Argument

FBI Counterintelligence Agents Don’t Forgive or Forget

The FBI has earned a reputation for conservatism. But that was never going to help President Trump.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 03: Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee during an oversight hearing on the FBI on Capitol Hill May 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. Comey is expected to answer questions about Russian involvement into the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 03: Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee during an oversight hearing on the FBI on Capitol Hill May 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. Comey is expected to answer questions about Russian involvement into the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump wasn’t content with merely firing James Comey from his position as FBI director. He also attacked his credibility, competence, and integrity for pursuing the counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and the potential collusion of the Trump campaign. We now have reason to believe this came after the president tried repeatedly to shut down that investigation, including requesting directly that Comey do so.

Only Comey knows how he reacted to the insults that accompanied his firing. But it’s worth noting that a subset of the FBI almost certainly felt implicated in Trump’s bullying: the FBI special agents who conduct foreign counterintelligence investigations, known within the intelligence community as FCI cases. These agents are their own breed within the FBI, spending their careers working silently on cases of immense national security interest. And Trump may soon regret picking a fight with them.

First, a disclaimer: I am not privy to any of the facts of the Russian investigation underway by the FBI other than what has been published in the media. But I have served in the FBI for 28 years, for the most part working counterintelligence and counterterrorism cases under what is now known as the National Security Branch, so I have a good sense of how those agents working on the Russian investigation must feel.

Ever since Comey confirmed to the House Intelligence Committee in March that the FBI is investigating the Russian role in the election, including “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” there have been indications that the president wants the investigation closed. On May 16, the New York Times reported that Trump had asked Comey in February to end the FBI investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, an offshoot of the original investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. (It won’t come as a surprise to FBI agents that Comey immediately noted this conversation in a memo. As a new agent, I was taught to contemporaneously document all sensitive conversations because “if it’s not on paper, it doesn’t exist.” It’s not a tape recording, but it’s the next best thing.)

But Trump’s private pressuring of Comey has always been accompanied by public disparagement of the Russia investigation. When former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates testified on May 8 before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the investigations into Flynn’s contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Trump tweeted, “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?” Tweeting on May 12, the president wrote, “Again, the story that there was collusion between the Russians & Trump campaign was fabricated by Dems as an excuse for losing the election.”

The president may have calculated that he can afford to make disparaging public comments about the investigation Comey was overseeing, because the FBI and its rank and file are reputed to be more conservative than the public. But this will probably prove a fateful mistake.

First, the FBI is not politically monolithic and the political views of agents rarely line up neatly with partisan political categories. Generally, FBI agents may lean conservative, but, above all, they tend to reflect the politics of the regions in which they choose to live and work. Agents in the Midwest and South are more conservative than those in Seattle, where I spent my last eight years in the bureau. In any given FBI field office, you’re liable to hear in private the same types of political conversations around the water cooler that you would hear in any large, diverse, multinational company. Some agents support Democrats, others back Republicans, but few in such rabid or ideological fashion that it interferes with their work.

But FCI officers, who are concentrated in Washington and New York, are different. Tasked with investigating national security matters, these FBI agents are mission-driven in a unique way. Almost without exception, they are extraordinarily sensitive — perhaps more than anyone else in the U.S. government — about the national security threats posed by Russian and other hostile foreign intelligence services. They tend to subordinate their political beliefs to a mindset that revolves around defending the country from external enemies that wish Americans harm.

They are also under extraordinary psychological strain. They defend the most valuable secrets of the nation from theft, abuse, misuse, and accidental disclosure while making no public judgment about the political motives of the Americans they are sworn to protect, including those they investigate. These cases, in which the primary goal is to gather intelligence about the objectives and capabilities of the foreign or domestic target and prevent the disclosure of U.S. secrets to foreign agents, are generally very slow to develop and investigations can last for years.

FCI case agents are well aware that they are fated to seldom get the accolades and publicity that their colleagues working criminal cases do. FCI cases are by their nature classified, even when they involve criminal violations like espionage, so agents working FCI matters don’t ever talk about their work with family or friends, or even to other agents with the same level of clearances. Finally, even when prosecuted, FCI cases are often dealt with covertly with guilty pleas offered in closed hearings with many caveats and agreements between the parties, so as not to reveal any government secrets unnecessarily.

Russian cases are particularly closely held, primarily because Russian intelligence has a large presence in the United States, especially in Washington and New York, and those cases are among the most sensitive in the bureau. During the time I worked FCI cases for the FBI, the intelligence community referred to Russia’s various intelligence services collectively as hostile intelligence services, or HOIS. They are considered the most hostile of all HOIS, in fact, and among the best in the world at what they do, which is to collect intelligence and subvert other countries in the interest of the Russian Federation’s long-term goals and objectives.

Because of the hostile intent Russia and certain other nations have toward the United States, FBI agents of the National Security Branch working FCI cases take great pride in their work, which is conducted without acknowledgement, except among the members of the intelligence community. How they feel about the latest Russian faux paus by the president and the firing of Comey is something we may never know completely, but it’s certainly possible to imagine. The same is true for how they are likely to respond to the president’s consistent interference in their work.

FCI agents won’t use the president’s actions as justification to unethically undercut his administration. The men and women working on the investigation will “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” as they promised on the day they entered service with the FBI. That includes following all internal rules and regulations ensuring the integrity and secrecy of any facts they uncover during their investigation. Revealing that information to the public is not the role of the FBI, but rather now rests with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

But one thing is certain: The Russian investigation will continue unabated. The president may think the power still lies in his hands, since he still has the power to name Comey’s replacement. But the agents have the power of their own principles and integrity, and they now have the added fuel of not just public opinion, but personal anger and professional pride.

Photo credit: ZACH GIBSON/Getty Images

David Gomez is a former FBI counterterrorism executive in Seattle and current senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. He consults on operational and information security as a security strategist.

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