Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s accusation of partisan interference by top FBI officials in the Hunter Biden probe is the latest crisis of credibility for the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, making its job of collaring crooks that much more difficult.
The Iowa Republican made the accusation in the middle of an embarrassing summer for the storied bureau, which has been struggling to shake off complaints of political bias since the 2016 presidential election.
In May, the criminal trial of former Hillary Clinton campaign attorney Michael Sussmann laid bare multiple mistakes and subterfuge by FBI officials investigating accusations of links between Russians who interfered in the 2016 election and members of President Trump’s campaign.
Former FBI agents said they fear the bureau’s woes will seep into its critical terrorism and organized crime investigations. They worry that informants will be less willing to come forward or that jurors may not give an agent testifying at trial the same expectation of truth they once would have.
“There is no greater backbone for any law enforcement organization than having the trust of the American people,” said Lewis Schiliro, a former head of the agency’s New York office. “It’s through the trust of the people that you get cooperation from witnesses and victims, the credibility to testify on the witness stand, and even the ability to infiltrate terrorist organizations.”
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray will get a chance to explain Thursday when he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. A bureau spokeswoman defended the agency in a statement.
SEE ALSO: Whistleblower reveals FBI wrongly labeled Hunter Biden evidence as disinformation
“The men and women of the FBI work hard every day to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. All employees are held to the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct, and we expect them to focus on process, rigor, and objectivity in performance of their duties,” the statement said.
The FBI said allegations of misconduct “are taken seriously and referred to the Inspection Division or appropriate investigative body.”
“In reality, the FBI is comprised of 37,000 employees who do it the right way on a daily basis to keep our nation safe by fighting violent crime, preventing terrorist attacks and defending America from espionage and cyber threats,” the statement said.
A Rasmussen poll released this year showed plunging public support for the FBI. The survey found that 47% of likely U.S. voters had an unfavorable view of the bureau, including 26% who had a “very unfavorable” impression.
About 46% of respondents said they had a favorable view of the FBI, down from 60% in the same survey in May 2020.
The poll showed that 46% of voters viewed the FBI as President Biden’s “personal Gestapo,” and 50% said the president was influencing the FBI.
That lack of confidence is reflected in jury rooms across the country. The number of convictions in FBI-led investigations has dropped by 4% over the past five years and 14% over the past 10 years, according to data from Syracuse University.
Kevin Brock, a former FBI assistant director of intelligence, said the erosion of public trust is the “inevitable legacy” of former FBI Director James B. Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. He said accusations that they mishandled the Trump-Russia probe and the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server gave rise to public suspicion of the bureau across the political spectrum.
“These allegations [of political taint] are going to persist and will hurt the FBI because they will lose the trust of the American people,” he said. “They’ve already lost a large swath of the American people.”
The accusations against the bureau this summer have revived complaints of top FBI officials’ partisan ties and other embarrassments from the Trump era.
Mr. Grassley revealed last week that FBI whistleblowers told lawmakers that FBI officials inaccurately labeled verified evidence in the Hunter Biden case as disinformation, grinding the probe to a halt.
Current and former “highly credible whistleblowers” within the FBI told Congress that agents conspired to discredit the probe against the president’s son.
The agent in charge of the probe, Timothy Thibault, has come under fire for reported partisan social media posts, including retweeting anti-Trump groups and criticizing Republicans.
Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, accused the FBI on Sunday of extreme political bias. He accused Mr. Wray, who was appointed by Mr. Trump, of slow-walking the Hunter Biden investigation.
“I’m not shocked, but it’s outrageous that the FBI would be tipping the scales of justice the way they’re doing,” he said in a Fox News interview.
“I have no faith in Christopher Wray conducting this investigation, but it’s important that the American public understand the FBI had Hunter Biden’s laptop in December 2019. They certainly saw the evidence of what I think is criminal activity on that laptop,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson suggested that the FBI obstructed Senate Republicans’ 2020 probe into Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings.
The FBI faced two weeks of humiliating testimony in the trial of Mr. Sussmann, who was acquitted in May of lying to the agency about his ties to the Clinton campaign when he offered a false tip about the Trump Organization’s ties to Russia.
The trial revealed that FBI leaders concealed from field agents that information provided by the Clinton campaign triggered the investigation. An agent testified that a “typo” led other agents to believe that the anti-Trump accusations were based on a referral from the Justice Department, not from a Clinton campaign attorney.
The agent also testified under oath that he is under an internal FBI investigation for withholding key evidence in the Trump-Russia probe.
As the bureau tries to navigate away from political scandal, a series of self-inflicted wounds have raised questions of competency.
A group of 90 women, including several U.S. Olympic team gymnasts, has filed a $1 billion lawsuit against the FBI for its botched investigation into former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, allowing him to continue to sexually abuse them.
The Justice Department released a report that found USA Gymnastics contacted the FBI twice about Nassar, but the FBI did not take any action. Nassar abused about 70 women and girls from the time the FBI was first told of the accusations in July 2015 to December 2016, when he was arrested.
The FBI has also come under fire for failing to follow up on a tip about mass shooter Nikolas Cruz in 2018. Roughly six weeks after the tip, Cruz fatally shot 17 students and injured more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Last year, prosecutors charged FBI agent Eduardo Valdivia with attempted second-degree murder in a shooting aboard a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority train after a five-month investigation by Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy. Mr. Valdivia has pleaded not guilty, and the case is pending.
A recent Justice Department inspector general’s report found that two FBI officials “engaged in unprofessional conduct by exhibiting favoritism in granting promotions.”
“It’s not helping,” Mr. Brock said of the spate of black eyes for the bureau. “Parkland was a horrible FBI breakdown in processes, and the gymnast case was a real failure on the part of the FBI. Those things might have had less of an impact a few years ago as isolated mistakes, but in this environment, everything the FBI does is now being amplified by both sides of the political spectrum for leverage.”
The former agent said it would take major overhauls for the bureau to win back the public’s confidence.
Mr. Brock called on FBI brass to be more transparent in politically tinged cases to prevent second-guessing and finger-pointing by lawmakers and the public.
He said the bureau should acknowledge when agents are working on major cases like the Hunter Biden probe and make a public pledge to rigorously document that bureau procedures are followed. He said increasing transparency is a difficult balance because the bureau needs to keep mum about witnesses and evidence. Still, he said, it will pay off in the long run.
“No one is saying increasing transparency is easy, but the risk is that there will be a substantial loss in confidence and the FBI will become ineffective,” he said.
Mr. Schiliro said Congress should stop making the FBI director a politically appointed position and instead have the person appointed by a bipartisan panel for a 10-year term.
“As long as we have politically appointed FBI directors, their loyalty becomes more political than to the FBI as an institution. It needs to be independent,” he said.