Christopher Wray was sworn in as the eighth Director of the FBI one year ago. He took the position as America’s top G-man after the national meltdown over the firing of former director James Comey. President Trump fired Comey on May 9, and 29 days later, while still learning to navigate the turbulent waters of the swamp, he formally announced his intention to nominate Wray.
Twenty-nine days is hardly enough time to find a good nanny, but the fledgling Administration not yet five-months-old found their man and placed their bets on Wray’s stellar reputation as a senior government lawyer from the Department of Justice. Wray was a winner on paper, and because grandstanding is what they do, senators on both sides of the aisle fawned over him, receiving assurances he would maintain his independence from Trump. For being in the right place at the right time, Wray was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 92-5, and on Aug. 2, 2017, he was sworn in as FBI Director.
In the rush to make the FBI right again, everyone, it seemed, got what they wanted. The politicians were happy. The Administration put out another fire, and the DOJ got another DOJ attorney to take control of the FBI. But a year later, now that the mass hysteria over Comey’s firing has subsided, what exactly did the FBI agents get out of all that drama?
As a former FBI agent, I am sorry to report that what they got was more of the same, in the form of yet another company lawyer from the DOJ, at a time when what the agents really needed was leadership in the form of someone who was actually an FBI agent. And because Wray’s ten-year term won’t expire until the year 2027, it is also my duty to report that, sadly, an entire generation of FBI agents will never know what it’s like to be led by one of their own.
FBI Directors And The DOJ
Since officially becoming the Federal Bureau of Investigation 83 years ago, the FBI has had a total of eight Directors. Only two of them had ever served as FBI agents (other agents have taken the top job but only briefly to keep the seat warm as “Acting Director”).
Clarence M. Kelley, a law school graduate and Navy veteran during World War II, was the FBI’s first Agent-Director. He wore the badge of FBI Special Agent over a 21-year period before permanently replacing J. Edgar Hoover as the top G-man in the mid-1970s. That was 40 years ago — before many FBI agents on the job today were even born.
After Director Kelley, the only other FBI Director who rose from the ranks of the FBI was Louis J. Freeh. He was an agent, federal prosecutor, and federal judge before he was sworn in as FBI Director. Director Freeh served for almost eight years before stepping down in June 2001. For the last 17 years, the FBI has been controlled by Directors who never served a single day as an FBI agent – Robert S. Mueller, III, followed by Comey, and now Wray.
All three were senior government lawyers from the DOJ before their appointments as FBI Director, and as lawyers in charge of the FBI, they set the top-to-bottom tone for an organization that is spending more time defending itself than celebrating its victories.
With an annual budget approaching $9 billion, the FBI employs some of the smartest, most capable and patriotic people you’ll ever meet. The FBI should be hitting on all cylinders, but the organization is faltering. Pockets of bad behavior, incompetence and unacceptable levels of mediocrity have tarnished the once-venerable FBI brand, and because lawyers have been running the show, they rightly deserve all of the blame for failing to provide the kind of strong, effective leadership the FBI now desperately needs.
Lawyers Are Not Leaders
At the heart of the problem is one simple fact: Lawyers, with few exceptions, are not leaders, they are litigators, wired to interpret and argue the law. In the courtroom or on the bench, lawyers are in their element, but in positions of authority, lawyers and other administrators up through the DOJ chain of command who have never been agents often do not understand and cannot connect in any meaningful way with the agents they try to lead. And without that bond, lawyers default to the lawyer’s playbook to manage the workforce, leaving the agents struggling to operate in what has become a stifling culture of micromanagement.
Excessive rules and regulations and overly restrictive guidelines promulgated by lawyers have stolen the initiative from agents faced with complex investigative challenges. Agents second-guess their own instincts and abandon their better judgment in favor of templates to drive their investigations. And when FBI agents look to their chain of command for leadership – never mind an occasional spark for inspiration – they don’t find leaders. They predominantly find compliance-obsessed managers in the field and at FBI Headquarters who overthink every problem and demonstrate time and again that they know their administrative minutiae better than they know their own people.
The FBI Response To The IG Report
Anyone who knows anything about FBI agents knows that one of the fastest ways to lose the faith and trust of the men and women of the FBI is to hold them accountable for something they didn’t do. You would think Director Wray would’ve read the memo on that particular point, but apparently he has not, and is showing his true colors as a lawyer from the DOJ in what is one of the signature challenges of his tenure – managing the fallout from the DOJ Inspector General’s Report on the Hillary Clinton e-mail and private server investigation.
As detailed in the report released in June 2018, a small group of outliers at the highest levels of the FBI exercised shameful, embarrassing and extraordinarily poor judgement, and because of the dereliction of a few, Wray is doing what lawyers do. In the face of withering criticism, he implemented Tier One Level CYA and ordered mandatory training for thousands of members of the FBI workforce who did absolutely nothing wrong.
In his nine-page written response to the IG’s 568-page report, Wray parroted the debatable conclusions of the IG’s report a dozen times to minimize the negative impact of extreme and well-documented political bias. And after calling for an all-hands-on-deck review of FBI policies and practices (as recommended by the IG), he expanded on the IG’s recommendations, ordering workforce-wide “political bias training, Hatch Act training,” “further training on media contact and the limited authority to release information,” “additional training on recusal obligations and conflicts of interest,” “renewed training on the governing policies related to device use,” and the list goes on.
This is what happens when lawyers try to manage a law enforcement and counterintelligence agency. A few people get out of line, and the lawyers in charge go to DEFCON 1 and scramble to release the floodgates of more training, more policies and practices, sending exactly the wrong message to all of the good, hard-working people of the FBI who – it should be noted here for the benefit of the lawyers – actually followed the rules.
Agents don’t need any more training, or least of all, more rules. What they need is someone with the guts to simply enforce them, to drop the hammer squarely on anyone who breaks the rules no matter who they are or what title they hold. Agents are grown-ups. They should already know what the rules are, and if they don’t, they have no business working at the FBI.
An Agent-Director For The FBI
Now, more than ever, with all due respect to Wray, what FBI agents need is an agent to lead them, a gifted and seasoned criminal investigator or counterintelligence agent who, just like them, made the cut after a highly competitive FBI Special Agent selection process, survived the FBI Academy at Quantico, carried a gun and a badge, worked the hard, complex cases, and fought the good bureaucratic fight.
They need an Agent-Director who knows first-hand the camaraderie of working side by side with other agents focused on a mission so important and unique that only an agent would understand. And they need an Agent-Director who can inspire and unlock the full potential of every agent across the FBI to restore the culture of leadership, discipline and accountability before today’s FBI becomes home to yesterday’s heroes.
This is the kind of leader agents desperately need, not another lawyer from the DOJ.