FBI Director Defends Agency Amid Onslaught of GOP Criticism

From a Washington Post story by Devlin Barrett headlined “FBI Director Chris Wray defends agency amid onslaught of GOP criticism”:

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified Wednesday before Congress, defending his record and that of his agents as Republicans repeatedly attacked the bureau for what they called politically motivated investigations and threatened to take away some of the agency’s budget or surveillance authority.

The hearing before the House Judiciary Committee is Wray’s first congressional testimony since former president Donald Trump was indicted last month on 37 charges of mishandling national security documents and obstructing government efforts to recover them. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

Also in June, Hunter Biden struck a deal with federal prosecutors, in which he plans to plead guilty to two tax misdemeanors and admit to illegal gun possession, though he will not plead guilty to the gun charge.

The two cases have brought new energy to attacks by Republicans, particularly pro-Trump lawmakers, who have accused the nation’s premier law enforcement agency of favoring liberals and unfairly pursuing conservatives.

The Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), has been one of the FBI’s most strident critics. On Wednesday, he called the agency’s work “Orwellian.” Some Republicans have suggested FBI headquarters be moved out of the Washington, D.C., area, or proposed withholding the salaries of some officials, though it’s not clear those proposals have wide support in either chamber of Congress.

Democrats were much more tempered than Republicans in their questions at the hearing — largely supportive of the bureau but at times asking whether the FBI had, rather than being too tough on Trump as Republicans claim, been too gentle.

“Our folks take great pains to be rigorous, professional, objective,” Wray insisted, saying his message to the agents is always to “do the work in the right way, and sometimes that’s frustrating to others.”

In a sign of the tensions that have surrounded the FBI for years, Wray noted that there is now a unit that tracks threats made to bureau personnel and locations. “I don’t think there’s been a more difficult time for an FBI director,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said.

House Republicans have increasingly targeted Wray directly — threatening last month to hold him in contempt of Congress in a dispute over access to an FBI report of a confidential informant’s 2017 and 2020 corruption allegations against the Biden family. The Republicans ultimately backed away from taking that step, but it’s clear that Wray remains in their crosshairs, despite having been appointed to his job by Trump during the last presidential administration.

One of the most heated exchanges came when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) raised allegations made against Hunter Biden, and asked the director: “Are you protecting the Bidens?”

“Absolutely not,” Wray shot back.

Gaetz then accused Wray of being “blissfully ignorant” of problems at the bureau, including repeated misuses of a surveillance authority known as Section 702.

Internal reviews have found significant failures in the digital data collection program in recent years, and conservatives in particular have vowed not to renew the program when it expires at the end of the year. Jordan and other conservatives have sought to join forces with some liberal lawmakers to try to end or significantly curtail the 702 program, which intelligence and national security officials have long described as a crown jewel of the government’s national security efforts to stop terrorists.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) dismissed much of the Republican criticism of the FBI as thinly disguised campaigning for Trump’s 2024 presidential bid. He noted that the criminal charges filed by the Justice Department in recent years against people close to the former president — including his former 2016 campaign chairman and his deputy — were in many cases investigated or prosecuted by Trump appointees.

“We don’t have a two-tiered system of justice,” Lieu said. “All of these folks were convicted under the administrations of three separate Republican attorneys general. It is not the fault of the FBI that Donald Trump surrounded himself with criminals. Donald Trump brought that upon himself.”

Wray defended the agency by trying to shift the discussion away from the politically charged cases toward the FBI’s larger mission fighting terrorism, hacking and other crime.

The work of the FBI “goes way beyond the one or two investigations that seem to capture all the headlines,” Wray said in his prepared remarks. “Take violent crime: Last year alone, working shoulder to shoulder with our partners in state and local law enforcement, the FBI arrested more than 20,000 violent criminals and child predators — an average of almost 60 bad guys taken off the streets per day, every day.” He also cited work against drug cartels, Chinese espionage and financial fraud.

Since becoming the FBI director in 2017, after Trump fired James B. Comey, Wray has changed some FBI policies to address mistakes in past cases, including in the investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign.

He distanced himself somewhat from one of the Biden administration steps that the GOP has complained about most — a 2021 memo from Attorney General Merrick Garland instructing the FBI to work with local leaders to address what Garland called “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against educators and school board members over issues like mask mandates and curriculum.

Republicans have denounced the memo as trying to brand constitutionally protected speech and parental activism as somehow associated with terrorism — a charge the department has denied. At the time the memo was issued, Garland tried to draw an important distinction between security concerns and free speech.

“While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views,” he wrote. “Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values.”

Under questioning Wednesday, Wray said when he first read the memo, his reaction was that “the FBI is not in the business of investigating or policing speech at school board meetings and we’re not going to start now,” though he added, “threats of violence, that’s different.”

Wray said none of the assessments — a type of initial investigation — that the FBI pursued in the wake of the Garland memo have resulted in federal charges.

“I think the FBI conducted itself the way it should here. We have continued to follow our long-standing rules and have not changed anything in response to that memo,” he said.

Devlin Barrett writes about the FBI and the Justice Department, and is the author of “October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election.” He was part of reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes in 2018 and 2022. In 2017 he was a co-finalist for the Pulitzer for Feature Writing and the Pulitzer for International Reporting.

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