Published by The Lawfare Institute
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Rank-and-file confidence in the FBI’s senior leadership has taken a sharp hit.
That’s the bottom line from the bureau’s latest “climate survey,” the results of which we obtained on Friday through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. Across an array of metrics, both at headquarters and in the FBI’s 56 field offices, employees still express high esprit de corps about the FBI itself and their work for the bureau. But when asked about confidence in the vision of the FBI director, the value of direct communications from him, the honesty and integrity of senior bureau leaders, or respondents’ respect for those leaders, there is a striking drop in confidence from previous years. Some questions from prior years that might have been particularly evocative were not even asked in this most recent survey.
There are a number of reasons FBI employees might be feeling alienated from the leadership. This year’s data, collected in February and March, captures reactions to a number of major developments over the past year, including the firing of James Comey as FBI director, the removal of Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, countless attacks by President Trump on federal law enforcement, the controversy over text exchanges between counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, and the proliferation of a conservative media narrative that portrays the FBI as ground zero in a “Deep State” conspiracy. Because the data was collected early this year, it does not capture reaction to the inspector general’s investigation of the Clinton email probe and the severe criticisms of agents and of Comey within the IG report, nor does it capture reaction to the separate report on McCabe. But the data is likely to reflect reactions to those investigations while they were underway.
Significantly, it also captures reactions to Director Christopher Wray’s comparatively low profile in public defense of the bureau while the agency has been under attack. During the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees’ joint hearing last week, Strzok was confronted with repeated insinuations that the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia was driven by his personal political views. Strzok made a passionate defense of the FBI’s investigative safeguards and hit back at his questioners for their “deeply destructive” conduct. The severe lapses in judgment that led to Strzok’s current predicament make him a highly imperfect figure to defend the FBI in public right now. Yet in a year in which President Trump and his allies in Congress and the media have repeatedly accused the FBI of bias and corruption, Strzok’s response stands out as one of the most spirited instances in which an FBI official—albeit a suspended one—has spoken forcefully in the institution’s defense.
Wray has spoken up episodically, defending the bureau publicly in congressional testimony at various times and at a press conference after the inspector general’s report was released. But he has often chosen to remain silent. To some extent, this is understandable; it reflects the fact that Wray is in an impossible position. If he speaks out aggressively, he will antagonize the president and could get himself fired, losing the ability to defend the organization more quietly and ensure its independence at a time of genuine crisis. (Wray may have more leverage on this score than he thinks he does or than his predecessors had because of the political costs that Trump would likely incur in firing his hand-chosen FBI director after having previously dismissed another one.) Wray also appears not to admire his predecessor’s high profile. At a recent meeting, Wray told participants that the FBI “needs more plough horses, not show horses,” a comment that at least one person present took as a slight directed at Comey. But Wray’s reticence, justified or not, risks leaving the FBI’s rank and file feeling undefended and feeling frustrated that nobody is speaking for the them.
We submitted our FOIA request for the results of the FBI’s most recent climate survey—data that the FBI has released in the past—to see how badly this combination of factors has eroded FBI staff confidence in its leadership. Much to our surprise, the FBI failed to provide the material in a timely manner. So we reached out to our friends at Protect Democracy, and they gamely represented us in suing over the data. These efforts bore fruit this past week, and we received the survey results on Friday morning.
As Comey recently described on the Lawfare Podcast, the climate survey is a “very important tool” for measuring FBI morale and leadership. Last year, although President Trump claimed that he removed Comey because the FBI was “in turmoil” and needed “somebody . . . competent” as director—not because of the ongoing Russia investigation—prior climate surveys showed that, whatever the real reason for Comey’s firing, the bureau was certainly not in turmoil. As the New York Times reported when it obtained this material, morale at the FBI had in fact improved during Comey’s tenure, and the former director was widely admired among FBI personnel. This year’s climate survey seemed like a good way of assessing the impact of events—particularly since a body of public data from climate surveys dating to 2013 offers useful points of comparison.
