Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law

Why We’re Suing the FBI (Again)

Scott R. Anderson, Benjamin Wittes
Monday, May 20, 2019, 5:22 PM

It’s springtime here in Washington, D.C. And that leads the mind to just one place: the FBI’s annual internal climate survey.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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It’s springtime here in Washington, D.C. And that leads the mind to just one place: the FBI’s annual internal climate survey.

Administered in February and March of each year, the climate survey presents FBI personnel with a battery of questions about their views on the bureau and its leadership. Prior FBI directors have praised the survey as a powerful tool for measuring the views and morale of the bureau’s agents and other employees. And for the past few years, we’ve used it to try and get a grasp on how the Trump administration’s often antagonistic relationship with the FBI might be affecting it as an institution.

Two years ago, Lawfare and a handful of other media organizations looked to the climate survey to see whether it supported then-Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s claim that President Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey because “the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in [him].” When the FBI finally provided the climate survey results from Comey’s tenure, they confirmed that Sanders’s statement was a fabrication—something Sanders later admitted to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators. Last year, we requested (and ultimately sued for) the results of the 2018 climate survey to see how morale within the FBI had changed over the first year of the Trump administration. When we finally got them, they showed that while respect for the institution as a whole remained high, several indicators reflecting FBI employees’ views of bureau leadership had declined precipitously since 2016. We argued that this was most likely a product of the president’s public assault on the bureau’s integrity and removal of several of its senior leadership figures, as well as FBI Director Christopher Wray’s (often understandable) reticence about speaking up more forcefully in the FBI’s defense.

The past year has not been any kinder to America’s premier law enforcement agency. Wray has seemed intent on keeping himself and the broader FBI out of the controversies that surround it. Yet President Trump has continued to publicly accuse the FBI of being “corrupt” and full of “dirty cops” who not only spied on his presidential campaign but also initiated a failed “coup” against his presidency. Nor have these unsubstantiated claims been limited to the president’s Twitter account; they have been echoed by officials as senior as Attorney General William Barr and become an increasingly commonplace part of the rhetoric put forward by the president’s supporters, both in and out of government. And as calls to “investigate the investigators” increase, it seems that the FBI is in for more hard times to come.

One can imagine how this might impact the rank-and-file personnel on whom the FBI relies. But thanks to the climate survey, we don’t have to. Last month we submitted another Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the results of the 2019 climate survey, which we intend to analyze to determine whether last year’s trends have continued. When 30 days passed without a response this past Friday, we filed suit to ensure the FBI lives up to its FOIA obligations, represented by our good friends at Protect Democracy.

Last year’s lawsuit bore fruit quickly, and we’re optimistic that the FBI and Justice Department will work with us to get us the information to which we’re entitled. Once they do, we’ll be sure to share the results here on Lawfare. In the interim, below is the complaint that we filed on Friday:

Scott R. Anderson is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a Senior Fellow in the National Security Law Program at Columbia Law School. He previously served as an Attorney-Adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State and as the legal advisor for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.
Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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