the FBI.”

He regaled assembled reporters about salacious details of a rogue FBI “secret society.”

It was worthy of a bestselling fiction novel. And, it pained me on several levels.

{mosads}Criticism of the FBI I served for a quarter-century, even when deserved, makes me ache for the nameless, faceless men and women of America’s premier law enforcement agency — my friends and former colleagues — who knowing the inherent dangers, toil in relative obscurity to keep us safe.


The reputation of the FBI is sacrosanct to every one of us who has ever been privileged to carry the shield, credentials, and duty sidearm of a special agent.

In the FBI’s storied history, thirty-six service martyrs have paid the ultimate price with their lives; the direct result of adversarial action.

The bureau has enjoyed a proud history of acting as an apolitical investigative arm of the Department of Justice. We follow the evidence wherever it may lead, bereft of fear or favor.

While on duty, we are stringently bipartisan, pledging fealty only to the constitution. And whether we voted for a particular chief executive or not, we serve every administration with the same dedicated values of fidelity, bravery, and integrity — our cherished motto.

But Johnson’s claims about the informant who had provided him stories buttressing some of the extreme right claims that the “fix” has been in at the FBI for some time, go beyond the pale.

Here’s why:

Firstly, as a retired investigator, my experience is that when reviewing text messages as part of a criminal case or counterintelligence investigation, one must always err on the side of caution.

To make demonstrative proclamations, bereft of context, and without the benefit of interviewing the sender or the recipient of these text messages is dangerous. It is easy to misinterpret “intent.” This is why clarification is necessary and corroboration vital when assessing the meaning behind words captured in the flat, two-dimensional realm of texting.

The “secret society” text message was sent from FBI lawyer Lisa Page to former FBI counterintelligence Deputy Assistant director Peter Strzok.

There seems to have been no other contextual messages exchanged before or afterwards. And, in its entirety, he message reads:

Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.

Representative Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) sounded entirely reasonable last evening when he pointed out to Erin Burnett on CNN’s OutFront that the day after the election, Strzok and Page were so distraught over the results that they ceased acting as “objective, fact-centric FBI Agents” and discussed convening the “secret society.”

Gowdy also went on to dismiss conspiracy theories related to the FBI’s inability — apparent “tech glitch”  — to recover five months of Strzok-Page text messages, and advised that he was far more concerned with the damaging texts already released.

But Johnson’s assertions have come under fire from the left, and been widely panned since ABC News revealed last evening the actual message he referred to. Many have countered Johnson’s interpretation with their own — this was simply an offhand quip and should be taken as a joke.

No one can be certain what Page meant or even how Strzok might have intuited her meaning.

Interpretation can certainly be left to the eyes of the beholder, as even Department of Justice officials have maintained in this instance.

But the intractable extreme ends of partisanship have declared their assessments. And all opposed to their interpretations deserve ridicule and scorn.

But wait a minute.

Without testimony, under oath, from Strzok and Page or other yet-to-be-revealed corroboration, who really knows what the “secret society” line means?

So, here’s where the GOP made a yet another colossal error in judgment. And they have certainly done this before. Recall their ridiculous rush to condemn the FBI’s usage of the bureau’s common term of “special,” in regards to the Hillary Clinton email investigation, which I explained here.

And they were already gifted an overabundance of already difficult-to-refute damaging text messages between Strzok and Page that highlight their intentions to act as an “insurance policy” to aid Clinton’s election and hamper Trump from ascending to the presidency, which they considered a grave risk.

Therefore, Johnson’s overzealous proclamation about the “secret society” text was an unforced error. The GOP claims that the House Intelligence Committee is in possession of a damning memorandum that will successfully knit together the threads that will indict the former administration and their own collusive relationship with a complicit DOJ and FBI to spy on the Trump campaign, keep Clinton out of jail, and aid in her election.

So why does the GOP seem so intent on blowing the good fortune they were enjoying as revelation after revelation, day after day, seemed to bolster Trump’s argument that the “fix” was in?

Impossible to answer.

But I know this: I have never believed much in conspiracy theories. Secrets are difficult to keep when they involve two or more people. My answer to questionable events aligns more with Peter Bergen’s spot-on assessment: “Incompetence is a better explanation than conspiracy in most human activity.”

But the beyond troubling details of the Strzok-Page alliance may ultimately lead to the implication of other senior-level FBI executives. Whether it demands a special prosecutor or not is up for debate. But certainly deserves an independent set of eyes. DOJ’s Office of Inspector General is currently tasked to sort this sordid mess out.

The American public deserves an answer.

But the GOP needs to keep in mind that self-inflicted woundings detract from the reasonable goal to reach answers on some troubling developments at the FBI.

I avoided assignment to FBI headquarters because I loathed the cubicle-condemned, administrative mode one had to assume for placement there. I lamented, with other field division agents, about the insularity and groupthink that often resulted from tenure there.

It wasn’t a “secret society” that precipitated the bureau’s loss of prestige. It was incompetence.

And the GOP is in danger of the very same affliction.

Remain silent. Allow the investigation to progress. And don’t hand the left another red herring, like the one you just gifted them.

James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University and is a leadership consultant at the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) at his alma mater, the United States Military Academy at West Point. Follow him on Twitter @JamesAGagliano.

Tags Federal Bureau of Investigation Hillary Clinton Law enforcement in the United States National security of the United States Peter Strzok Robert Hanssen Ron Johnson Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections Spies Trey Gowdy United States Department of Justice United States intelligence agencies

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