If the best a top FBI agent can do is to stoke political divisions, the FBI must attend to the public’s trust.
If an FBI agent violates one oath, will he violate another?
If an FBI agent asserts his absence of professional bias, while affirming his personal bias, will his personal bias influence his professional behavior?
If an FBI’s alleged professional bias was in favor of Hillary Clinton in one investigation and against Donald Trump in another investigation, does this warrant a partisan attack against him during his testimony in Congress?
More broadly, what’s going on at the FBI?
The FBI agent in question is Peter Strzok. He was called by Congress to testify about his professional conduct after the FBI inspector general discovered and then reprimanded him for his text messages to his consort, a former FBI lawyer, Lisa Page during the 2016 election campaign. These messages used extremely derogatory terms about Donald Trump that Strzok himself testified he was not “proud of” — but, far more significant, included a message that he (Strzok) and Page would “stop” (his word) Donald Trump’s election.
It’s a highly relevant message because Strzok was the lead FBI investigator into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, and also the lead agent at the beginning of special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
On July 12 Strzok testified in Congress: “Let me be clear, unequivocally and under oath: Not once in my 26 years of defending my nation did my personal opinions impact any official action I took.”
Democrats applauded. Republicans were skeptical and one called him a liar —another day of partisan rancor in Washington.
What is one to make of all this?
With reference to Strzok’s aim to “stop” Trump, if this were a mere “personal opinion” (a sanitized euphemism if ever there were one) that did not impact his official actions, then why did Strzok’s boss, Robert Mueller, remove Strzok from the Russian probe right after Strzok’s text messaages were revealed? Innocence is not typically punished.
Strzok testified that he worked with many layers of people above him and below him, and that if his “personal opinions” had affected his official actions, his colleagues would have raised the issue with him on the spot. Trouble is, his personal and political goal (to stop Trump’s election) as contained in these text messages was unknown to his co-workers at the time. And when it was revealed, Mueller fired him from the probe. Clearly, skepticism about Strzok’s claim to professional integrity is in order, even though it was made under oath.
For if Strzok violated one solemn oath — to his wife — how much credibility is to be given to his testimony under oath?
That said, the FBI inspector general determined that there was no evidence warranting professional discipline or criminal prosecution of Strzok. That’s not as exculpatory as it sounds, since Strzok’s claim to professional integrity is so vague that it may be non-falsifiable, unable to be proven or disproven.
Absence of discipline or prosecution is far different from saying that professional integrity animated the FBI on the issues of Clinton and Trump. If Strzok’s assertion of professional integrity in the face of his strident “personal opinions” against Trump shows one side of bias at the FBI, the ex-FBI director’s announcing a reopening his probe of Clinton just before the 2016 election shows an opposite bias. These opposite biases veer too sharply from professional norms to cancel each other out. They show an agency, at least at its top levels, to be adrift in politics; exactly what the FBI should not be.
What strikes us about the FBI in the matters of Strzok and Comey is the psychological unsophistication on the part of both men and their critics. Both men claim absolute objectivity, absolute absence of bias, and their critics either accept or reject the claim. The idea that a person may believe himself to be absolutely professional and objective, but that his biases may nonetheless distort the way he perceives, defines and shapes his agenda — a psychological truism — seems not to be part of the conversation. Yet, observe: Someone else at the FBI, Strzok testified, acted as a channel between the anti-Trump opposition-research firm Fusion GPS and the FBI in 2016, as the the Wall Street Journal put it. The newspaper continued:
“This means that Fusion, an outfit on the payroll of the Clinton campaign, had a messenger on the government payroll to deliver its anti-Trump documents to the FBI. This confirms that the FBI relied on politically motivated sources as part of its probe, even as Mr. Strzok insists he showed no political bias in his investigating decisions.”
Maybe he did not show any such bias, but between the pro-Clinton announcement of Comey in July, 2016, the anti-Clinton announcement of Comey just before the election in October, 2016, together with the stridently partisan text messages of Strzok that he thought he could keep secret, there’s an awful lot of politics swirling around the FBI these days.
Strzok’s testimony had Democrats clapping and Republicans jeering, a spectacle that only seems to confirm Strzok’s role in tarnishing the non-partisan image of the FBI, which should not be caught in the polarized politics of the time. The FBI should be able to do better than present someone like Strzok as an exemplar of this critical federal agency that ultimately must depend on public trust as being above politics.
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