Editor’s Note: Josh Campbell is a CNN Law Enforcement Analyst, providing insight on crime, justice and national security issues. He previously served as a supervisory special agent with the FBI. Follow him on Twitter at @joshscampbell. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
The possible dismissal of former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe by Attorney General Jeff Sessions presents the kind of moment some politicians long for: an ostensibly principled decision that also yields significant political benefits.
Probably without expecting it, the embattled attorney general found himself in the position of influencing McCabe’s financial future as he nears retirement at week’s end. Media reports indicate that a source said an FBI internal affairs team has recommended McCabe be fired, following an inspector general investigation that determined McCabe may have lied regarding his interaction with the press.
This appears to have little to do with past claims by Republicans that McCabe acted inappropriately in managing the Hillary Clinton email server investigation, but instead is focused on answers McCabe allegedly provided to IG investigators when questioned about how certain investigative details made it into the Wall Street Journal.
To be clear, we do not yet know the full details of the IG investigation, the questions investigators asked McCabe or how he responded. One theme I have noticed throughout the past year is that pieces of information leaked from the separate IG, special counsel and congressional investigations have a unique way of being taken without context and spun into conclusory narratives.
That said, the ball is now in Sessions’ court to either fire McCabe – and jeopardize McCabe’s retirement pension – or to go against the recommendations of the FBI and allow McCabe to depart with his financial security and professional dignity intact.
This entire debacle has created quite a chasm within the ranks of the bureau. In talking with former colleagues, there are those who think there is no excuse for lying and, if he did so, McCabe should face the consequences, and a camp that is suspicious of the timing of the recommendation, and who believe it would be unduly cruel to deny a public servant a full pension after nearly 22 years of service.
To be clear, I side with those who believe there is no excuse for lacking candor – the official FBI term for lying – especially by such a senior official being questioned about such a high-profile matter. Full disclosure, I am a fan of McCabe, and had the pleasure of briefly serving as his special assistant when he assumed the role of acting director following the firing of James Comey. He is an American patriot who has sacrificed in the service of his country.
However, I am also aware that an FBI special agent’s word is his or her currency, and when an agent jeopardizes his integrity, he or she is no longer of much use to the organization. From the moment newly minted special agent trainees step foot on the grounds at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, they are drilled on the importance of always telling the truth. The FBI’s motto of fidelity, bravery and integrity is plastered on walls throughout the academy and in every field office across the country, always serving as a reminder of the importance of maintaining high professional standards. In the FBI, honesty is a black and white issue, with zero shades of gray.
Not only is integrity a fundamental expectation for those entrusted with incredible law enforcement powers, it is also essential for federal agents operating in our legal system. When an FBI special agent rises in a courtroom to testify about an investigation, much of the case hinges on whether he is believed. If a defense attorney can point out even one instance of dishonesty in a special agent’s past, the entire case may be placed in jeopardy.
Since the importance of honesty is engrained in each agent from the start, and further reinforced throughout his or her career, there is simply no excuse for lacking candor. Every special agent knows that you can make a lot of mistakes in your career and possibly survive, but if you lie about them, you’re done.
Returning to McCabe’s impending situation, although the timing of the FBI’s recommendation that he be terminated is certainly puzzling, I do not believe an honest observer can say with certainty that it is political.
The FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility, known as OPR, and Inspection Division are staffed with skilled professionals who could not care less about politics. Their job is to go where the facts lead them, maintain consistency in standards of conduct and hold accountable those who fail to live up to those standards. While we will not know the full facts of this case until the Inspector General’s report is released, and McCabe should be presumed innocent until we are presented with conclusive evidence to the contrary, I suspect OPR weighed the following question: Is it right for the FBI to insist that field agents remain pure and unimpeachable while holding its deputy director, the FBI’s highest-ranking special agent, to a lower standard?
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It is worth noting, however, that a decision by the attorney general to remove McCabe would potentially benefit Sessions politically. Sessions has been under constant scrutiny by a White House furious with his decision to recuse himself in the ongoing special counsel investigation into possible collusion with Russia by members of the Trump campaign. McCabe has also been a favorite target of Republicans, who have, without solid evidence, accused him of conflicts of interest and politicizing the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Simply put, firing McCabe would show the White House that Sessions is a team player by his ousting one of their favorite punching bags. The fact that the original recommendation to fire McCabe came from the FBI would provide Sessions with significant cover, because he could say that he was just following the suggestion of bureau officials.
If the public is ultimately presented with evidence justifying McCabe’s firing, I doubt we will ever know whether the true motivation to fire him was because of principle or politics. It’s just one of those rare instances where doing the right thing might also carry a heap of political advantages.