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 @joshscampbell. The opinions expressed here are his own.
Following last week’s unfounded claim from the White House that the FBI illegally spied on the Trump campaign for political purposes, the Department of Justice took the unprecedented step of meeting with lawmakers in two classified sessions to discuss the details of the bureau’s original counterintelligence investigation.
The silence from House Republicans since the briefings has been deafening. Until now.
Immediately following the meetings, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff (D-CA) addressed the press, saying he saw no evidence the FBI acted improperly. House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) finally echoed those claims Tuesday on Fox News, going so far as saying the FBI responded precisely in the manner the American people would have expected of them, and that the investigation was not about Trump but was instead responding to a national security threat.
After the men and women of the FBI were unfairly labeled crooks, isn’t an apology in order?
To make sense of the damage being brought to the agency’s reputation, it is important to revisit exactly how the latest assault on the FBI came into existence. Just when our institutions of justice seemed to be enjoying a temporary cessation of hostilities from a White House seeking to defend itself from allegations of impropriety, the President unloaded a fresh salvo on Twitter – his preferred method of communication – and accused the FBI of criminal activity.
His information appeared to stem from media reports indicating a bureau informant had been used to collect information for a lawful counterintelligence investigation seeking to determine whether Russian agents had worked to influence an American election.
What followed was a coordinated campaign to unearth the identity of the informant, with House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes even going so far as to subpoena the Justice Department for information about the source, thereby bulldozing the long-standing norm that congressional officials would respect the intelligence community’s need to protect sources and methods.
Ever the marketing maven, President Trump sought to rebrand this informant with the pejorative label of “spy,” even going so far as to announce his own freshly minted scandal he would theatrically name “Spygate.”
The problems with this recent episode are twofold. The most serious is the chilling effect these actions will have on the government’s ability to convince individuals with access to information to risk their own safety and privacy in the service of our country. Put simply, these actions will make our country less safe because it will be harder for FBI agents and CIA officers around the world to convince potential sources that their identities will not be exploited by politicians with partisan agendas.
The second problem with this political war being waged on the FBI is that it is simply grounded in falsehoods. The FBI does not run “spies,” but, rather, human sources, who are the most highly regulated and scrutinized investigative tools in the FBI’s arsenal of techniques used to identify and neutralize national security and criminal threats.
Labeling someone working for law enforcement as a spy is simply a creative way of manipulating public opinion and casting doubt on a revered institution. You can have a witch hunt without witches, but you can’t have a Spygate without spies.
When I served as an FBI special agent, I was responsible for identifying, recruiting, and handling sources who collected invaluable intelligence that was necessary to prevent threats posed by extremists and hostile foreign intelligence services.
In order to use a source, an FBI special agent must continually navigate a complex oversight system responsible for ensuring sources are used legally and add value to investigative efforts. The approval process for utilizing a source to further an investigation involving a presidential candidate would have immediately skyrocketed to the top levels of FBI and Justice Department leadership.
So, why then do we see this continued campaign against the FBI? As I wrote in The New York Times in February, many inside the FBI believe the constant stream of political attacks is simply meant to undermine the credibility of the organization. Doing so will presumably help soften the blow in the event that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who now leads the government’s efforts to investigate Russian interference following the firing of my former boss James Comey, ultimately finds wrongdoing on the part of White House.
This is nothing short of a political campaign to discredit those doing the investigating, in order to render their eventual conclusions questionable.
Let’s be clear. To date, there has been zero evidence the FBI acted improperly in its investigation. The actions by the White House and Republicans on the House Intelligence committee will only further strain an already fractured relationship with those in law enforcement charged with upholding the rule of law. They don’t take kindly to being called criminals.
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The only appropriate way forward is for those elected leaders who have been castigating law enforcement and violating sacred norms involving sources and methods to immediately cease in their efforts and publicly apologize for these baseless claims. Doing so might in some small way help repair the damage to a law enforcement agency that must maintain public support to be effective.
An apology will also possibly signal to potential human sources around the world that this entire unfortunate episode was simply an aberration, and exposing sensitive sources and methods in this instance was merely an ill-advised exception and not some dangerous new rule.