The Epistemic Quandary of the FBI and Trump

The claims that Trump and his allies make about the FBI’s history of political retaliation, however cynically lodged, ring uncomfortably true.

President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and FBI Director Christopher Wray
President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and FBI Director Christopher Wray (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

The ongoing story of Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as whether the Trump campaign colluded, seems almost too wild to believe. A foreign power, using low-tech and often laughably simplistic techniques, apparently managed to meddle with the American electorate, even organizing real-life rallies. Meanwhile, members of the Trump campaign surreptitiously tried to work with them, as revealed by a 2016 meeting at Trump Tower and a guilty plea from George Papadapoulos. So, later, did National-Security Adviser-designate Michael Flynn.

The implausibility of this turn of events has left room for an unusual coalition to attack and question the official story. For the most part, this includes President Trump himself, Republican lawmakers aligned with him, and conservative media, but it also includes (for example) the left-wing journalist Glenn Greenwald. Their critique is built, with a range of sincerity, on an argument about the FBI being untrustworthy, scheming, and prone to exacting revenge on political opponents. The critique draws its force from the fact that this has, in fact, historically been true of the Bureau—yet many of its proponents have clearly dubious motives or have forfeited the right to any presumption of truth. This conflict, with flawed actors on both sides, presents an epistemic quandary for a sincere observer: How can you place your faith in either side?

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the FBI was missing more than five-months worth of texts between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was involved in an extramarital relationship. Investigators are examining some 50,000 messages that were preserved. On Tuesday, the president tweeted:

Conservatives have tried to use the Strzok story as a way of blunting the damage of the Russia story to Trump, seeking evidence that the FBI investigation into his campaign was politically motivated. Strzok and Page both cycled through Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team; Strzok was removed when Mueller learned of texts he had exchanged with Page that were critical of Trump. The Justice Department, in a somewhat unusual move, released texts between the two. But as I wrote in December, proponents of the story have exaggerated the evidence far beyond what it actually shows, and Ryan Reilly demonstrates how many of the exchanges have been either misrepresented or taken out of context.

As for the missing texts, Sessions has said punishments will be handed down if wrongdoing is discovered, but Richard Burr, the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s David Wright that he believed there was simply a technical glitch, and that the FBI had been forthcoming with his committee. In other words, Burr was suggesting the attack was just a partisan frenzy.

Speaking of partisan frenzy, Burr’s counterpart on the House side, Representative Devin Nunes, is circulating a memo that reportedly suggests serious wrongdoing by the FBI, including improper surveillance of Trump aides under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This is not the first time that Nunes has made attention-grabbing accusations about intelligence misbehavior. In spring of 2017, the Trump White House fed Nunes, who was in theory leading the House Intelligence Committee’s independent investigation of the Trump transition team, flimsy allegations of improper use of intelligence. These allegations have not been substantiated since; Nunes agreed to step down from leading the Russia investigation following the revelation of his coordination with White House aides.

The memo is unusual in several ways. It is written by Republican staff on the committee, making it basically a political document. Though it is reportedly based on FBI intelligence, the committee will not show it to the Justice Department or FBI. Republicans voted to circulate the memo to House members, but not to release it publicly. One source told Natasha Bertrand the memo represents “a level of irresponsible stupidity that I cannot fathom” and “purposefully misconstrues facts and leaves out important details.” The committee’s ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, told me, “It’s a bit of a hodgepodge of false statements and misleading representations,” and warned that it was based on intelligence that most members had not directly reviewed. It would be even harder for the public, with much less information than members of the intelligence committee, to reliably assess the contents of the memo.

At the center of all of this is Trump, who has shown no scruples about the truth, both in general and on this specific issue. He continues to claim that every Democrat has said there was no collusion with Russia, which is false, and still sporadically pushes a speculative conspiracy theory about his “wires” being “tapped” at Trump Tower during the election, even though his own Justice Department has debunked it.

These are all powerful reasons to disbelieve those who seek to cast doubt on the FBI. And yet their critique derives its power from the long history of abuses by the intelligence community. The FBI in particular has a demonstrated pattern of targeting those it has deemed politically dangerous, a practice entrenched by its creator and longtime leader, J. Edgar Hoover. The bureau has, at times, targeted and sought to intimidate leftists, civil-rights organizations, anti-war protesters, and others. It compiled 360,000 files on government workers suspected of being gay or lesbian. There have been both internal and external efforts at reform since then, and the FBI’s defenders insist it has mended its ways, but the bureau is still housed in a building bearing Hoover’s name.

