Who knew, only a few short years ago, that staring in our faces in 2023 would be the crisis posed by the title of this essential guide to the politics of our times: The Fall of the FBI: How a Once Great Agency Became a Threat to Democracy, by former 33-year veteran FBI Agent Thomas Baker?
Having followed his insightful columns on the FBI in the Wall Street Journal, I was excited to read Baker’s book and see his expanded argument, which is very much in line with my work and the work my colleague John Marini on the administrative state. Sketching his involvement in prominent cases (the Reagan assassination attempt, the downing of TWA flight 800, Whitey Bulger, various murders, and corruption cases), this model civil servant rose from the ranks to positions of great responsibility. With those achievements and experience Baker describes how his beloved agency betrayed its own standards and threatened what it was sworn to protect. This betrayal happened not by foreign subversion (though we’re seeing some signs of this beginning to happen now), but was an inside job that must become better known to a people who would govern themselves.
As increasing numbers of Americans become more aware of the collapse of formerly trusted institutions, they will need Baker’s insider account of the once-vaunted FBI for an explanation of our exasperating current condition brought on by the vicissitudes of politics. By connecting the dots he presents an ugly portrait that describes other malign bureaucracies, inflicting their damage on American political and moral character and undermining confidence in America’s future.
The FBI and Baker’s life present a sharp contrast between when America was a country that took itself seriously and the aimless, postmodern mess we see today, which seems incapable of doing what common sense demands. Borders, wars, inflation, and transgenderism are one-word reminders of this nation’s lack of seriousness about itself and its citizens. Baker’s instructive account will not reassure us.
Baker presents the FBI as “the good, the bad, and the ugly”—his own war stories, the bureau’s injustices, and finally its corruption under Robert Mueller and James Comey, unabated under Christopher Wray, another non-agent who doesn’t know what hit him or the FBI.
Of interest to students of politics is that Baker draws on the work of AEI scholar Yuval Levin, whose 2020 book, A Time to Build, explains the contemporary crisis in terms of the culture war and the subsequent failure of institutions to produce virtuous characters. Instead, self-aggrandizing ambitions replace public-spirited servants. The successors of J. Edgar Hoover had altered the culture of the FBI, transforming it from a law enforcement agency to an intelligence agency, following 9/11. The bulk of Baker’s book explains how the “intelligence-driven” FBI would culminate “in the ugly disaster of the Russian collusion investigation code-named Crossfire Hurricane.”
It is not surprising that Baker attributes the corruption of the FBI to widespread contempt for the Constitution. Where there once was “reverence” for it and the “rights of Americans”—each agent carried a pocket copy—there is now Washington-centric overweening political ambition. This is not to overlook flaws under Hoover and other directors, but these older and eternal flaws owing to human nature could often be contained by adhering to shared principles that glorified the FBI as an institution more devoted than others by its commitment to the rule of law. In this spirit agents could circumvent Hoover’s silly rules—such as an agent must not drink coffee in public while on duty.
To appreciate Baker we needn’t summarize his earlier career, , which he played roles in many well-known and lesser-known episodes in FBI and American history. When he was transferred in the summer of 1970 to the prestigious New York Office (NYO), for example, he successfully argued, based on his New York City background, he should not work in the security division, where new agents were typically assigned, but instead in the organized crime unit. On this decision, Baker somberly reflects,
The entire Security Division of the NYO came under great scrutiny as the establishment turned against President Nixon. The agents and supervisors who “did something” such as searches and wiretapping of the radicals now fell under the investigative spotlight themselves. In fact, almost every agent who worked on security matters in the early 1970s became the subject of prosecutorial attention.
For all the domestic terrorism of that period, recounted so damningly in Days of Rage, it was the FBI who often paid more significantly than the bomb makers and bombers who received minimal sentences, if any at all.
Good work and survival has its rewards. As head of security for the U.S. embassy in Paris for the fabled Ambassador Pamela Harriman, Baker became familiar with the government’s odd relationship with the CIA and its curious standards. He was astonished to see a straight-faced willingness to lie about its work, even to the ambassador and to Baker. A few years later, in the days following 9/11, President George W. Bush would praise the CIA director and chastise the new head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, for the reports they were respectively providing. The change of mission and political emphasis combined to produce the collapse and corruption of the FBI.
Mueller’s own eccentric judgments in the Atlanta Olympics bombing, Whitey Bulger, and anthrax cases led to injustices. “Although Mueller as a federal prosecutor had worked with dozens of Special Agents—case agents—in both Boston and San Francisco he did not know FBI culture nor how the Bureau functioned . . . But Mueller wanted centralization. Everything back at FBI headquarters, all information and decision making.” Against the expertise (both domestic and foreign) and prudence of the field offices, especially those in New York and Washington, Mueller demanded centralization.
Thus, when the younger Bush ordered a change in rules that allowed retired federal law enforcement and intelligence officers to return to active duty, “Mueller was the only head of a federal law enforcement or intelligence agency who refused to enact the order.” Thus “non-agents [were] running public affairs, congressional affairs, and serving as general counsel.” He was so set on changing the culture of the agency away from the agents—whose first training involved firearms after all—and replacing them with “professionals.” (For what it’s worth, I have known and seen the effects of such “professionals” in the few dealings I’ve had with the FBI.)
