The J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building stands in Washington, D.C., Aug. 8, 2013.
Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty

Celebrated former FBI, CIA chief sees ‘dire threat’ from Team Trump

In August 2018, when Donald Trump began using security clearances as a political tool, William Webster joined other former CIA directors in speaking up and condemning the president’s tactics. It was a rare instance in which Webster entered the political fray directly.

But as it turns out, his public concerns were not an isolated incident. Webster, the only person to ever lead both the CIA and the FBI, wrote a new op-ed for the New York Times, published today, in which he describes a “dire threat to the rule of law” in the country he loves and expresses concern that “the integrity of the institutions that protect our civil order are, tragically, under assault from too many people whose job it should be to protect them.”

The aspersions cast upon [F.B.I. officials] by the president and my longtime friend, Attorney General William P. Barr, are troubling in the extreme. Calling F.B.I. professionals “scum,” as the president did, is a slur against people who risk their lives to keep us safe. Mr. Barr’s charges of bias within the F.B.I., made without providing any evidence and in direct dispute of the findings of the nonpartisan inspector general, risk inflicting enduring damage on this critically important institution.

The country can ill afford to have a chief law enforcement officer dispute the Justice Department’s own independent inspector general’s report and claim that an F.B.I. investigation was based on “a completely bogus narrative.” In fact, the report conclusively found that the evidence to initiate the Russia investigation was unassailable. There were more than 100 contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russian agents during the 2016 campaign, and Russian efforts to undermine our democracy continue to this day. I’m glad the F.B.I. took the threat seriously. It is important, Mr. Wray said last week, that the inspector general found that “the investigation was opened with appropriate predication and authorization.”

Webster went on to reflect on his “profound” disappointment in Rudy Giuliani, whose “activities of late concerning Ukraine have, at a minimum, failed the smell test of propriety.”

The op-ed added, “The rule of law is the bedrock of American democracy, the principle that protects every American from the abuse of monarchs, despots and tyrants. Every American should demand that our leaders put the rule of law above politics.”

The not-so-subtle point of his op-ed is that Webster seems to believe our current leaders are not putting the rule of law above politics.

I can appreciate why William Webster may not be a household name, but to appreciate the significance of his op-ed, consider his c.v.

Webster, a lifelong Republican, was a judge named to the federal bench by Richard Nixon. He was chosen by Jimmy Carter to lead the FBI, and chosen by Ronald Reagan to lead the CIA. Webster remains the chair of the DHS’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, after having been appointed by each of the last three presidents.

As NBC News’ Ken Dilanian put it, “It’s hard to overstate how much Webster is respected, even revered, in the national security community.”

It’s against this backdrop that this celebrated figure is – in a very public way – taking aim at Trump, Bill Barr, and Rudy Giuliani, each of whom he sees undermining our system.

If recent history is any guide, the president will respond to the op-ed by mocking Webster with some ridiculous nonsense on Twitter, and Barr will see him as an enemy to be ignored. Webster’s stature and credibility, however, suggest the rest of us should heed his warnings.