On Dec. 10, the Associated Press published a report about sexual misconduct allegations within the FBI. I devoted 25 years to the bureau, helped lead internal inquiries there, and just wrote a book about the FBI’s code of excellence. Regardless of how well I understand that the FBI is an imperfect institution staffed with typically flawed human beings, whenever I read a report like this, I still feel like I’ve been punched in the gut.
I’m sharing what I know from my experience because while facts matter, so does context.
That’s why I was compelled to dig deeply into the facts, check with sources and write this column. Because even when the news media gets the facts right, a story can unintentionally mislead and distract us from understanding what those facts mean about the FBI and its internal processes — and what they don't mean.
Sexual misconduct has no place in the FBI or any setting; the fact that it occurs should be reported in the media. A main objective in reporting these events is often to create accountability and to improve the systems that handle them when they do occur. But if those systems themselves are not reported with clarity and accuracy, the public is not being given the full picture.
I’m sharing what I know from my experience, and what I’ve learned about current matters, because while facts matter, so does context. There are four things about the recent article, and its sensationalized headline, “Under the Rug,” that cause the public to misperceive how seriously the FBI takes such matters and distracts from understanding the systemic realities behind the facts.
First, numbers alone, without reference points or context, can imply a trend or pattern where none exists. The article cited six allegations of sexual misconduct over the last five years. Let me be clear: One corroborated allegation is too many. And, for the purposes of this column, and because I believe that survivors of sexual misconduct must be heard and believed, I accept that each survivor's account is true. That means that six FBI employees disgraced their badge, the symbol that I carried with pride every day.
Let me be clear: One corroborated allegation is too many.
Second, the article claims that the FBI “keeps a notoriously tight lid on such allegations” and that “federal law enforcement officials are afforded anonymity even after the disciplinary process runs its course,” without explaining why that is the case. The truth is that the bureau is precluded from telling us precisely what happened in each case, and what they did about it, for two reasons: pending litigation and the federal privacy act. The privacy act generally precludes the FBI, even when it might desperately want to, from disclosing details of any of its employees’ files. That means we can’t see the internal investigative file related to the accuser, nor any statements or evidence provided by the accuser.
Third, the article doesn’t provide any detail about the FBI’s rigorous reporting and response process. Here’s what I know, from my sources regarding the cases cited in the report, as well as from my own career experience involving such matters. The FBI jumps on allegations like this, and, in these cases they immediately initiated inquiries. One knowledgeable source described the FBI’s investigative response in the cases reported in the article as “immediate.” The article further says that none of the accused employees appears to have been disciplined, but that one case resulted in an agent “losing his security clearance.” The report concedes that the accused employees were “quietly transferred or retired.” I acknowledge that sounds nefarious without further explanation.
In at least one case in the article, my sources advise that the time it took for the FBI to receive the allegation, gather evidence, confront the accused and for the accused to decide to retire was a few days.
Swiftly confronting an employee with strong enough evidence to cause them to decide to end their career may not seem like discipline, and it may be an attempt by that employee to avoid inevitable termination — but there is no mechanism to force an employee to stay on the job long enough to be fired.
Having an accused employee leave the Bureau because they realize they are facing dismissal from an agency that won’t tolerate their conduct is not necessarily a bad thing.
Having an accused employee leave the bureau because they realize they are facing dismissal from an agency that won’t tolerate their conduct is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s evidence of strong internal investigations and may support the safety and security of the bureau’s people and culture. As for the one case where investigation caused an agent to lose his clearance, when that happens, the employee has effectively lost his job, because all FBI employees must have a clearance. They can appeal the loss of their clearance, but they must do so from home.
As for accused employees being “transferred,” the reporter is likely referring to what the FBI decides to do with an employee who remains under DOJ Inspector General investigation when the IG decides to take the inquiry away from the FBI’s internal investigators. Such IG investigations can take years — yes, years — and the FBI makes the wise decision to separate the accused from the accuser while awaiting results of the ridiculously long IG inquiry. This is certainly a part of the process that needs much improvement.
Fourth, the article cites an uncorroborated statement that FBI officials "allow people they know are criminals to retire and pursue careers in law enforcement-related fields.” Yet, in my own experience, an exception to the privacy act allows the FBI, upon an expressed request, to advise another law enforcement agency that an employee retired or resigned under inquiry. The problem is that too many law enforcement agencies don’t bother to request that inquiry. Further, if the FBI knows an employee is a “criminal,” it is obligated to refer that matter to appropriate authorities. But the only case in the article that seems to have been adjudicated in criminal court resulted in an acquittal of the accused.
The FBI is, as the article states, “male-dominated,” and FBI Director Chris Wray has taken tangible steps to promote women to key positions. When allegations surfaced of inappropriate conduct at the FBI Academy, he appointed Renae McDermott as assistant director over training. Women also lead large field offices like Los Angeles and San Diego, and key headquarters divisions including counterterrorism and Integrity and Compliance. When the recent news article became public, Wray quickly issued a reminder via email to all FBI employees. In his email, Wray included these words:
“Along with my leadership team, I remain committed to ensuring allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment are thoroughly reviewed, that full investigations are initiated where appropriate, and that we take swift and appropriate actions — including, where warranted, immediate reassignment of those in supervisory positions during investigation and adjudication. Due process and fair investigation are important. But we won’t hesitate to impose sanctions where misconduct is substantiated, including … dismissal from duty.” Wray also provided ways to report allegations, including a dedicated sexual misconduct hotline.
These are all facts that might have provided more balance and context to give the public a comprehensive picture of how the bureau functions, so they can gauge their confidence in the bureau for themselves. Once again, sexual misconduct is deplorable, and people on every level of any organization should conscientiously work to prevent it. While the FBI is not perfect, its code of conduct is solid and thorough. Now, of course, it’s up to the FBI to continue to prove that they deserve that confidence, and our trust.