On Saturday evening, February 17th, President Trump in a tweet linked the politicization of the FBI to its failure to stop the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, three days earlier:
The FBI had in fact been contacted, on two separate occasions, by citizens concerned about Nikolas Cruz, and had failed on each occasion to follow up on the lead. The first contact came on September 24, 2017, about five months before the shooting, and was initiated by Ben Bennight, a bail bondsman in Mississippi, who called the Mississippi field office after seeing a post on YouTube from someone aspiring to be “a professional school shooter”; though the future shooter had used his real name, and though fewer than a dozen (variously reported: eight or eleven) individuals in the country bear that name, the FBI let him slip through their fingers at that time, apparently content with a perfunctory check of a database. The second contact came on January 5, 2018, about six weeks before the shooting, when the FBI Public Access Line was called by an aunt of the shooter; the FBI at that time was given extensive information, leaving no doubt about the identity of the individual, but the information was not passed on to the Miami field office, so once again nothing was done.
Both instances bring the FBI into the greatest discredit. The second tip handed the eventual shooter to them on a silver platter: they would not have had to make an effort to distinguish the suspect from others of the same name, nor to locate him, but needed only to question him. The first tip, however, should already long since have led to his apprehension: indeed, they could have identified which person of that name had posted on YouTube from open-access sources, like Instagram, where the eventual shooter had posted a photo of himself with a gun in front of his face, and had talked of killing animals, or Snapchat, where he had cut his arms; they could also—they are the FBI, after all—very easily have obtained a warrant and secured from YouTube (owned by Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google) the IP address of the poster.
No one but the shooter is responsible for his actions; he is 100% to blame for killing 17 high-school students last Wednesday. And clearly no one in a position of public authority wanted events to unfold as they did. To the extent that public authorities have the responsibility for preventing such incidents whenever they can, however, they can be judged to have failed in their responsibility. Even so, one might judge them to have failed without blaming them, if the shooter, as sometimes happens, had never appeared on their radar screen; what arouses anger in the present case is the circumstance that authorities were in fact given many chances to stop the tragedy from ever occurring, and that their failure to do so appears to have been grossly negligent. Besides the tips bungled at the federal level, law enforcement officers were called to the home of the shooter 23 times between 2008 and 2017, making it evident that opportunities to intervene were missed on the local and state level, both by law enforcement and by mental health professionals, as well. The latest shocking revelation came on Thursday, eight days after the incident, when Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel revealed that Deputy Scot Peterson, a 54-year-old who had been a deputy since 1985 and attached to the school as a “school resource officer” since 2009, resigned (and retired) after being suspended without pay for failing to engage the shooter; video footage shows that he, armed and in uniform, took up a position outside Building 12 and remained outside “upwards of four minutes” while the rampage was occurring.
The point of assigning blame, not for the incident, but for failing to stop it, is to determine what went wrong in order to prevent such an incident from recurring; that discussion, already underway, will be a more wide-raging one; here we are concerned only with the role played by the FBI in the catastrophe.
Strictly as written—“They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign”—the tweet references the activity of Robert Mueller, appointed special counsel by Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein in May 2017 to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” and still in office, although it has been common knowledge since October 2017 that the dossier which is the basis for the suspicion was funded exclusively by Hillary for America and the DNC, the finances of which Hillary Clinton likewise controlled, and written by a British former intelligence agent known to be biased against then-candidate Trump and “relying largely on Russian government sources,” as it was put in a letter (January 25, 2018) of Sens. Grassley and Graham.
The critics of the tweet, perhaps to make their job easier, have taken it rather literally. So as not to provoke a contrary opinion from one of his guests, Neil Cavuto on Monday interjected, “everyone I’ve talked to said that’s ridiculous,” and seemed to be devoting himself to getting his guests to agree; on Tuesday he was still at it when interviewing former Whitewater independent counsel Robert Ray, from whom he elicited the statement that “a number of FBI agents” were assisting Mueller, “probably under 100”; on Tuesday, again, he interviewed Ron Hosko, a former Assistant Director of the FBI and a real apologist for the Bureau, countered that “the President is distracted with that information; there are very few people, FBI agents, supporting the Bob Mueller investigation….” Maria Bartiromo on Tuesday asked Chris Swecker, another former Assistant Director of the FBI, more even-handedly, “what’s your take?” Swecker replied, “I think he’s politicizing a tragedy in a way that’s just not, not classy, not professional. He knows those two are not related. There’s a hundred or so investigative analysts up in West Virginia that handle the tip line. They have nothing to do with the Russian investigation. Those resources are going to be there regardless of whether there’s a Russia investigation or not.”
