The Justice Department’s inspector general this month reprimanded the FBI for the manner in which it recruits and supervises its “confidential human sources.” To the layman, this seems about technicalities. In fact, it shows that one of the CIA’s deadliest dysfunctions now infects the FBI as well.
This disease consists of choosing and rejecting sources for the purpose of indulging the agencies’ and their leaders’ private agendas rather than to further intelligence work on the public’s behalf.
Necessarily, the language of the inspector general’s November 19 report is vague: “Ineffective management and oversight of confidential sources.” This means the FBI has failed to use “adequate controls” in its validation of human sources, which has resulted in “jeopardizing FBI operations, and placing FBI agents, sources, subjects of investigation, and the public in harm’s way.”
The inspector general’s concern with the FBI’s source management stems from the investigation into the FBI’s involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign, including by taking seriously the infamous Steele dossier that it knew was a fabrication as well as, likely, some Russian communication intercepts that also should have been rejected on strictly professional grounds. In short, the FBI departed from its tradition of professionalism and honesty in pursuit of domestic political influence.
Choosing and recruiting sources, validating and managing them, is the very heart of intelligence. Doing it badly, taking sources that come easy—especially dispensing with due skepticism about the ones that contribute to one’s own agendas—is professional corruption. But doing it right is hard. To the extent that intelligence agencies find it difficult to fulfill expectations, they are tempted to substitute such corruption for the competence they lack. The pursuit of agency interests or even personal agendas takes over.
Soon after the Central Intelligence Agency’s founding in 1947, Hanson Baldwin, the New York Times’ legendary military correspondent, had already noticed that the agency was using perfunctorily vetted-sources, or the officers’ own opinions, to fill the gap between the few modest secrets of which it could be sure, and the many big questions on which it was pronouncing itself.
CIA case officers, ivy leaguers whose “cover” was a thin pretense, were never able to recruit Soviet officials and tore at each other over whether those who offered themselves were for real. They solved the problem by subordinating counterintelligence (i.e., quality control) to what they felt was the need to tell the stories they wanted to tell.
During my years on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s staff, CIA officials’ preference for their personal and corporate interests over professional standards continued to get worse. It turned out that every last one of the Cubans they thought were our agents were actually working for Cuban intelligence. In East Germany, the United States had not a single “good” agent. Not only had CIA never recruited even one high-level Soviet agent, but for a decade, Aldrich Ames, CIA’s own chief of counterintelligence for the Soviet Union/Russia, the man who validated the Russians who offered their services and oversaw our operations in that country, worked for the KGB.
So congenial did the agency find the disinformation coming its way that it was reluctant to investigate. Finally, when it did suspect that the dispatches coming from our agents had been crafted by the KGB, it sent them on to the president anyway because, according to the inspector general, “they contained thoughts they believed the President should consider.”
In short, CIA officials—and not just a few people at the top—have so valued their own opinions, have so wanted to influence U.S. policy, that they have mistaken their own opinions and desires for the truth.
The FBI Catches the Disease
The FBI used to be different. Unlike the CIA’s faux aristos, the first generations of FBI agents were cops first. They had graduated from places like Fordham, a blue-collar Catholic university in the Bronx. Like all good cops, they knew the difference between the people on whose behalf they worked, and those who threatened them. Like TV’s Sergeant Joe Friday, they wore white shirts and said, “Yes, sir,” and “Yes, ma’am.” Unlike CIA case officers, FBI officers mixed with the kinds of people they investigated, and often went undercover themselves.
Robert Mueller’s directorship, followed by his friend James Comey’s, made the FBI into the domestic danger it is today.
The FBI used to take counterintelligence seriously. That made it possible for them to neutralize threats to America—the old joke was that, in any meeting of the U.S, Communist Party or of its front groups, a majority of attendees were FBI agents. The only U.S. intelligence penetration of the Kremlin was the FBI’s recruitment of a U.S. labor activist whom high-level Soviets trusted.
In the late 1970s, that began to change. Director William Webster (1978-1987) failed to back up the officers who had infiltrated and surveilled the New Left’s collaboration with the Soviets against America in the Vietnam War. Webster also introduced contemporary political correctness into the FBI. Asked by the Senate Intelligence Committee why his FBI had neither infiltrated nor disrupted the Jim Jones cult that resulted in the deaths of 900 Americans in Jonestown, Guyana, Webster answered that he would no more have interfered with that religion than with the Catholic Church. Not incidentally, that cult was associated with the Democratic Party.
In due course, FBI officials became standard bureaucrats and learned to operate on the assumption that all Americans were equally likely to be proper targets of investigation. They replaced the distinctions by which they had operated with the classic bureaucratic imperative: look out for yourselves by making sure not to displease the powerful.
Webster’s FBI joined the ACLU as the principal sponsor of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which judicially pre-cleared all electronic surveillance operations through ex parte secret proceedings, despite warnings that such pre-clearance amounts to warrants for warrantless surveillance, and hence that it incentivizes political abuse.
The directorships of William Sessions and Louis Freeh, ending in 2001, did nothing to slow the FBI’s devolution. Two additional tendencies developed, which further contributed to the devaluation of what had been scrupulous recruitment and evaluation of sources. First, reliance on pseudoscientific “profiling” vastly reduced the felt need for scruples. But the FBI’s experience with profiles is as powerful an argument as can be made of how debilitating, noxious, and corrupting reliance on them can be. Thus did the bureau practically convict an innocent man, Richard Jewell, of having bombed Centennial Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Second, the bureau’s increasing adoption of military weapons and tactics further tempted its officials to shortcut intelligence for the sake of, well, war against disfavored persons and movements.
The FBI in 1992 conducted an 11-day war against Randy Weaver and his family in a remote Idaho cabin, in which one law enforcement officer was killed along with the Weavers’ 14-year-old son, and which ended with an FBI sniper killing Weaver’s wife, Vicki, with a baby in her arms—leading to an angry jury acquitting Weaver. A year later, the FBI ran another war against a religious cult in Texas, that cost four lives.
Robert Mueller’s directorship (2001-2013), followed by his friend James Comey’s, made the FBI into the domestic danger it is today.
The investigation into the letters containing weapons-grade Anthrax, which killed five and injured 17 Americans, defined Mueller’s directorship and today’s FBI. No one was ever charged with the crime. From the beginning, the FBI’s “profiling” process concluded that no foreign government or entity had been responsible, but rather that the attacks had been the work of a lone, white, conservative scientist. Thus the bureau pursued and nearly broke Steven Hatfill, whose lawsuit the government settled for $ 5.8 million.
The FBI then turned its attention to someone else who fit its profile, Bruce Edward Ivins. He was never charged. The bureau ruined his reputation and hounded Ivans into suicide. After which the bureau declared him guilty, but refused to make public the evidence on which it had reached its conclusion. Reassuring, isn’t it?
To be sure, the current inspector general’s general reprimand of the FBI “ineffective management and oversight of confidential sources,” for the lack of “adequate controls” in its validation of human sources,” for “jeopardizing FBI operations, and placing FBI agents, sources, subjects of investigation, and the public in harm’s way,” refers primarily to the bureau’s massive political malfeasance since 2016. But that malfeasance results from a disease that goes beyond politics, a disease that has sapped the moral and professional character of a class of people for at least a half-century.
Alas, in the current political environment, only political reactions are possible.