It's finally happening. Throughout the ongoing Russia Hoax coup attempt there has been no lack of criticism of the FBI. That's only natural, since two of the leading protagonists--as chronicled at this blog--have been the most recent two directors of the FBI: Robert Mueller and the now disgraced James Comey. However, much of the attention that the FBI has received has been focused more on the crimes and misdeeds of a limited group of indiviudals. It's true that many pundits have questioned the FBI's institutional culture--how could the FBI have gone so wrong? Usually this has played out within a narrative of "good" field Special Agents (SAs or simply "agents") versus "bad" HQ schemers. What's finally happening is that retired agents are beginning to speak out, offering a perspective on organizational developments that were part of led to a transformation of the FBI from its formerly pristine image (deserved or not) to the systemically corrupt organization that the nation now sees.
A major impetus to this willingness of retired agents to speak out--if only in short tweets--has been the 2018 article by retired Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) James Gagliano: Robert Mueller and the 'up or out' management policy that damaged the FBI. Gagliano was certainly correct to draw attention to Mueller's role in the transformation of the FBI from its role as the "premier law enforcement agency" (and also the lead counterintelligence agency) in the United States to a major player in the globalist world of Deep State power politics. Unfortunately, Gagliano writes from a viewpoint that is more narrowly focused on the grievances of former Bureau managers. While those grievances are real, in my view a longer range historical perspective is necessary if we are to fully understand the significance of what has come to pass. What I think we are seeing is the end result of Congress' decision, following the death of Director Hoover, to integrate the FBI fully into the federal legal bureaucracy and, fatefully, after 9/11, the new centralized Deep State: The Intelligence Community. A key part of this process has been the decision to turn leadership of the FBI to former federal judges and career prosecutors who have imposed a managerial style ill suited to the real problems facing the FBI.
Perhaps a bit of autobiography will help get us started on this trip, moving from the past to the present.
I was born in 1950. That means I grew up, went through high school, college, and law school, during the decisive decades of cultural, societal, and constitutional upheaval that serve as the backdrop to the transformation of the FBI. I witnessed the beginnings of the Left's Long March through our constitutional and societal institutions. By the time I arrived at my first field office in January, 1979, America was irreversibly different from what it had been during my early years. That process continued apace throughout my years in the Bureau. That's an important point, because it's simply unrealistic to suppose that an organization like the FBI can continue to be counter-cultural indefinitely, when it must needs draw its recruits from the ambient culture--recruits who will largely reflect the values of that culture. Ultimately, we're now witnessing the results of that cultural revolution, but this account is not intended to be an indulgence in nostalgia. An account of the steps along the way may help explain the FBI as we're seeing it today.
In 1979 Judge Webster--he preferred that title to "Director"--was only a year into his tenure at the FBI. His great innovation, which fit with his strong background in corporate law, was to set the FBI on a new management path: Management By Objectives. Here's how Wikipedia describes the thinking behind MBO:
Management by objectives is the process of defining specific objectives within an organization that management can convey to organisation members, then deciding how to achieve each objective in sequence. ... This process ... helps organization members to see their accomplishments as they achieve each objective, which reinforces a positive work environment and a sense of achievement. An important part of MBO is the measurement and comparison of an employee's actual performance with the standards set. Ideally, when employees themselves have been involved with the goal-setting and choosing the course of action to be followed by them, they are more likely to fulfill their responsibilities. ..., the system of management by objectives can be described as a process whereby the superior and subordinate jointly identify common goals, define each individual's major areas of responsibility in terms of the results expected of him or her, and use these measures as guides for operating the unit and assessing the contribution of each of its members.
It was pretty apparent from the start that this was never going to work as envisioned--not in the real world of law enforcement or counterintelligence. For starters, the FBI--like every other government agency--is necessarily run in a top down management style. Input from employees as envisioned by MBO is not and cannot be part of a government agency's management style. The natural result, of course, was that the FBI, while adopting the forms of MBO, never committed to the substance. That was understandable in a government context, but there is a price to pay. Detractors of MBO had long noted what could result when the actual method was not deeply internalized:
... setting production targets will encourage workers to meet those targets through whatever means necessary, which usually results in poor quality.