These criticisms, though, do not hold up under examination. The charge of “politicizing a tragedy” rings hollow, since it is legitimate to suppose that an agency which is clearly already deeply politicized and clearly failing to accomplish its mission is failing because of the politicization; the politicization of the FBI is a fact, not a figment of the imagination, and only a habitual defender of the FBI could think that a statement recognizing its politicization was itself a politicization, rather than objectively true. Nor is it relevant that the number agents assigned to Mueller, comparatively speaking, is not great, nor even that agents apparently play no role in handling the calls on the tip line. (In response to questioning from Martha MacCallum on Wednesday, Ron Hosko admitted that the tip line in West Virginia is not manned by agents, but by “professional support staff” who are paid less.) No one was under the impression that agents had been pulled off the tip line and assigned to Mueller, or that some of the agents working with Mueller would otherwise have been sent to the Mississippi field office; the point is that the highest levels of leadership in the FBI have been distracted, for the better part of two years, either trying to frame Donald Trump for colluding with the Russians in order to win the election, or trying to contain and cover up that scandal. In any case, those who doubt that there is a connection between the Russian- collusion-hoax and the shooting in Parkland will have to admit that the two stories became intertwined at the latest last Friday, for it is rather obvious that Mueller, formerly Director of the FBI, chose that day to release information on the indictment, for sowing discord on social media, of 13 Russian nationals, none of whom will ever be extradited to the US, in order to distract Americans from the catastrophic failure of the FBI to stop the shooting from happening.
Apologists for the FBI should not be arguing that Mueller has relatively few agents at his disposal, nor pointing out that the tip line is not staffed with agents, but demonstrating that the leadership of the FBI was not distracted by the collusion-hoax from effectively managing the Bureau. The task would not be easy. The FBI began cooperating with Christopher Steele in the late spring or early summer of 2016, illegally surveilled Carter Page from October 2016 to October 2017, and is still preoccupied with the hoax, if not in supporting the investigation of Robert Mueller, then in suppressing information sought by Congressional committees; anyone who knows that Director Christopher Wray tried desperately to avoid complying with a subpoena of Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, even going to Speaker Paul Ryan in an attempt to get out of furnishing documents, and how thereafter he tried to dissuade both Chairman Nunes and President Trump from allowing the publication of the Nunes memo, based on those documents, detailing FISC abuses in which the FBI was centrally involved, and how he fought a last-ditch effort to keep the memo from naming names, will have a hard time denying that the hoax is consuming much of the attention of the current Director, although he was not involved in the abuses, just as it did of his predecessor, James Comey, who was involved in those abuses. It seems obvious that Director Wray in fact does not have his mind on his job, i.e., on protecting the nation, so much as on the protection of the reputation of the FBI, and it is then likely that many of his closest subordinates are similarly distracted.
Anyone tempted to make the case that the politicization of the 7th floor has not affected the day-to-day operations of the Bureau should address its repeated failures to prevent mass killings in recent years, despite previous contacts with the eventual perpetrator(s). To give only some concrete examples: before the Boston Marathon bombing (April 2013), the FSB (successor to the KGB) twice contacted government agencies—the FBI in March 2011, the CIA in September 2011—and warned about the radicalization of the older of the two brothers involved; the Charleston church shooter (June 2015) had committed a felony and should not have been allowed to buy a gun, but was able to do so because of an error by the FBI during the background-check process; the shooter at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando (June 2016) had twice (May 2013-Mar. 2014, July 2014) been investigated by the FBI. Let it not be objected that two of these incidents go back before the FBI began to use the Steele dossier to influence and then subvert the election, for the politicization of the FBI also stretches back many years into the Obama administration: for instance, Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote, declared in a suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on January 19, 2017: “In December 2010, Houston-based agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Domestic Terrorism Task Force appeared at my nonprofit offices seeking access to meeting attendee manifests and asking broad questions about my organizations’ principles. FBI agents contacted my organizations five subsequent times, between December 2010 and December 2011.” Mark this well: a private citizen, who had set up an organization to fight voter fraud, along with her husband and the business which they owned, were harassed prior to the 2012 election by the Obama administration, which also weaponized other government agencies against them—the IRS, OSHA, and the ATF—not just the FBI.
