There was a point in time when federal law enforcement was the standard-bearer for policing. Agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Justice, and the Secret Service were the gold standard for professionalism and integrity that state and local agencies looked up to. This was the case when I worked closely with federal law enforcement during my tenure as the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986 to 1990. But, things have changed.
More often than not, in recent years, federal law enforcement agencies find themselves in the news not for breaking a massive, complex investigation; but defending the misdeeds of its agents or the mistakes of its leaders. Add to this the massive growth in federal criminal laws, and the inevitable bureaucracies such growth spurs, and you have a recipe for disaster.
This current decline of federal law enforcement can be traced back to at least the Clinton Administration, when the politicization of the Department of Justice reached a level not seen since the Administration of Richard Nixon.
The 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), but ultimately involving federal agencies from the FBI to the Department of Defense, was a colossal and tragic screw up resulting in the deaths of four agents and more than six dozen civilians (including many children). Yet, despite the Attorney General nominally taking the “blame” for the mess, not a single federal employee was disciplined in the aftermath. “Accountability” was just a fig leaf.
The Clinton Justice Department found itself at the center of one political firestorm after another – from the bungled investigation surrounding illegal contributions to the campaign of then-Vice President Al Gore, to the almost-comically mishandled seizure and deportation to Cuba of youngster Elian Gonzalez.
Unfortunately, things were little improved at the Justice Department during the subsequent Administration of George W. Bush. The open political pressure brought to bear on a number of U.S. Attorneys during the Bush Administration cast a pall over this group of non-partisan prosecutors. The perception of the Department as the pinnacle of respect for constitutional rights, was further diminished when Bush’s Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez testified before Congress that the “great writ of habeas corpus” was not a constitutionally-guaranteed right.
Matters would sink even lower under the Executive leadership of Barack Obama.
Symptomatic of a “Bureaucracy Gone Wild,” one of the first scandals of the Obama Administration was the ATF’s “Fast and Furious” operation, in which Department of Justice officials approved the intentional sale of firearms to known gun traffickers, then lost track of those weapons. Rather than admit its fault and hold those responsible accountable, the Department ducked and dodged all attempts by congressional investigators to find out what went wrong; continuing a tradition begun nearly two decades earlier.
Most recently, we are witnessing the impact of inept leadership at the FBI under Director James Comey. Rather than handling the twin investigations of possible “pay-to-play” allegations between the Clinton Foundation and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the improper use of e-mail accounts, as the Justice Department and the FBI historically conducted themselves – by not commenting on or allowing themselves to be drawn into divulging details of ongoing investigations – this FBI Director appears to have gone out of his way to comment and characterize ongoing investigations. In so doing, he has undercut the credibility of his agency that had been its stock-in-trade for decades.
Add to Comey’s bungled leadership the highly improper meeting between former President Bill Clinton and current Attorney General Loretta Lynch smack-dab in the middle of the FBI’s investigations, and there is little wonder why citizen respect for the government is at an all-time low.
The moral and professional failures of law enforcement officials have not been limited to the ATF, the FBI and the Office of the Attorney General. Even the Secret Service, one of the most respected of federal law enforcement agencies, has seen its stock plummet as its ranks fell victim to scandals from hookers in Colombia to drunk driving at home. Making matters worse for the Secret Service, when a high-ranking member of the House of Representatives – Jason Chaffetz – sought to investigate some of the problems plaguing the Service, it resorted to leaking potentially embarrassing information about the Congressman.
While Hollywood continues to churn out popular law enforcement programs extolling the exploits of the men and women who serve in those agencies, our next real-life president will have a much harder job rebuilding the tarnished reputation and less-than-stellar leadership of our country’s federal law enforcement system. But it is a task that truly ought to be high on the new President’s To Do List.