The Justice Department’s decision to give congressional Republicans access to documents about FBI investigations risks exposing sensitive sources or material and poses a critical early test for bureau Director Christopher Wray, current and former U.S. law enforcement officials say.
Some officials view the department as capitulating to a small group of Republicans who are intent on helping President Donald Trump undermine the integrity of the FBI and, by extension, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump or any of his associates helped Russia interfere in the 2016 election.
It’s the latest setback for a law enforcement agency that has long held itself out as doggedly independent and above partisan politics, only to be besieged over the last two years by questions about its handling of politically sensitive investigations into Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Trump.
One agent said he’s now concerned that forms identifying FBI informants would be handed over to Congress. If that happened, he said, it would cause him to think carefully about whether to withhold sensitive information from future reports.
Another agent said recent statements about the bureau by Trump and congressional Republicans have made it more difficult for him to get informants to open up.
Trump has tweeted that the Federal Bureau of Investigations is “in Tatters -- worst in history” and has said a senior official committed “treason.”
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As the Russia investigation continues to hang over the White House, Republicans in Congress have sought to turn the tables on the FBI by calling into question the fairness and methods of senior agents. They’ve been requesting documents and holding public hearings that focus on alleged wrongdoing or political bias by agents.
FBI Chief of Staff James Rybicki is to be interviewed behind closed doors on Thursday by members of two House committees, according to two officials familiar with the plans.
The controversy over giving Republicans access to sensitive investigative materials has struck a nerve because it comes after months of rare, intense political scrutiny of the FBI, including former Director James Comey’s handling of the investigation into former Secretary of State Clinton’s use of a private email server.
In the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, Comey angered Republicans by announcing that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Clinton for mishandling classified information, a departure from normal procedures calling for the bureau to remain silent when crimes aren’t found. Then, he angered Democrats by briefly reopening the inquiry shortly before election day, a move Clinton contends cost her the election.
The actions by Comey, who was fired by Trump in May, and the criticism that followed began a shift for an agency that was long viewed as apolitical and whose leaders won support from both parties.
Unrest in Ranks
A dozen current and former officials -- all from the career ranks of the FBI and Justice Department, as opposed to the president’s political appointees -- spoke to Bloomberg News on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters and express their concerns.
Their views weren’t uniform but collectively represent unrest and morale problems within the ranks of agents, prosecutors and career officials in response to attacks on the integrity and leadership of the FBI and Justice Department.
Thomas O’Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, said special agents “are focused on the Constitution and protecting the public” and “their work should be recognized, not denigrated.” The association represents 14,000 active and retired special agents.
“Attacks on our character and demeaning comments about the FBI will not deter agents from continuing to do what we have always done -- dedicate our lives to protecting the American people,” O’Connor said in a statement. “The true story of the FBI cannot be reduced to partisan talking points.”
The FBI declined to comment for this story.
Meeting With Ryan
Tensions between Republicans and the Justice Department deepened in recent weeks as lawmakers demanded sensitive documents and agency leaders resisted turning them over. The standoff led to a dramatic meeting between House Speaker Paul Ryan, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Wray to discuss potential contempt of Congress charges for failing to turn over documents.
In the end, the Justice Department agreed to give lawmakers material they requested, though it’s unclear whether Republicans will get everything they want.
On Jan. 11, the Justice Department began giving two House committees what could amount to more than 1.2 million documents about FBI investigative decisions made in 2016, including related to the investigation into Clinton. Additional documents are expected to be provided in the coming days.
Current and former officials expressed a number of concerns. One agent said some officials working on Russian counterintelligence probes of any kind might now be hesitant to report their findings to superiors, given the political furor over the Mueller investigation.
A former senior agent said the credibility of the FBI is on the line, and close attention is being paid to how the situation is handled by Wray, who took over as director in August. Agents are waiting to see how assertive the director will be in defending them and other career officials and whether he’ll refuse to hand over documents that might compromise covert sources and operations, the former agent said.
Other officials said they’re worried about an effort by Trump and his allies to oust anyone seen as being disloyal to the president. During a hearing in December, Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas named specific FBI officials and asked Wray whether they’ve ever openly displayed a bias against the Trump administration.
Republican criticism about Mueller’s probe intensified after the recent revelation that a top FBI agent assigned to the special counsel’s team sent anti-Trump texts in the summer of 2016. One exchange by the agent, Peter Strzok, with another senior official included remarks “that there’s no way” Trump would win the election but “we can’t take that risk.” Mueller removed Strzok after learning of the texts.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 11, Trump said the agent committed “a treasonous act” by plotting to overturn the election results. The president also called for Republican investigators in Congress to conclude their probes swiftly.
Wray hasn’t said anything publicly in response to Trump’s suggestion of treason. However, he has repeatedly defended the integrity and professionalism of the FBI workforce in speeches and congressional testimony.
The documents now being turned over were requested by Republican leaders of the House Judiciary Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Some of the requested documents were outlined in a Nov. 3 letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein. The documents sought appear to dovetail with areas that the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is investigating, such as the handling of the Clinton probe. Horowitz plans to wrap up his investigation in March or April.
It’s uncertain whether the information being turned over might add to Republican claims of bias in favor of Clinton and against Trump during the presidential campaign, and even to efforts to undercut Mueller’s investigation.
“We want the information that Horowitz has,” Republican Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio said. He said interviews also are being arranged with seven FBI and Justice Department officials, as well as others.
— With assistance by Billy House