Each climate survey asks all FBI employees to respond to more than 100 individual questions addressing different aspects of their relationship with their work and the FBI more broadly. For each question, FBI employees are asked to respond with a numerical ranking between 1 and 5, which reflects the worst to the best response from the perspective of the institution. In the case of statements, respondents are asked to rank the extent to which they agree. The survey inverts the responses for some questions that are framed negatively—such as “I am burned out”—in order to maintain this scale. No matter how the question is worded, 5 is always the best answer for the FBI and 1 is always the worst in the results. The FBI views scores of 3.81 or higher as indicative of “success in those areas,” while scores between 3 and 3.80 reflect “positive feedback . . . with potential for improvement” and scores of 2.99 or lower indicate “potential areas of concern” where “development . . . would be recommended.”
Here is the entirety of the bureau’s production to us:
While many of the survey questions provide insight into FBI employees’ morale and confidence in their leadership, we identified eight questions before seeing this year’s results that we thought would particularly illuminate the bureau’s overall mood. These questions asked the extent to which respondents agreed with the following statements:
- “I am proud to work for the FBI”;
- “I am cynical about the FBI”;
- “I look forward to going to work”;
- “I have a high level of respect for the FBI’s senior executives”;
- “Direct communications from the Director help me feel connected to the FBI”;
- “The FBI’s senior executives maintain high standards of honesty and integrity”;
- “Employee morale is important to the FBI’s senior executives”; and,
- “I am onboard with the Director’s vision and ideas”/ “I am inspired by the Director‘s vision and leadership.”
The first three of these questions are general measures of morale that should capture how the developments of the past year have affected the manner in which employees view their relationship with the FBI as a whole.
The next five, meanwhile, relate specifically to employee perceptions of and relationships with the FBI director and other senior leadership. Aside from minor non-substantive wording changes and the apparent omission of the “direct communications” question from the 2015 climate survey, the first seven questions had all been included in the five previous climate surveys. The eighth question, meanwhile, was added to the 2016 climate survey in a slightly different form: “I’m on board with the Director’s vision and ideas.” It was changed to “I am inspired by the Director’s vision and leadership” in the 2017 climate survey. The 2018 survey retained this latter wording.
The results for each climate survey provide detailed responses for individual FBI field offices and administrative components, as well as two sets of aggregate numbers: one for the field offices as a whole and one for FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. (which is separate from the Washington, D.C., field office). The following charts compare the results from the 2018 climate survey to those of the past five years:
For both the field offices and headquarters, the responses for all seven of the questions that were administered between 2013 and 2016 improved—particularly in the period between 2014 and 2016, after Comey took over as director. This pattern reversed itself somewhat in 2017, when the responses for all but one of the questions—“I look forward to going to work”—declined. The most precipitous decline was for “I have a high level of respect for the FBI’s senior executives,” which declined by 0.27 points at headquarters and 0.28 points among the field offices in 2017. “Employee morale is important to the FBI’s senior executives” also took a hit; it declined by 0.25 and 0.21 points, respectively. (While there was also a sharp decline for “I am inspired by the Director’s vision and leadership,” this decline may be partially attributable to the change in language in the question discussed above.) In our view, this pattern most likely reflects discontent with the FBI’s controversial role in the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath. That said, even with this decline, the 2017 responses for all eight of these questions across field offices and headquarters were above the 3.8 threshold that the FBI considers indicative of “success.” And despite the dip in 2017, they still reflect substantial improvement over 2013.
The 2018 survey results, however, tell a different story. The responses for the three more generic questions—regarding feelings of pride and cynicism toward the FBI and whether the respondent looks forward to work—were relatively static and in some cases even improved slightly. Employees are still proud to work for the FBI. They still look forward to going to work. There is no growth in cynicism about the institution. This general confidence in the institution extends to other questions as well. FBI employees still believe in the mission of the FBI as much as they did in last year’s results. They are still as likely to recommend the FBI as a good place to work as they were last year. This is all good news for the bureau.