While Trump’s critics eagerly mention Watergate in the same breath as the current scandal, it’s easy to forget that the crucial inside source for reporting on the scandal, dubbed Deep Throat, was Mark Felt, the deputy director of the FBI; by some accounts, he was motivated by anger that he had been passed over in favor of L. Patrick Gray as Hoover’s successor.

In the summer and fall of 2016—indeed, almost up to the moment of his firing by Donald Trump—Democrats seethed at FBI Director James Comey. Given Comey’s Republican affiliation, the bureau’s historic conservatism, and Comey’s unorthodox approach to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server (as laid out by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in the memo used to justify Comey’s firing), many Democrats were convinced Comey was trying to throw the election to Trump. Their concern was heightened by Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani speaking on TV about receiving inside info from the FBI.

Late in his tenure as director, Comey argued that the “Ferguson effect,” a backlash against police after the killing of Michael Brown, was real, despite a lack of evidence to support it. As recently as this winter, Democrats were demanding questions about a strange FBI report on “Black Identity Extremists” that relied on long out-of-date information.

Nor would it be unprecedented for a branch of the intelligence community to destroy materials that could damage it. In 2005, the CIA destroyed 92 tapes depicting torture of detainees. Democrats later assembled a report on the use of torture during the Bush years, but when Republicans took back the Senate, the new chair of the intelligence committee moved to suppress the report and keep it from being made public. That chair? None other than Richard Burr. The CIA also said it had shredded a copy, only to suddenly find it months later.

As Trump and others have been eager to point out, echoing a left-wing talking point from the Bush years, parts of the intelligence community were wrong about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction before the American invasion. Meanwhile, the revelations brought to light by Edward Snowden demonstrate that the intelligence community could and did abuse its abilities to surveil Americans. During the Obama years, many on the left (as well as the libertarian right) were justifiably upset about these overreaches. While there is no evidence to suggest inappropriate surveillance of the Trump campaign, these past abuses suggest that it’s hardly inconceivable. The trouble is that no one who has leveled the charge in this case has produced evidence to back it.

It is strange to see Democrats and other progressives, many of who have been questioning intelligence community and calling for its reform since the Bush years, suddenly aligned with the FBI, defending it against attacks from the White House. It must be strange for many of them, too. As Simon van Zuylen-Wood noted in a 2017 profile, Ben Wittes, a journalist who has long been a defender of the intelligence community against progressive critiques, now finds himself in the strange position of being a hero to the left. Some Democrats have worked to strike a balance. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has been one of the foremost critics of intelligence overreach, but has also sternly warned the White House against interfering in the Russia probe.

Yet in some cases, progressives seem to have forgotten their critiques of the intelligence community altogether, a tendency that Greenwald has criticized, including in an excellent new profile, also by van Zuylen-Wood. Greenwald accuses Democrats of hypocritically embracing the intelligence community and engaging in McCarthyist hunting for Russian tentacles creeping into American politics. Given Greenwald’s reporting on Snowden, for which he won a Pulitzer, and the apparent harassment of his husband, it’s understandable that he would be deeply skeptical of the intelligence community. But van Zuylen-Wood notes that he tends to fixate on specific, erroneous stories at the expense of the balance of reporting, and as Marcy Wheeler shows, there is a way of approaching the Russia story from a left-civil-libertarian perspective that is critical of groupthink and the dubious focus of the media, but doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

On the question of intelligence oversight, the Nunes-aligned Republicans seem to have their own conflicting approaches. If they are concerned about the prospect of intelligence abuses, they have the power to try to reform the laws that govern collection—and in fact they had a chance to do so very recently. Last week, Nunes, Steve King, and Matt Gaetz, to pick a few examples of proponents of the memo, all voted against reforms offered by Representative Justin Amash, a libertarian Republican, and in favor of reauthorizing section 702 of FISA. (Greenwald, by contrast, argues that releasing the Nunes memo without the underlying evidence would be “not just useless but almost certainly designed to deceive.”)

There’s no easy conclusion here. There is at this point ample evidence of Trump team members having questionable contacts with Russia both before and after the election; two of them have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those contacts. There’s enough evidence to warrant further investigation along several lines, and only through thorough, fair investigation can allegations be proven or debunked. Still, the requirement to rely on the say-so of an intelligence community that has abused its powers, obfuscated, and retaliated against political opponents must give pause. There’s no comfortable position to be found.