Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Wanted: An Honest FBI


The bureau’s handling of the Trump and Clinton probes dispirits a veteran.

The speaker is James Kallstrom, the agency his beloved Federal Bureau of Investigation. Like current special counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, Mr. Kallstrom served as a Marine officer in Vietnam. Unlike Mr. Mueller, Mr. Kallstrom came up through the FBI ranks, eventually becoming an assistant director and heading the bureau’s largest field office in New York. Over his career Mr. Kallstrom is credited with revolutionizing the bureau’s electronic surveillance, as well as leading big cases ranging from the probe into the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 to mob investigations such as the one that helped send the “Teflon Don”—Gambino crime boss John Gotti —to prison.
Today Mr. Kallstrom has emerged as a critic of the FBI investigations into Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Over coffee in Manhattan he tells me that “99% of FBI agents are dedicated professionals. But the leadership in Washington has harmed the bureau’s reputation.” 
It isn’t so much the conclusions he objects to—though he has his doubts—as the irregular way the investigations have been conducted. If the FBI finds itself discredited, he says, it’s because of its own behavior and not any campaign against it.
Here are a few examples of what Mr. Kallstrom finds so alien:
James Kallstrom, then assistant director of the New York FBI office, in 1995.
James Kallstrom, then assistant director of the New York FBI office, in 1995. Photo: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
• Director James Comey testifies to Congress in September 2016 that he hadn’t decided to recommend against prosecuting Mrs. Clinton until after the FBI had interviewed her—but it later emerges he’d started drafting his statement clearing her weeks earlier. 
• An FBI agent and FBI lawyer— Peter Strzok and Lisa Page —have an affair that opens them up to blackmail and poses a clear conflict of interest in working together. Even so, they fail to recuse themselves from the Mueller investigation.
• This same FBI duo exchange messages that later get Mr. Strzok dumped from Mr. Mueller’s team, here talking about an FBI “insurance policy” against Mr. Trump’s winning the election, there talking about how to keep hidden from colleagues what looks like a leak to the press. 
• The FBI secures a FISA warrant to spy on a member of Mr. Trump’s campaign, which some news reports say relied in part on a dossier that was financed as opposition research for the Clinton campaign and which Mr. Comey himself described as “salacious and unverified.” 
“I can’t tell you how foreign all this is to my experience,” Mr. Kallstrom says. “The FISA courts rely on the honesty and credibility of the investigators who sign those affidavits.” 
The problem started, he suggests, when Mr. Comey allowed then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch to ensure the FBI investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s emails would go nowhere. He rattles off a list of irregularities disturbing to any investigator: the reluctance to go to a grand jury for subpoenas, the immunity deals granted Clinton associates, the farce of an FBI interview with Mrs. Clinton that had a dozen people in the room, including Cheryl Mills, who was permitted to attend as counsel when she was a potential co-conspirator, etc. 
While the Justice Department, not the FBI, makes these decisions, Mr. Kallstrom says Mr. Comey did have an option: “That was the moment he should have held a press conference, to announce his resignation—and then explain to the American people why he would not stay and preside over a sham investigation.”
Mr. Kallstrom is not much more enthused about the new director, Christopher Wray. During his own recent testimony before Congress, Mr. Wray stonewalled—and suggested ridiculously that he couldn’t let Congress see classified material. “They act,” Mr. Kallstrom says, “like they work for someone from outer space rather than the president of the United States.”
Later Mr. Wray attempted an end run around the subpoena from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes for key documents and committee access to FBI officials. Fortunately Speaker Paul Ryan backed Mr. Nunes (and the House’s ability to exercise its oversight responsibilities), informing Mr. Wray that if he didn’t produce the documents and witnesses, he faced a contempt vote.
Which leaves America still in the dark about the two fundamental questions regarding the dossier at the heart of the Trump-Russia investigation: What—if anything—did the FBI verify from the Steele dossier, and did the bureau use any unverified material to get a warrant to spy on members of Mr. Trump’s campaign? 
For those who grew up in proud FBI families, including this columnist, the disclosures about these investigations are dispiriting. As Mr. Kallstrom notes, it’s bad enough for the American people if a politician is bending the law. It’s far worse if the two top institutions responsible for upholding the law—the FBI and Justice Department—are found to have compromised themselves. 
“The FBI gets its strength from the trust of the American people,” Mr. Kallstrom says. “When you lose that . . .”
Write to mcgurn@wsj.com.