Editor’s Note: James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also serves as an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesAGagliano. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
As the news arrived Friday night that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe had been fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, I felt a visceral numbness. The announcement had certainly been anticipated. Nonetheless, the expected blow still stunned the senses.
I have known Andy since he was a young SWAT operator on the FBI’s New York Office SWAT team that I led as senior team leader. No matter my opinions on some of his actions as deputy director, this humiliatingly drawn-out public flogging had happened to “one of us.”
The McCabe I knew was an ambitious ladder-climber whose sights were squarely fixed on advancement within the organization. But I never doubted his integrity, his dedication to duty, or his character. I found his decision not to immediately recuse himself – even after his wife left the political arena – from oversight of a case targeting Hillary Clinton a bad judgment call. The FBI has stated that McCabe acted in accordance with the agency’s protocols while his wife was running for office.
And his possible violations of the Hatch Act while supporting his wife’s failed Virginia senate campaign in 2015 is also worthy of scrutiny. However, an apparent lack of judgment doesn’t equate to accusations of treason and criminality, as some have recklessly charged.
I never doubted Andy’s fealty to the Constitution or the FBI’s mission.
But the attorney general’s decision to fire him was based on an inspector general’s report that was critical of McCabe that has not yet been released to the public. The nonpartisan IG for the Department of Justice, Michael E. Horowitz, worked hand in glove with the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) on the case. The IG’s recommendation to terminate McCabe is not predicated on timing, “optics” or empathy considerations.
Although the IG report’s release should clear up any misconceptions as to the evidence gathered, the central charge appears to be “lack of candor.” Folks unfamiliar with this agency vernacular should understand that what it equates to is “lying” to investigators. This covers anything and everything related to an administrative inquiry – like an OPR investigation – and doesn’t only attach to sworn testimony at trial, or during a deposition, or that which is gathered under oath.
In my quarter-century of service in the FBI, I personally witnessed innumerable instances of forgivable egregious offenses by fellow employees. However, the one violation that always resulted in separation from the FBI was lying. I simply cannot recall an instance when an agent’s career survived a proven case of “lack of candor.”
Horowitz, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2012, heads a fiercely independent agency that relies on the facts it uncovers and follows the evidence, wherever it may lead. In my experience in the FBI, Horowitz’s name was synonymous with ruthless efficiency and an apolitical mien.
But that information appears to be lost on many who speculate that McCabe’s firing was orchestrated by President Donald Trump, who has disgracefully singled out and attacked McCabe throughout his embattled presidency.
Trump appeared to revel in McCabe’s separation in an early morning tweet that described the firing as “a great day for democracy.” It is no secret he harbors personal animus toward McCabe, whom he views as a central figure in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election meddling, which he has likened to a “witch hunt.”
Many may believe that Trump’s firing of McCabe’s boss, FBI Director James Comey, followed by McCabe’s public dismissal by Sessions Friday night, are clear signs that the President feels the intense scrutiny wrought by the special prosecutor team that is relentlessly subpoenaing witnesses and documents.
And McCabe, finally unshackled from media interaction restrictions, fired back Friday night in an interview with CNN, dismissing the IG report as part of a partisan effort that singled him out with intent to destroy his reputation. He insists the effort was predicated on diminishing his credibility as a witness in any upcoming proceedings related to information he has on Comey’s interactions with Trump.
Even the manner in which McCabe apparently learned of his firing – his representative claims he learned via media reports, yet a DOJ spokesperson counters this charge and states McCabe was notified in advance of the press release – seemingly makes consensus a difficult pursuit.
But if we drown out the competing partisan echo chambers and set aside the judicial speculation, we are left with troubling questions such as why the IG felt McCabe was less than forthright with investigators who were focused on circumstances surrounding an unauthorized press leak to The Wall Street Journal, related to an investigation into Hillary Clinton.
During an administrative inquiry, an FBI employee can be questioned without legal representation. It is expected that an FBI agent answer any and all questions truthfully, to the best of their ability.
Not doing this appears to be why Andrew McCabe was fired. Since it is ingrained in new agent trainees during their earliest days at Quantico that lying will be treated as an unforgivable transgression, we should expect that a senior executive just days from retirement would face the same fate as a probationary agent.
Lying may be de rigueur for a President who seems to revel in a Shakespearean tragedy where he has played more than a minor role. But it cannot ever be tolerated from within the ranks of the FBI.
Honorable and decent men and women can, and do, make mistakes. Although most agents’ careers wouldn’t survive this, given the potential opportunities for book deals and correspondent work – and the rate at which this administration is firing people – I have a feeling that Andy will move on from this personally and publicly.
But with this decision, the American public shall know that no one in the FBI is above the law and that its trust in the institution and its executors remains well secured.