FBI’s Hunter Biden episode shows need for clean break
The aces at The New York Times are indignant over the “torrent” of “vitriol unleashed on federal law enforcement officials” following the Mar-a-Lago raid. It’s as if the press corps has memory-holed the last six years of FBI history.
Director Christopher Wray’s Federal Bureau of Investigation isn’t looking all that different from James Comey’s FBI. The bureau again faces questions over politicized agents and questionable investigations. Comey left a foundering ship, and it’s an open question whether the current leadership has the will or wherewithal to right it.
If Americans are feeling a little vitriolic, it may have to do with high-ranking agent Timothy Thibault, who retired from the FBI last week following criticisms of his actions in 2020 regarding Hunter Biden. FBI whistleblowers say Thibault and another senior official, Brian Auten, engaged in “a scheme” in the late summer and fall of 2020 to “undermine derogatory information” about Hunter Biden by “falsely suggesting it was disinformation,” according to a July letter to Wray from Sen. Chuck Grassley.
The whistleblowers further claim Thibault shut down a line of Hunter investigation, going so far as to attempt “to improperly mark the matter in FBI systems so that it could not be opened in the future.” (Thibault’s lawyers have denied he did anything wrong.) In an August letter, Grassley added that whistleblowers said “FBI leadership told employees ‘you will not look at that Hunter Biden laptop,’ and that the FBI is ‘not going to change the outcome of the election again’” — an allusion to the Hillary Clinton investigation in 2016.
People may be miffed that Auten was deeply involved in Russiagate, and referred by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz for review given his decision not to highlight the Christopher Steele dossier’s fictions after discovering them in interviews with Steele and his main source. Or that Thibault for years has been blasting partisan views on social media. In 2020 he retweeted a Lincoln Project statement that “Donald Trump is a psychologically broken, embittered, and deeply unhappy man.”
It’s Peter Strzok and Lisa Page all over again.
One might be upset that the same month Auten opened his “assessment” teeing up the false Hunter Biden “disinformation” theme, the FBI felt it urgent to give Grassley and Sen. Ron Johnson an unsolicited and unnecessary “briefing” to warn them about supposed disinformation. That briefing was later leaked to the media to discredit the senators’ accurate findings in their own Hunter Biden probe. They have been demanding for two years that Wray tell them who ordered the briefing, but they’re getting the runaround.
The false “tool of Russia” accusations are still hitting Johnson, who is up for re-election — meaning the briefing has now affected two elections. This follows news that another FBI “disinformation” warning to Facebook was behind its decision to throttle the Hunter laptop story in 2020.
And plenty of people may still be furious over revelations from John Durham’s investigation that FBI chicanery extended long past Comey’s firing. We now know FBI investigators were aware by January 2017 that the dossier was fiction, that even the primary source had disavowed it. Yet in the spring of 2018, months into Wray’s tenure, the FBI was still telling congressional investigators the dossier had integrity, and FBI leadership stood silent while special counsel Robert Mueller glossed over the entire affair.
In a 2019 letter responding to the Horowitz report, Wray promised reforms, including a renewed emphasis on the FBI as a “field-based law enforcement organization” that rarely runs operations out of headquarters. Yet here we are again, with an unprecedented raid against a former president, under the direction of insular Washington appointees, right before an election, replete with the usual leaks.
Wray likes to note the FBI took 40 “corrective steps” in response to Russiagate, and he did quietly replace the worst actors with a new team. Yet overall the low-key director comes across as more interested in protecting the FBI’s reputation than in cleaning house. The bureau more than ever needs a leader focused on running the tightest of ships, especially given new Biden Justice Department appointees who want to drag law enforcement further into politics.
Republicans are among those furious, though they’d be wise to avoid joining the “defund the FBI” chorus. The problem isn’t with the 35,000 FBI agents and staff who keep the country safe, but with a claque of insiders who have abandoned the ethos of fairness and impartiality. Former FBI special agent Thomas J. Baker has made a compelling case that the bureau’s post-9/11 focus on “intelligence” and subsequent centralization of case management are part of the problem — structural issues a Republican Congress might examine.
Wray could help himself by using the end of the Durham investigation — when it comes — as his excuse to acknowledge failings forcefully, hold people to account, and make a clean break. Something major is going to have to change if the bureau is to restore its reputation.
From The Wall Street Journal