Let's Find Out the Truth: Some FOIA Requests to the FBI

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, June 27, 2017, 5:16 PM

When President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the White House quickly stepped up to slime Comey. Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that "The President, over the last several months, lost confidence in Director Comey. The DOJ lost confidence in Director Comey. Bipartisan members of Congress made it clear that they had lost confidence in Director Comey. And most importantly, the rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director." The following day, she declared that "I've heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the President’s decision. . . . I certainly heard from a large number of individuals—and that's just myself—and I don't even know that many people in the FBI." Trump himself reportedly called Comey a "nut job" in his conversations with the Russians. And he told NBC's Lester Holt that Comey was "a showboat. He's a grandstander." The FBI, he said, "has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that, everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil—less than a year ago. It hasn't recovered from that."

In a rather sharp contrast, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe disputed the notion that the FBI had lost confidence in its leader before the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day," he said. "I can confidently tell you that the majority, the vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey."

Former FBI analyst Nora Ellingsen, in an excellent post on this site a few weeks ago, amplified on McCabe's comments: "the basic truth is that while Comey was a controversial figure in the larger political system and among Justice Department officials, he was not a controversial figure at the FBI at all. Nearly everyone loved him. In any other piece, I would caveat this statement as obvious hyperbole and oversimplification of the situation, but the degree of consensus on this point as I have talked to people has been incredible. In the most literal sense of the word, it’s almost hard to believe."

After reading Ellingsen's piece, a thought occurred to me: this is a factual dispute with a large body of objective evidence behind it. When you decapitate an organization like the FBI, managers have to tell their staffs, after all. They do this, I imagine, by writing an email to their staffs. In an organization "in turmoil," one run by a "nut job," in whom the rank and file have "lost confidence," one might expect such an email to have a celebratory flavor, to talk about how the long national nightmare is over, say, or how there's a great opportunity to restore sanity to the organziation. On the other hand, when a beloved leader is removed by a President in what is seen as an attack on the institution, one might expect an email with a very different tone. The FBI has lots of managers who will have had to send emails to their staffs.

What's more, like many institutions, the FBI does regular employee surveys that ask employees across the institution about their views of, among other things, its senior leadership. The bureau has been running these surveys for years, so we might expect data from them to reflect on the question of whether confidence in the leadership on the part of the rank and file is increasing or decreasing over time. I suspect these surveys also give employees the chance to comment on things. It would be really interesting to see employee comments, positive and negative, about Director Comey.

So I submitted a series of FOIA requests for this material. They are attached below. I'll be very interested in to see how the FBI "rank and file" actually regarded its leadership and how it reacted to his firing.