What the FBI should have told Rosenstein

What the FBI should have told Rosenstein
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Just when we thought there could be no more clowns in that car, a few more spill out.  

Last Friday The New York Times, leveraging almost exclusively that time-honored and oh-so-credible technique of anonymous sources, lobbed a grenade in Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinDemocrats are running out of stunts to pull from impeachment playbook Barr dismisses contempt vote as part of 'political circus' Flynn provided details in Mueller's obstruction inquiry, new memo shows MORE’s direction, claiming he plotted to secretly record the president in order to get rid of him.  

Ironically, the Times, which regularly publishes stories about the absurdity of a “deep state” effort against the president or gives voice to those who share that view, just added jet fuel to the whole debate.  

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A careerist deputy attorney general who muses about wiring up himself or others when speaking with a president who’s been in office all of four months in order to gather ammunition for a 25th Amendment play is likely going to sound pretty deep-state-ish to the normal class that lives outside the D.C.-NYC corridor.

DAG Rosenstein didn’t help his cause by issuing a strongly worded mushy statement that the Times article was “inaccurate and factually incorrect.” Carefully worded denials come across as just that: carefully worded. The Department of Justice (DOJ) appeared to concede that Rosenstein did indeed suggest such a plan to others but that he was being “sarcastic.” The Times’s stable of ready whisperers countered that he was not only serious but attempted to enlist others to help.

Normally, any article front-loaded with anonymous sources should be taken with a giant grain of road salt. Apparently, none of the Times sources were in the actual meetings with Rosenstein but were “briefed” on them or “briefed” on memos written by Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeTrump accuses Hillary Clinton of 'destroying the lives' of his campaign staffers The Mueller report concludes it was not needed Ten post-Mueller questions that could turn the tables on Russia collusion investigators MORE, then acting director of the FBI. In that case, it’s hearsay of hearsay, and the sources could range from a government official to a Starbucks barista.  

And yet, there apparently was enough fire under that smoke to lead Rosenstein to believe that his days may be numbered. He awaits a Thursday meeting with the president, presumably to discuss the veracity of the dramatic claims in the Times article and his future. 

If even partly true, the claims are more than dramatic — they’re outrageous.

The use of undisclosed recordings by a federal law enforcement official is a tightly controlled technique that may only be deployed in an official, properly authorized criminal or intelligence investigation. Any DOJ or FBI official who would participate in surreptitiously recording the president of the United States solely to capture words that could be used to evaluate fitness for duty would be operating outside the boundaries of the Constitution each swore to uphold. It would be a monumental misuse of position and authority.

Even simply participating in such discussions is perilous. McCabe, present in the room as the FBI's acting director, is reported to have written a memo about the meeting. This is what the memo should say if he truly were acting in the proper interests of the country and the FBI: “DAG proposed secretly recording the president to support a 25th amendment removal action. I immediately got up and left the meeting.”  

Instead, the Times asserts that McCabe hung around long enough with his attorney aide, Lisa Page (yes, there are no words), to hear Rosenstein further propose that McCabe and two other FBI officials who were going to interview with the president for the FBI director position do the recordings. At this point McCabe’s memo should contain two famous Anglo-Saxon words that would succinctly convey a strong FBI director’s proper and constitutionally appropriate response to such a proposal. 

But Andy McCabe wasn’t a strong FBI director. He was fired for being less than truthful and a number of his official actions, which are suspected of being politically biased, are still under investigation by the DOJ's inspector general. So it’s not surprising he hung around to hear out the DAG.

The media is now constructing grand, three-dimensional chess theories involving some type of McCabe revenge scenario as the impetus behind the Times article. If revenge involves exposing yourself as a foolish participant in a wildly dangerous meeting that you did not leave, then revenge has a new and interesting taste.  

For two-plus years now, the independence and objectivity of the FBI has been called into question. These new stories don’t help. But they do help illustrate how vitally important it is for the FBI to maintain healthy arms-length distance from both the DOJ and the White House and not sit in absurd meetings. It takes strong leadership to preserve the bureau’s needed separation from political influences. 

As another case in point, the same day that the Rosenstein story broke, the president asserted that there is a “lingering stench” in the FBI. This followed comments he made just days earlier to The Hill characterizing the outcome of his “fight” with the FBI as an exposure of a “cancer.” The FBI should be criticized when warranted and never be above it but, with respect, this is a careless use of loaded words on a couple of levels.  

First, it conveys a sense of deep, systemic and incurable corruption that simply isn’t true. Certainly, the actions of Comey, McCabe and former FBI official Peter Stzrok were inappropriate and damaging to the FBI and the country, and merited criticism. But they are gone, and were relatively quickly excised at that. They are hardly representative of the honorable men and women of the FBI.

Second, and most importantly, there indeed is a cancer in the FBI. A real one. This year alone the FBI honored and helped lay to rest three more special agents who contracted terminal cancer as a direct result of their response to one of the three toxic 9/11 crash sites in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania 17 years ago. To date, 15 responding agents have been lost to 9/11 site-related cancers, leaving behind young families. Others will likely be added to this dread list. So “cancer” has a significant and raw meaning within the FBI at the moment.

If the anonymous sources prove true, the FBI should have never been party to the clownish recommendations of the deputy attorney general. Weak leadership is failed leadership. McCabe’s “memos” will at least establish that. 

Cancer is largely incurable, weak leadership is fixable. A strong, independent FBI that resists political manipulation from any corner and pursues political corruption wherever found remains the noble goal of the real FBI. That is what lingers. 

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and 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.