Although the failure of the FBI to prevent the Parkland shooting is a failure of leadership rather than a matter of numbers, it is quite possible that placing FBI agents at the disposal of Mueller has harmed and is harming the nation in other ways. Apologists for the Bureau cannot have it both ways with respect to numbers: whenever the FBI falls short, various ones stress how meager their resources are—the FBI has about 35,000 employees, whereas the New York City Police Department alone has about 40,000 officers and 15,000 other employees—, but at the same time they have discounted the impact of the Mueller investigation by claiming that the number of agents assigned to it is not high enough to have negatively affected the performance of the Bureau with respect to the Parkland shooter. That might be true as far as it goes, if an analyst should have passed the tip directly to the relevant field office, without oversight from any agent at FBI headquarters. But if the resources of the Bureau are so scarce that their failures are therefore justified, then the circumstance that agents are working full-time on the collusion-hoax has to be having a negative impact somewhere. We don’t know how many agents are wasting their time in this fashion, but the number—although it must be a small fraction of the total—could be fairly large in absolute terms; likewise, we don’t know what the agents commandeered by Mueller for his witch-hunt would be doing if they were not hunting for witches—presumably they might be monitoring organized crime or trying to suppress gang violence, and not a single one of them would have been used to prevent school shootings. If it was other crimes, not school shootings, which the FBI was prevented from stopping by the witch-hunt, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Mueller investigation is impeding the FBI in fighting crime; the alternative is to argue that the FBI is in fact overstaffed, so that the agents currently assigned to Mueller are unneeded, and can be terminated when he is through with them.
Given the evidence both for the corruption and for the incompetence of the FBI, one may well ask why some are so reluctant to concede that they are connected, especially since the only alternative is not to deny their existence, but to maintain that it is a coincidence. In the case of some observers, it is probably a matter of being reluctant to agree with President Trump on anything. Liddle Neil Cavuto is someone who clearly does not like the President and routinely objects to his tweets and his tweeting; he might be dangerous, if he were talented enough to disguise his bias; he simply seems to have trouble admitting that Donald Trump could be right about anything. Retirees from the FBI with residual (or greater) loyalty presumably feel that they should dispute the connection made by President Trump because the disgrace of the Bureau is greater if FBI agents and officials were caused to neglect their duty because they were doing things which they had no business doing in the first place, i.e., being distracted with the investigation of a political hoax by Mueller on the one hand and with the cover-up under Wray of the abuses of power under Comey on the other. And they are right about that.
Although they have not said so in so many words, those pushing back on the President’s tweet essentially have been portraying the mistakes of the FBI as inevitable; that is very convenient for the Bureau, since no one is responsible if the mistakes could not possibly have been avoided, even if the upper levels of the organization had been concentrating on their job. That conclusion though seems to require as a premise that the FBI leadership was so utterly lacking in managerial ability that they would neither have noticed the subpar performance of agents and analysts handling tips, in the absence of the Russia-madness, nor been able to improve the quality of that performance if they tried. Flushed out, then, their argument is: Russia-Russia-Russia made no difference, since the FBI leadership was too incompetent to get on top of the school shooting in any case.
One thing J. Edgar Hoover understood was public relations, and during his lifetime he was uncritically admired by many who had no reason to fear him; in the meantime his own image has suffered very greatly, yet the image of the G-man which he cultivated has hardly changed: it is truly part of his legacy that the FBI to this day is not subject to the same level of scrutiny and criticism which other agencies are, and that is bad not only for our democracy, but for the very lives and safety of our citizens, many fewer of whom would have fallen victim to mass-shootings if the FBI had been reformed, instead of constantly being given the benefit of the doubt. Thomas Lifson, who has “academic and practical experience with organizational change efforts in large bureaucracies that have developed dysfunctional behaviors,” argues in an essay entitled “Do we need to destroy the FBI in order to save it?” that “the only way bureaucrats will self-police is if they fear serious consequences for misbehavior”. In the present instance, there should be transparency: the two agents from the Mississippi field office who failed to follow up the tip in September 2017, and the analyst who failed to forward the phone-line tip to the Miami field office in January 2018, should be terminated; the immediate supervisors of those individuals, at the very least, should be demoted. But beyond the consequences for a limited number of personnel, there should be institutional consequences as well: the federal role in preventing school shootings should be permanently transferred from the FBI to the Department of Homeland Security; possibly the administration of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) should likewise be transferred from the FBI to DHS. Once the bureaucracy sees that it will permanently lose responsibilities, which it fails to perform adequately, it will begin to take notice. The DHS should be given the chance to staff up with competent people, including current FBI agents who will be separated from the FBI upon employment with the DHS, who will coordinate any future federal activity in preventing school shootings. It is likely that that federal role will be greater than in the past, since President Trump is promoting the idea of hardening the target schools present by allowing teachers to be armed, as well as emphasizing the mental-health aspects of the problem, but there is no hope that the new initiatives will end well if any part of their success relies on the FBI; now is the time to make changes.