Last week, we witnessed twin victories for the Constitution: the downfall of members of what is now referred to as the “deep state” who have sought to subvert the institutions of democracy, as reflected in the testimony of Peter Strzok; and the supremacy, the ascension, of a white knight dedicated to the faithful interpretation of the Constitution, the rule of law, and the principles of a democratic republic.
First, there was the congressional testimony of top FBI executive Strzok. Less than a year ago, reporting directly to FBI Director James Comey, Strzok occupied a secure, comfortable position, directing or managing two historically significant investigations, both involving candidates for the highest office in this country, and perhaps the world. Strzok wielded apparently unfettered power, working with fellow senior special agent executives Andrew McCabe and Lisa Page, and believed himself sufficiently free from oversight that he could send and receive tens of thousands of text messages expressing clear (now admitted) political bias, utilizing official FBI devices, while on official FBI duty.
Now they are all gone. Comey. McCabe. Page. And now Strzok, the last member of the cabal still standing, has been grilled before Congress.
The testimony was surprisingly short on content. Strzok used the confidentiality excuse—taking his cue from Comey—in order to avoid answering questions that he did not want to answer. The questions eliciting this cloak of confidentiality response were not substantive in nature—they would not have required violating confidentiality to respond to them appropriately.
Answering questions on when interviews were first conducted, and how many interviewees there were, would not have disclosed the content of the interviews, which would have legitimately fallen within the scope of “confidential” investigative materials. But despite many acrimonious exchanges, Strzok was allowed to skate, just as Comey had, and circumvent the tough questions.
Conversely, questions from the Democratic legislators demonstrated that either they don’t have a clue as to the investigative procedures of the FBI or that they share Strzok’s contempt for the democratic process. There is an irony in having progressive legislators such as Gerald Nadler invoking parliamentary rules of order and vigorously coming to the aid of an official from the federal police agency whose authority he and his colleagues have historically held in unconcealed distrust.
The hubris displayed by Strzok and Page—such as her willingness to face contempt charges rather than comply with congressional subpoenas, which gives some idea of the explosive nature of the testimony she would have been compelled to present—leads one to wonder how these individuals rose from the rank and file of FBI special agents to become top executives, the denizens of the hallowed Seventh Floor “C” suite at “JEH” (the Hoover Building, FBI Headquarters).
First, one must understand the FBI management hierarchy and how it differs from that of other organizations. The inherent problem at the bureau’s management level is not a mystery. The management structure of any organization is a pyramid. The new hire starts at Level I, rock bottom, and struggles, competes, perhaps cuts some corners and shaves some truths in order to climb all the way up to … Level 2.
Then onward and upward, with the available positions fewer and fewer at the higher levels. Up there are the best bureaucratic in-fighters–not necessarily the smartest, but definitely the most competent at this particular endeavor, the most cunning, the most ambitious and motivated, the true believers and the true achievers. But not everyone wants to live that life at the top, or scramble to reach it.
In the FBI and, I believe, in many other law enforcement agencies, the great majority of the men and women who become special agents seek the excitement and rewards of working cases. They want the immediate gratification that comes from saving a kidnapping victim, thwarting a terrorist attack, fast-roping from a hovering helicopter, or—as in my case—gaining the trust of a crooked politician, a cocaine cartel boss, a Mafia capo, a treasonous government official, or a Wall Street swindler.
The main reward of good casework isn’t a lot more money or plaques on the wall—and certainly not promotion. It is, aside from the respect of one’s peers, the opportunity to work on better cases, those with ever more significance that offer more of a challenge. Together with this increased responsibility come more independence and less oversight.
The last thing most agents want is to sit at a desk, removed from the action. But the higher one climbs up the FBI pyramid, the more removed one is from the real world.
Nevertheless, having managers is necessary. Who are they? Often, they’re those who are now certain they’re not really that comfortable being on the “street.”
No less significant than the historically monolithic Upper Management FBI Culture is the leadership that was in place through much of Strzok’s rise to high office: first, FBI Director Robert Mueller, then FBI Director James Comey. It speaks volumes to the nature of their leadership that they promoted and relied on martinets and sycophants such as Strzok, Page, Andrew McCabe, and “others yet unknown” (BuSpeak for unidentified subjects).
Contemporaneous with the fall from grace of the FBI usurpers comes the resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy and President Donald Trump’s selection of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill the pending vacancy. Literally moments after the nomination, on PBS’s “Newshour,” Elizabeth Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, was characterizing the upcoming confirmation process as a “fight“ and a “battle.” The commentary hardly appeared spontaneous, but ready for publication regardless of whom the president had nominated.
The candidate that has emerged is so well-qualified that the media is at a loss for how to disqualify or smear him. The best that Huffington Post can come up with is that he has a “frat boy name.” CNN’s best shot: critiquing Kavanaugh for being “just another white man,” another in the long list of white men who have served on the Supreme Court.
How will this judicial appointment affect most Americans? Not as much as the high-decibel critics would lead us to believe. It is important to understand that the term “conservative,” when applied in the judicial context, is not synonymous with the same term applied in the political context. A conservative jurist adheres to the principles of the legal doctrine of stare decisis. And Kavanaugh has expressed strong convictions regarding the critical importance of the doctrine—and his written legal opinions attest to the veracity of his claims.
The doctrine requires the use of established precedent—prior judicial decisions—to inform decision-making in new cases. The same reasoning and analytical tools and standards are applied to similar cases, in order to reach the logical, predictable result. This predictability is essential to a stable society and sound business environment. And for those raising the red herring of Roe v. Wade as being in jeopardy, it is this doctrine that will protect Roe v. Wade’s principles and give comfort to those who rely on its findings.
The future may bode well for the FBI and the Supreme Court. With the cleansing of the bureau’s top management comes the opportunity to steer the agency’s mission back to its historic role as the objective and neutral enforcer of federal law and defender of civil rights. Likewise, with the appointment of Kavanaugh as Supreme Court justice comes the opportunity–the likelihood–of having a court dedicated to the unswerving protection of the Bill of Rights and the democratic principles it enshrines.
Marc Ruskin, a 27-year veteran of the FBI, is a regular contributor and the author of “The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI.” He served on the legislative staff of U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y.