If you work for any extended amount of time in Washington, you are likely to meet people who work within the intelligence and law enforcement communities. You learn to recognize potential sources and those who will never be. The bad sources love to tell stories, so many stories, with at least a veneer of truth. The good sources will tell far fewer stories, but only when it’s important. But the most frequent stories you will hear, from good and bad, are stories of internal dysfunction and irresponsible uses of power. This is not confined to one administration or another, but is a recurring and expected fact of life within the agencies that ought to be focused on securing our liberties and protecting us from threats, foreign and domestic, not spying on an ex, using taxpayer funds for professional gain, or preventing the return of a romantic rival by adding them to a watch list. Once you’ve heard enough of these stories, a realization may dawn on you: these institutions are as dysfunctional as all the others, with their own internal politics, defects, aspiring people, and conflicted forces that often cross the lines of law and ethics in pursuit of their goals. Not losing faith in them at that juncture is a difficult thing indeed.
That brings us to yesterday’s FBI briefing on the shooting targeting Republicans in Alexandria, a briefing that could not be more bizarre in its content and its conclusions. Mollie Hemingway has more:
“The FBI admits that Hodgkinson: vociferously raged against Republicans in online forums, had a piece of paper bearing the names of six members of Congress, was reported for doing target practice outside his home in recent months before moving to Alexandria, had mapped out a trip to the DC area, took multiple photos of the baseball field he would later shoot up, three days after the New York Times mentioned that Republicans practiced baseball at an Alexandria baseball field with little security, lived out of his van at the YMCA directly next door to the baseball field he shot up, legally purchased a rifle in March 2003 and 9 mm handgun “in November 2016,” modified the rifle at some point to accept a detachable magazine and replaced the original stock with a folding stock, rented a storage facility to hide hundreds of rounds of ammunition and additional rifle components, asked “Is this the Republican or Democrat baseball team?” before firing on the Republicans, ran a Google search for information on the “2017 Republican Convention” hours before the shooting, and took photos at high-profile Washington locations, including the east front plaza of the U.S. Capitol and the Dirksen Senate Office.
“We know from other reporting that the list was of six Republican Freedom Caucus members, including Rep. Mo Brooks, who was present at the practice.
“So what does the FBI decide this information means? Well, the takeaway of the briefing was characterized well by the Associated Press headline about it: “FBI: Gunman who shot congressman had no target in mind.” The Associated Press reported the FBI: believes the gunman “had no concrete plan to inflict violence” against Republicans, “had not yet clarified who, if anyone, he planned to target, or why,” believes he may have just “happened upon” the baseball game the morning of June 14, and that the attack appeared “spontaneous,” are unclear on the “context” of Hodgkinson’s note with six names of members of Congress, does not believe that photographs of the baseball field or other sites “represented surveillance of intended targets,” and “painted a picture of a down-on-his-luck man with few future prospects.”
“In fact, USA Today went with “FBI offers portrait of troubled Alexandria shooter with ‘anger management problem’” for their headline, since that’s what the FBI emphasized in the briefing.”
There’s also this incredible tidbit, which somehow has received little to no attention: “Hodgkinson also visited the office of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose campaign he had worked on as a volunteer, and was in email contact with the two Democratic senators from his home state.” If this was a shooter who had worked for Ted Cruz and was in contact via email with both of the Senators from Texas, wouldn’t we know about it?
There’s no reason to beat around the bush here: what the FBI is claiming is mind-boggling when they claim the shooter had no target in mind. Consider the number of accidents of circumstance you would have to believe were going on here to not have the shooter doing what seems obvious from every piece of evidence we have: researching and planning for an attack on Republicans of some kind, particularly looking for an opportunity when security will be low and vulnerability will be high. This was an attack, not an “anger management” problem.
Step back, though, and think on the institutional conclusions here. Considering how ludicrous the FBI’s conclusions are as it relates to an attack on the third ranking member of the House of Representatives, you might reconsider whether to trust the FBI’s conclusions in other areas, as well. And this is how our faith in institutions is degraded: steadily, gradually, with incident after incident where men in suits stand in front of microphones and make claims we know are not the whole truth.