The bad news is that confidence in the institution’s leadership has taken a big hit. The four remaining questions specifically related to the FBI director and senior leadership all garnered precipitous declines in confidence—declines much sharper than in prior years. The most significant drop was for the question “I am inspired by the Director’s vision and leadership.” Confidence declined by 0.56 points at headquarters and by 0.62 points in the field offices. All of the remaining responses declined by at least 0.30 points, with the exception of “I have a high level of respect for the FBI’s senior executives,” which declined by only 0.15 points at FBI headquarters.
In other words, for both FBI headquarters and field offices, all four of the metrics regarding how FBI personnel view the director and senior leadership declined significantly from 2017 to 2018. And in all but one of those cases, the decline was greater than any other decline that had occurred in a single year in relation to those questions over the prior five years for which data is available.
This general trend holds true across most individual field offices and components, with some variation. Yet certain offices experienced particularly dramatic changes. The chart below, for example, shows the responses for the FBI’s counterintelligence division, referred to varyingly by the acronym “CI” or “CD” on the climate surveys:
Note the particularly sharp drop, by 0.87 points, among FBI counterintelligence professionals on the question “I am inspired by the Director’s vision and leadership.” This steep drop in confidence in Wray among the counterintelligence division is most likely attributable to the central role the division played in the Russia investigation and the fact that its work—through Strzok, who used to be head of the counterintelligence division—has become a primary focus of attacks by the president and his supporters. This is, after all, where the alleged “WITCH HUNT!!!” started, and it’s not too surprising that the witch hunters are not feeling especially supported by the director—or particularly inspired by his vision.
To be fair, all of the 2018 responses discussed here remain above the 3.0 threshold for what the FBI considers “potential areas of concern.” (Actually, the same is true for all but one of the more than 200 average field office or headquarter responses, raising the question as to whether this standard may perhaps be a bit too lenient.) But the drop does move most of these metrics below the threshold of what the FBI considers success—some of them significantly so. Regardless, such a sudden and marked decline in how employees view the director and other senior executives should be a significant concern for the bureau’s leadership. At a minimum, a strained relationship with his employees could make Wray’s own job more difficult and his subordinates less willing to take risks or innovate for fear that he will not support them. While these tensions do not appear to have substantially affected overall morale as of yet, at some point in the future they could, weakening the FBI as an institution.
One final feature of note in the 2018 climate survey regards questions that the survey omits. From 2013 to 2017, every FBI climate survey asked whether respondents believed that “employee morale is important to the FBI’s senior executives.” This question disappeared from the 2018 survey. Such changes are not unheard of, as each climate survey departs slightly from its predecessor by rewording, adding and removing questions. And the current survey did include a number of questions about how division and unit leaders value morale. Nonetheless, this question seems like a particularly important one to ask in 2018, a year in which the FBI has faced unprecedented external criticism with obvious potential implications for morale—and a year in which the institution has faced grumbling over whether senior leadership is being aggressive enough in responding. The 2018 climate survey also omitted the similarly long-standing catch-all, “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with the FBI?” This, too, could have been a particularly relevant query this year in light of apparently falling confidence in the leadership of an organization that employees still seem to value a great deal.
What do these confidence numbers mean for the long term? That’s unclear. To the extent that they reflect the turmoil associated with leadership transitions, political attacks and investigations of the bureau’s senior managers, they will presumably improve as Wray establishes his footing, the attacks cease (if and when they do), and the investigations fade into the past.
The concern for Wray is whether these numbers may reflect consternation among the workforce over his plough-horse-not-show-horse leadership style—that is, a widespread belief that he is not speaking for the agency aggressively nor defending it actively. For institutions like the FBI, morale and leadership matter. Employees with a shortage of the former will work less hard and collaborate less effectively. They will take fewer risks and innovate less for fear that they will not be supported. While Wray must weigh the risk of removal before taking a more aggressive stance, he must also be cognizant of the negative trends revealed by this year’s climate survey. Failing to do so risks alienating him from the organization he will be in charge of for nine more years.