The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been chasing down criminals of all stripes for 109 years. It was created, with vigorous bipartisan support, under President Teddy Roosevelt as the Bureau of Investigation (the “Federal” was added in 1935), the first national law enforcement agency. Fighting crime might once have been thought of as a bipartisan enterprise, but in our nation’s Capital, nothing stays apolitical for long.
Crime and politics have intersected far too often in the century plus since the FBI came to be, and they may have crossed paths again recently when President Trump did his Celebrity Apprentice bit on FBI director Jim Comey. Already loathed by half of Washington as the person most responsible for Trump becoming President, Comey had then managed to incur the wrath of the other half by refusing to give up on the investigations of Trump’s inner circle. Seeing no love from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Comey may have felt compelled to resort to some political intrigue of his own simply for self-protection. He is not the first FBI director to do so.
Comey’s unfortunate brushes with notoriety may make him more memorable than all of his predecessors except one. James Edgar Hoover, whose name adorns the building the FBI calls home, assumed directorship during Prohibition and spent the next 48 years building his organization into the most fearsome and legendary law enforcement agency the country has ever known. Hoover served under, and some would say lorded over, six presidents. By the time he suffered a fatal heart attack during the Nixon Administration Hoover had expanded the Bureau’s reach, and his own influence, into nearly every corner of the Federal bureaucracy. As his power in Washington grew, Hoover grew more averse to any authority other than his own and more fearful that details of what might charitably be described as his quirky personal life might come to light. Perhaps to discourage such threats, Hoover assembled dossiers on most of D.C.’s illuminati; general scuttlebutt held that he had dirt on everybody from the President on down, and Harry Truman once remarked that every member of Congress was afraid of him. This aura of untouchability served to insulate him and his organization from the internecine mud wrestling for which Washington is famous. Seeing the nation’s capital at its worst also likely solidified Hoover’s cynical belief that everyone was probably guilty of something, that evidence of the crime was out there somewhere, and that if FBI agents just dug deep enough for long enough they would find it. J. Edgar Hoover was stubborn, insular and relentless, and as one might expect after four decades of his unyielding and suspicious leadership the FBI gradually came to mirror its iconic leader’s worldview.
Hoover is long gone, but the FBI still bears his imprint. The agency has a well-deserved reputation for thoroughness and diligence, and once they are on a case agents seem committed, Hoover-esque, to digging up the evidence wherever it may reside. This tenacity can lead to very negative outcomes for the guilty and innocent alike. I speak from experience.
In 1989 I was working at the Rocky Flats Plant when a whistleblower of questionable motivation dropped a nasty note about the site in the FBI’s suggestion box. The agency responded with a veritable assault on the facility, shutting it down and sending in hundreds of agents to search documents, interview dozens of employees and generally intimidate and frighten the rest. I was one of the lucky interviewees. It was, to say the least, unsettling. The agent who talked to me was terse and inscrutable, and he reminded me more than once that lying to him was an extremely bad idea. Everyone was confused and worried, and nobody knew the what or the why.
i don’t remember how long we were left in information limbo, but eventually the allegations were made public. An onsite waste incinerator was operating illegally, hazardous waste was being stored improperly, and site bosses were aware of, or had ordered, these activities. Upper management of Rockwell International, the company contracted by the Department of Energy to run the plant, was implicated. Some 6000 employees were idled, our futures clouded with uncertainty. Only much later would we learn that what they found was nothing. None of the whistleblower’s allegations could be proven.
When “The Raid” initially failed to produce the evidence they knew had to exist, the FBI didn’t back off, they doubled down. The scope of the investigation was widened. Deeper searches were ordered, more documents seized. Leaks began to trickle forth alluding to obstruction by plant personnel. Site operations officially and permanently ceased. Rockwell eventually lost its contract and the company’s reputation took a beating in the local and national press. Very few enterprises can survive a full-blown FBI investigation, even one which produces not a single criminal indictment.
And that was the case at Rocky Flats. After dozens of search warrants, hundreds of interviews, thousands of confiscated files and months of disruption and uncertainty for us, no criminal acts were ever proved. Rockwell finally pleaded guilty to a half-dozen misdemeanor charges and agreed to a $20 million fine just to close the legal book on the whole mess. The plant would never again produce a bomb component. It would be decommissioned, taken apart (at a cost of billions), its bones either hauled away or buried. By last month the site was certified by health officials as safe for human habitation, ready to be returned to the community as a wildlife refuge complete with hiking trails and a museum. All of this without a hint of mea culpa from the FBI, in fact quite the contrary.
Not surprisingly, environmental groups are fighting this plan. What may surprise is that one of its most vocal critics is not a scientist or an environmental activist. He is Jon Lipski, a retired FBI agent. The agent, in fact, who led the raid on the Rocky Flats Plant in 1989. That fabled FBI tenacity?
I relate this tale not to cast aspersions on Mr. Lipski personally or the FBI in general. I mean only to show that FBI agents, and directors, are not infallible, that their aversion to failure can be extreme and that their diligence can sometimes be excessive, especially when there is enormous political pressure to find that elusive (and perhaps nonexistent) evidence.
The charges against the management and employees of the Rocky Flats plant came to nothing, but the investigation itself proved to be unsurvivable. No doubt the people pushing the probe of Donald Trump are hoping for the same result. The Special Investigator (a former FBI director) is going to dig deep and wide, but whether or not he finds evidence of impeachable crimes may not matter. Once the FBI is on the case, the damage is already done. That may be an acceptable way to get rid of an unpopular nuclear facility, but it is not an acceptable way to get rid of an unpopular president.