... self-centered employees might be prone to distort results, falsely representing achievement of targets that were set in a short-term, narrow fashion. In this case, managing by objectives would be counterproductive.
None of this is to say that the FBI, even now, has totally succumbed to these problems. The FBI can never be a purely self enclosed organization. The real world will intrude, many employees remain dedicated to their investigative work--not least because immersion in productive investigative work serves to insulate them from the game playing of government style MBO and enhances their self respect.
However, there will always be those who see MBO in the government mode as the path to career advancement, beyond the level of the field investigator.
In the "old" Bureau, field supervisors (SSAs) typically rose through the ranks, more or less directly. They were ordinarily agents who had spent 10 years or more, mostly specializing in a specific field of work, attaining real expertise through bringing multiple cases to successful conclusions. In the "new" Bureau, after Webster's accession, that approach was increasingly deprecated, with a new emphasis on those seeking to join the ranks of management "going back to headquarters," gaining "headquarters experience," to understand the Bureau as a whole.
This meant two things. First, the candidate for management was basically a volunteer. Second, the candidate had to be willing to relocate--multiple times, because each step upward in management now entailed a geographic transfer. Thus, field agents commonly said that the only qualification for "administrative advancement" was a willingness to relocate--regardless of family hardships. Of course that wasn't entirely fair, and upper management took steps to guard against that type of careerism: the candidate for advancement had to demonstrate worthiness.
I think everyone knows what was bound to come next. First, any time an organization relies on volunteers to fill its management ranks it finds itself over a barrel in one way or another. The requirement of relocation automatically excludes many qualified candidates. As a result, in addition to highly motivated and qualified candidates who are able to rationalize relocating their families every few years, there will inevitably be other candidates who seek advancement from less worthy motives. But the need for candidates to fill positions means that the organization will end up accepting many less than ideal candidates. How much less than ideal can be divined from perusing OIG summary reports of disciplinary investigations.
Another very specific problem arises in the field of national security. In investigative work generally it can often be difficult to discern just how talented a given agent is--as opposed to being favored by fortune in a particular "big" case. In criminal work there are at least some measures that, over time, can prove to be relatively objective. However, in the fields of counterintelligence or counterterrorism, fields in which cases may last for many years or a break may occur through an unsolicited defection, it's far more difficult to measure the true worth of an agent. All these factors lead, in the context of the system for administrative advancement, to strong incentives to jigger with goals and objectives to allow candidates for advancement to claim accomplishments that might not stand up to strict scrutiny. An organization of the size and character of the FBI may be able to handle this for a time, but sooner or later this system will become significantly corrupt.
This brings us to the point in Gagliano's article where he praises Louis Freeh as Director. Among agents Freeh was best known for his pledge to move the Bureau's top heavy managerial complement (at that time 20% of the agent population) back to investigations:
Louis J. Freeh, had been wildly popular for defying the norms of a bureaucracy. He emptied out the management cubicles and unapologetically reassigned a large swath of headquarters denizens back to FBI field offices. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Freeh
My recollection of that is a bit different. Freeh and Mueller, of course, are almost paradigmatic for post-Hoover directors--they each had some successes, but also had spectacularly wrongheaded failures. Freeh was an FBI agent from 1975 to 1981 in the New York City field office and at FBIHQ, but he believed his genius wasn't being recognized as quickly as it should have been. He moved on to a prosecutive career in the SDNY, achieved some notable successes, then became a federal judge. However, he jumped at the chance to become director of the agency that had wronged him.
When Freeh's scheme for reassigning the HQ people who had failed to bow down to him years ago was made known, I recall discussing the matter with my then supervisor. My supervisor's take was as follows: "All he's doing is getting rid of the old time HQ people so he can bring in his own people. And I'm gonna be one of them." Since my supervisor quickly rocketed up the management ladder and retired as an Assistant Director, I'm inclined to believe that he understood what Freeh was about. And what the FBI was about.
