It’s Time to Let an FBI Agent Lead the FBI

From a Wall Street Journal column by William McGurn headlined “Let an FBI Agent Lead the FBI”:

Can the FBI be reformed?

Starting with its interference in the 2016 election, each revelation of the FBI’s bad behavior—from running interference for Hunter Biden and lying to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to policing speech on Twitter—has led to accusations that the bureau has become too politicized and fed calls for its abolition. With the Republican House to be sworn in Tuesday, this question now moves from the fringes to Congress.

Hearings on the FBI have been promised by both the new Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), and his counterpart at Oversight and Reform, James Comer (R., Ky.). On Friday the Journal’s Kim Strassel broke news that Republicans are also considering the creation of a new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. It all promises a bumpy year for the FBI.

Mr. Comer is already on record saying the FBI “needs to be dismantled.” Others want Director Christopher Wray fired. Even those who partially defend the FBI, such as former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, favor structural surgery. Mr. McCarthy contends the bureau’s dual missions—law enforcement and domestic security—conflict, and the latter function should be reassigned to a pure intelligence agency.

In November, Judiciary Republicans defined the problem this way: “The problem lies with the FBI structure that centralizes high-profile cases in D.C., in the hands of politicized actors with politicized incentives. Quite simply, the problem—the rot within the FBI—festers in and proceeds from Washington.”

If this diagnosis is correct, the FBI’s misbehavior flows from a corrupted culture at the top. What’s surprising is how few have pushed for a sensible step that would start to address it: choosing FBI directors with experience as agents.

Yes, some rethinking of the bureau’s mission and clearer guidelines might be needed too. But the FBI’s great advantage through most of its history was its agent culture—the culture of an investigator, not of a Washington attorney. It’s no coincidence that Mr. Wray came from the Justice Department, and while he didn’t create today’s problems or incentives, he plainly hasn’t fixed them.

“Chris Wray continually cites the ‘bad apples’ the FBI has pushed out the door without recognizing the underlying—cultural—problem,” says Thomas J. Baker, a 33-year FBI veteran and author of “The Fall of the FBI.” “He can’t seem to see or acknowledge it.” Mr. Baker advocates a return to a swear-to-tell-the-truth culture that he believes has been compromised by the dominant intelligence approach.

In institutional terms the FBI remains an anomaly. No one would dream of picking an Army soldier for Marine commandant or a firefighter to head the New York City Police Department. But since J. Edgar Hoover’s death 50 years ago, Clarence Kelly and Louis Freeh have been the only FBI directors with experience as agents.

Traditionally the FBI’s culture gave its agents great authority in handling cases. In contrast, most of today’s abuses aren’t the work of some rogue agent in Dubuque but the result of interventions from Washington. The mishandling of the FBI investigations into both Hillary Clinton’s emails and Mr. Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, for example, was a consequence of James Comey’s running the cases from FBI headquarters.

Look at Stephen Friend, an FBI agent in Florida who objected to a kick-down-the-door mentality that often seemed to aim for political effect rather than respond to genuine risk. He was suspended after he refused to join a Florida SWAT raid on a Jan. 6 suspect and filed a whistleblower complaint about what he regarded as the bureau’s use of excessive force. Mr. Friend likens directing SWAT teams at people who had already offered to cooperate with the FBI to using an “elephant gun for killing a mouse.”

Or consider the arrest of pro-life activist Mark Houck in Pennsylvania. Mr. Houck is accused of shoving an escort outside an abortion clinic in October 2021. His wife said a SWAT team of about two dozen armed FBI agents came to the house early in the morning of Sept. 23, 2022 (almost a year after the alleged shove), to arrest her husband. The bureau disputes details of her account—such as saying it wasn’t a SWAT team—but won’t say exactly how many armed agents were there.

The question is whether this show of force was necessary for a man who wasn’t a threat, who had no criminal history, and whose lawyer, the Thomas More Society’s Matt Heffron, had emailed an assistant U.S. attorney in June saying Mr. Houck would accept a summons to surrender himself. Even if the FBI can lawfully take some of these actions, the question that remains is judgment—something that can’t be legislated or fixed by structural changes.

Many of the bureau’s fiercest critics say the overwhelming majority of agents are professional investigators who do their jobs without regard to politics. That’s precisely the culture the FBI needs. So why not start a reform by picking the next FBI director from their ranks, and returning case decisions where they belong—to agents in the field?

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