When Attorney General Jeff Sessions accused former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe of “lack of candor,” he was lodging one of the most damning accusations for a bureau man to have lodged against him.
While much of Washington has been focused on the politics of the firing, which came 48 hours before the 21-year FBI veteran was set to officially retire, agents focused on the seriousness of the breach of which Mr. McCabe stands accused.
One of an FBI agent’s most important jobs is testifying to the truthfulness of investigations in open court. Defense attorneys are granted access to any disciplinary action or investigation taken against a witness through discovery. That makes the agent’s credibility a strong target for sharp attorneys and can sink testimony and a case.
“If your candor has been challenged or it has been proven that you lack candor, how can you be any type of formidable witness when you have that hanging over your head?” said Danny Defenbaugh a former agent who has investigated lack of candor cases. “That is why lack of candor for an FBI agent is such an irreplaceable mark against their integrity.”
FBI brass is said to be so concerned about lack of candor accusations against employees that the topic is covered on the first day of training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
In Mr. McCabe’s case, the accusations stem from his role in FBI investigations surrounding the 2016 presidential election, including the probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and handling of classified information. Many Republicans say the investigation was botched and tainted by politics.
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An inspector general reviewing Mr. McCabe’s behavior said he showed a lack of candor, including while under oath and “on multiple occasions,” Mr. Sessions said. The FBI’s office of professional responsibility, which reviewed the inspector general’s report, concurred and recommended Mr. McCabe’s firing.
“The FBI expects every employee to adhere to the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and accountability,” Mr. Sessions said in a statement. “As the OPR proposal stated, ‘all FBI employees know that lacking candor under oath results in dismissal and that our integrity is our brand.’”
Mr. Sessions, in his statement, said Mr. McCabe also leaked information to the press without authorization.
The inspector general’s report has not been publicly released.
Mr. McCabe has denied the lack of candor charges. He said President Trump has wrongly accused him of undermining the special counsel investigation.
“The attack on my credibility is one part of a larger effort not just to slander me personally, but to taint the FBI, law enforcement and intelligence professionals more generally,” Mr. McCabe said in a statement after he was fired.
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“It is part of this administration’s ongoing war on the FBI and the efforts of the Special Counsel investigation, which continue to this day. Their persistence in this campaign only highlights the importance of the Special Counsel’s work,” he said.
Mr. McCabe, appointed deputy director in 2016, sought the permanent FBI director’s post after Mr. Trump fired James B. Comey, but Mr. Trump picked Christopher A. Wray instead. Mr. McCabe then signaled last year that he would retire.
He sped up the retirement in January, announcing he would take extended leave and remain on the payroll until he turned 50 — which he did this weekend — to become eligible for early retirement.
Mr. Sessions was faced with that deadline in his decision to fire Mr. McCabe.
David Stebenne, a professor at Ohio State University who has authored books on the history of the FBI, said releasing the inspector general’s report would give the public a chance to judge the accusations against Mr. McCabe.
“If the internal investigation proves he did something wrong and was terminated for cause, I think the political aspects stay in the background,” Mr. Stebenne said. “But if he is exonerated, I don’t know how that would play out. I imagine all the political aspects would come back to the forefront.”
Former agents said the bureau had to deal sternly with the lack of candor accusations.
Lewis Schiliro, a former head of the agency’s New York office, said lack of candor is one of the most common reasons agents get fired.
“The credibility of an FBI agent is critical to doing the job,” he said. “Once you no longer have credibility, you can longer be an FBI agent.”
He and Mr. Defenbaugh said they have seen lack of candor cases that include lying in a criminal report and falsifying an expense account.
Sometimes agents also face criminal charges. For example, an agent who submits a false expense report could face charges of defrauding the federal government.
No criminal charges have been brought against Mr. McCabe.
Mr. Defenbaugh said he has investigated cases where the initial offense was not severe, but it became much worse because of an official’s lack of candor during an interview. In those cases, he said, the punishment for lack of candor exceeded what the agent would have faced if the truth had been told from the start.
The agents said they are not surprised by Mr. McCabe’s firing. In addition to losing his job, his pension might be eliminated or delayed, another sanction common in lack of candor firings.
“The punishment seems fair to me,” Mr. Defenbaugh said. “McCabe was treated like any other FBI agent or support staff because that’s how severe a lack of candor charge is. An individual who lacks candor cannot do their job at the FBI. It’s as simple and as severe as that.”
Mr. Schiliro agreed. “From the top officials to the rank and file, everyone is subject to discipline for lack of candor,” he said. “There is no leeway here. You lie, and you are going to be disciplined. A high-ranking FBI official is not immune from that.”