Freeh had a rocky eight years as director, and never did seem to get a handle on the national security aspects of the job. The Robert Hanssen case closed out his tenure, and a year later the Katrina Leung case exploded. Both unmitigated disasters had festered throughout his eight years as director, although both had started earlier.
Which brings us to Robert "Bob" Mueller. Mueller became director just days before 9/11--in fact, I, a lowly field agent, spoke with him on the phone the day before 9/11. Thus Mueller was faced with the task of virtually reinventing the Bureau as an agency whose primary focus was to be protecting the United States from terrorist attacks. Here I follow Gagliano's account:
The immediate order requiring an expansion of the counterterrorism division resulted in the forced-transfer of mid-career agents and managers from the criminal branch ranks to staff the vacancies.
There simply weren’t enough bureau managers at headquarters to handle oversight of the shifting caseload.
In 2004, Mueller arrived at a solution. Recognizing that much of the bureau’s institutional knowledge and experience was located within the supervisory special agent ranks in FBI field divisions. He settled on a shortsighted plan to compel veteran agents off their “desks” — bureau parlance for supervisory oversight of a line squad — and force them down to headquarters, if they desired to remain part of management ranks.
The solution involved a concept borrowed from the military: up or out. Field supervisors would be compelled to move "up" to HQ or step down from their supervisory roles to the level of field agents. It didn't work the way Mueller expected--many field supervisors refused to participate. The result was that ever less experienced agents moved to HQ, while the vacancies in field supervisory positions were filled by even less experienced agents:
Mueller’s team began offering attractive financial incentives, such as housing allowances, per diem. And he also promised additional allowances and step-increases upon return, while reducing the time requirement for headquarters assignment from a standard 2 to 3-year tour, down to just 18 months.
They also inexplicably allowed junior agents — some with just three years in the field — the opportunity to participate. This was a break from FBI tradition and culture which typically stipulated that an agent serve a decade in the field, learning the business and being successful case agents before considering a tour at headquarters and ascension up the career ladder.
Many senior agents on field desks elected to retire, taking with them decades of experience.
In government, immediate needs and instantaneous gratification by way of spreadsheets seldom fully consider the contraindications of policy decisions.
And so, in the early aughts, junior agents packed up in droves, taking advantage of the heretofore unseen financial incentives and shortened headquarters tour requirements, and flocked to D.C.
So the program still exists, even under Comey’s successor Christopher A. Wray. It remains as wildly unpopular amongst the rank and file, except for those inexperienced and junior agents who have opportunistically reaped the benefits of premature advancement.
The FBI’s “up or out” policy is celebrating its fourteenth birthday. The details and effects of it are certainly not part of the current public discussion of some troubling and fairly damning developments within the FBI’s senior executive ranks.
If you're wondering how an Andrew McCabe could have risen from a field agent to Deputy Director of the FBI in just 20 years--effectively running the day to day business of the Bureau--hopefully you'll have a better idea. Bill Priestap rocketed from field agent to Assistant Director in 17 years. Peter Strzok was running Counterespionage within 19 years of entry. I can think of several other agents I worked with who enjoyed equally "successful" careers in counterintelligence--throughout the Hanssen and Leung years. And now this--the FBI, under the leadership of ex-prosecutors who built their careers on unscrupulous and unethical prosecutive tactics, spearheading an attempted coup. What would Director Hoover say?
That's a question I can't answer, but here's what some retired agents (and one former prosecutor are saying):
most of us career brick agents saw the disaster of this policy up close. Any system that rewards ambition over experience, like this one does, will rot an organization from the inside out.
I was just thinking about this yesterday. The 5 year "up or out" policy Mueller instituted is to blame for a lot of the current leadership problems in HQ. It's why I always say HQ is different animal. Great article by @JamesAGagliano
5:29 PM · May 25, 2020
Terrible policy. Advancement based on volunteerism and willingness to relocate. Led to poor performing agents being put in positions of supervising good agents.
Yeah -- that's gonna work.
I wish I could end this with recommendations for the future of the Bureau. Unfortunately any solution will have to be as much--or most likely more--cultural as managerial. In that sense the problems of the Bureau are a microcosm of the our problems as a nation.