Organizational hubris at the FBI - perception or reality?

Updated: Jul 14, 2019

Several journalists recently made the case that an FBI culture characterized by hubris precipitated the FBI's improperly predicated investigation into the Trump campaign. They also argued that this hubris extends well beyond the 7th floor of the J. Edgar Hoover building and permeates the entire organization.


Protect the FBI prefers to wait for the Inspector General's soon-to-be-released report before concluding whether the investigation was properly predicated. Protect the FBI also believes journalists often exaggerate the nature and extent of the FBI's cultural hubris. In one recent piece by Victor Davis Hanson ("The FBI Tragedy: Elites above the Law, National Review," June 11, 2019), several recent high-level departures were falsely attributed to a management shake-up pertaining to the FBI's investigation of the Trump campaign. In fact, many of the departures Hanson lists occurred as part of normal career trajectory.


Protect the FBI does, however, believe that policy deficiencies and culture issues have led to past FBI missteps. Moreover, it sees nothing to suggest these issues won't play a significant role in future missteps.


In other words, the opinion of Hanson and others that cultural hubris played a role in FBI decision-making regarding the investigation of the Trump campaign may ultimately prove valid.


Most current and former FBI professionals agree that systemic policy and culture issues contributed to past FBI mistakes -- from Waco to Whitehurst, from 9/11 to Marjory Stoneman Douglas. But neither journalists, FBI professionals, nor the American public have a genuine understanding of the root cause of these issues. It would, therefore, surprise most to learn that it is Congress' historic unwillingness (or inability) to provide rigorous, meaningful, bipartisan oversight of the U.S. Intelligence Community.


This unwillingness began in earnest with the passage of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA '78).


By creating a disciplinary appellate system that functioned independently from each federal agency, this act ensured a federal employee was less likely to be terminated for specious or political reasons. It also enabled federal employees to band together and bargain collectively. In doing so, CSRA '78 made the federal workforce a kind of "watchdog" for the American public and ensured it remained a "civil" rather than a "political" service.


Unfortunately, FBI, CIA and NSA employees were excluded from the most important provisions of this act. They have limited avenues to pursue grievances beyond their own agencies, including grievances involving a claim of retaliation for reporting abuses of authority. Nor are they permitted to form strong employee associations.


Congress' reasoning for the exclusion was that employee associations, more commonly known as unions, are inherently political. The prevailing philosophy was that our nation's intelligence services needed to remain apolitical.


However, by excluding the employees of the FBI, CIA and NSA from the key provisions of CSRA '78, the agencies became more, not less, susceptible to the possibility of partisan influence.


They were permitted to develop promotional, EEO, disciplinary, and whistle-blowing systems without congressional oversight or legitimate outside scrutiny such as a strong employee association or an appellate system like the one created by CSRA '78.


As in any system without meaningful checks and balances, in time, FBI culture, inextricably tied to policy, deteriorated in such a way that inside-the-beltway FBI managers and those vying for those positions began to use these systems in earnest to create power bases, to punish with impunity, and to ensure that only those who agreed and supported them could advance.


If Hanson and other journalists are ultimately proven correct by the Inspector General's findings, even if those findings lay blame for the FBI's missteps on poor judgement rather than bad intentions, the FBI's policy and culture -- its cancer so to speak -- will likely be front and center.


Now you will understand why.


James S. Davidson was an FBI special agent for 23 years. He investigated major crimes in Texas and California and served in Ukraine, Israel, and Washington, D.C. He is now president of Protect the FBI, a non-partisan organization whose mission is to safeguard the FBI from the partisan politics of both political parties. Twitter: @protectthefbi

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ProtecttheBureau/


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