Mueller set the stage for “the ultimate offender” James Comey, whom he maneuvered into the director’s office. The moralistic prig surrounded himself with unethical partisans, such as the notorious Peter Strzok and the “deceitful and dastardly” Andrew McCabe. From what we know about Comey, Trump was far too slow in firing the freak, “a celebrity who has used the institution as a stage to elevate himself . . . [who] continually substituted his own moral interpretation over established norms and precedents.” He usurped the prosecutor’s role in declining to prosecute Hillary Clinton over her email and server. To this, I add that Comey’s pride in affirmative-action recruiting, as he portrays in his self-serving autobiography, exemplifies his approach to changing the FBI culture—of course women and minority recruitment will generally drive an agency leftward.
Contrast Baker’s ethics catechism: “First you’re good. Then you think you’re good. Then you’re no good.” This encapsulates the collapse of Comey into “The Worst FBI Director,” as his chapter 31 is titled.
Comey thought his goodness obviated any need for a “predicate,” a reasonable supposition that Trump or anyone in his campaign had done anything illegal. Through being a part of a conspiracy of weaving a series of lies and misrepresentations, however, the FBI director attempted to incriminate the president. Instead of protecting the country from criminals, Comey played the moral zealot, inflicting his own political views on the country and criminalizing those he disliked. And, when challenged, he blamed his partisan subordinates as part of his defense, when his own agenda of culture change empowered these scoundrels. Therefore, having the FBI investigate a president, without any justification and, even worse, apparently for partisan purposes, “was the most damaging decision to the FBI’s reputation to date and has jeopardized our liberties in this nation.” Here Baker understates the evil: Comey’s zealotry wound up affecting the election and, afterward, delegitimizing the president if not the Republican Party.
In his most touching passages Baker bemoans the loss of culture reflected in the lack of respect for the Constitution. If only they had kept the pocket constitutions every agent used to carry! But even the Constitution can be hijacked—as it has been during his lifetime, to justify the administrative state—that nexus of mentalities and public and private institutions advancing the agenda of unelected leftist elites.
For a comprehensive analysis of the FBI understood in this way, see Glenn Ellmers’ incisive review of a scholarly history of Hoover’s FBI. Among other things, the FBI played a role in Watergate not unlike its role in the episode with Trump. Citing the work of John Marini on the administrative state, Ellmers concludes that “the FBI is an indispensable weapon for the permanent government, which now constitutes the most powerful faction in American society.”
Baker adds yet more horrors in discussing the role of the post-9/11 CIA: as an unintended consequence, the “FBI is now more likely to accept and act on any referral from the CIA . . .” Will the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) abuses continue? Will individual American rights be controlled by the CIA’s overseas sources, say, out of Kyiv? Recognizing the need to separate domestic and foreign investigations need not result in the “stovepiping” of information exposed in the Pearl Harbor attack by Roberta Wohlstetter over 50 years ago.
In this connection, Baker rightly denounces a “domestic terrorism law,” which would institutionalize the recent abuses. “Say something out of the mainstream, and you may become a subject of investigation.” That is the threat in the FBI having become an intelligence agency (and a lawless one at that), rather than a law enforcement agency. Its analysts would necessarily gather far more information than they could possibly use–and that information would remain forever at the disposal of partisan abusers.
Consider agents’ uninvestigated role in the Governor Gretchen Whitmer kidnapping plot and in January 6. Centralized and politicized, the FBI no longer respects the rule of law nor the judgment of its own veteran agents. Whereas gun-toting agents once respected the law, a new category of post-9/11 employee, intelligence analysts, “now play a major role in the Bureau’s mission.” Do they respect the Constitution’s liberties?
My own take on the Comey corruption is that he had more dirt on candidate Hillary Clinton, with which he planned to blackmail her should she prove corrupt in his estimation. But Trump somehow won, “requiring” him to find a way to use Hillary campaign dirt against Trump. Comey resembles a vain artist, who, seeing an imperfection in his creation then tries to fix it by creating a worse mess than what originally existed. He should have stuck to paint-by-numbers. Yet he still remains implausibly proud of his creation.
For all the virtues of his book, however, Baker seems unwilling to embrace the need for political change in order to revive the FBI or at least make it less dangerous. In the era of the administrative state, attempts to restore the earlier culture without more significant political change become a futile endeavor. By the time of Watergate the FBI had already, in Ellmers’ view, emerged as “a partisan police force for the Democratic Party” This problem, in other words, is long in the making. If not Baker himself, then someone approaching his background and character needs to expose the January 6 show trials and the FBI’s role in them. They truly are, as Baker demonstrates, a “threat to democracy.”
Today, the heroes are few and outnumbered. Attorney General William Barr fought his own department and Comey’s replacement Christopher Wray in a struggle between the pre-9/11 and post-9/11 cultures. But it was not even close to enough. As Ellmers and Marini have argued, the corruption was well under way before 9/11, in Watergate. What the reaction to 9/11 added to the administrative state was an arbitrary distinction between life under war and life under peace: that is, we are governed 24/7 by “emergency.” Yesterday terrorists, today COVID, and tomorrow . . . what? A climate emergency? As Baker, considering other evils, concludes in the book, “There is much injustice in our world.”