As a former FBI special agent, I watched with horror on Monday as White House press secretary Sarah Sanders doubled down on claims made by President Donald Trump the previous week, when he indicated he wants the Justice Department to investigate the identity of the anonymous author of a recent and explosive New York Times op-ed.
The White House insists that identifying the writer is a matter of national security. Officials say the op-ed writer might be in a position to learn and then leak sensitive intelligence secrets.
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These claims are complete nonsense. And they are dangerous.
First and foremost, the Department of Justice has very specific guidelines that dictate when a criminal investigation may be launched. According to the FBI Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, for a full investigation, the FBI must have an "articulable factual basis" that reasonably indicates a crime has occurred, a crime is about to occur, or an investigation may yield foreign intelligence that helps protect the nation.
In the case of the anonymous administration official whose blistering op-ed sounded an alarm about a chaotic and dysfunctional White House, there is no crime that has been committed. There is no threat to national security. Sure, the matter is embarrassing for Trump, and I personally believe this writer should have publicly attached their name to such criticisms. But the FBI does not launch investigations at the pleasure of the President in order to ferret out people who say mean things.
The most solemn duty any President has is determining whether to send men and women in uniform into harm's way. I would argue a close second to that is responsibly overseeing executive branch agents who carry badges and guns and who literally have the power to deny someone of their liberty.
From the moment a new recruit steps foot onto the grounds of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, they are taught and drilled in the incredible responsibilities that come with exercising their law enforcement duties.
The FBI reinforces the seriousness of this undertaking throughout an agent's career, reminding them at each turn that federal officers face grave consequences should they zealously overstep their mandate. These agents know that speech and action protected by the First Amendment are off-limits to investigation, regardless of how any politician might feel about such activities.
Similarly, not only do FBI agents understand the limitations placed on them personally, but they also know it is their duty to report any suspected violations by their colleagues. This may come as news to some, but FBI employees must annually review and sign a document attesting they have witnessed no unreported intelligence abuses, which is then reported to the President's own Intelligence Oversight Board. Put simply, upholding the rule of law is not just a job description but a requirement taken very seriously and reiterated often.
Which is why the President's remarkable insistence that the Justice Department investigate the anonymous op-ed writer is so alarming. His request runs counter to everything these people stand for -- in direct conflict with the oath they have taken to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
Unfortunately, the latest attempt to dragoon the Justice Department is not a one-off when it comes to this administration exploiting the levers of government power. From the "lock her up" chants about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to revoking security clearances of former officials critical of the President, the Trump administration is going to new extremes to abuse its immense power.
We have come a long way since the revelation of government abuses made famous during the 1970s Church Committee hearings, which unearthed widespread wiretapping and surveillance by government agents, frequently conducted without factual basis and authorized by the simple stroke of a pen by the FBI director, attorney general, or national security adviser.
We do not want to go back to that place and time, where zealous politicians could enlist the use of government agents for their own political aims. Such backtracking would destroy institutional norms since established to ensure independence in enforcing the law.
In the coming days we will see if current Justice Department officials decide to placate a persistent President, or whether they hold firm in adhering to the important precept that dictates their work be done impartially, without fear or favor.
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