The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has historically undergone reforms that enabled it to become independent from political authority and conform more to the rule of law. Despite that, it has recently been criticized for political bias. Criticisms include, for example, its failure to investigate the emails of former Secretary of State and Democratic Party candidate for the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, then reopening the investigation just 11 days before the presidential race and acquitting her two days before the election. The FBI has been criticized for politicizing investigations, violating citizens’ rights to expression, weak security measures and excessive use of force. This has been accompanied by several calls for reform, in various degrees and forms.
The FBI has faced a number of criticisms, the most prominent of which are:
1. Monitoring Twitter users’ conversations: In his weekly column on the website of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, the former Republican presidential candidate and retired congressman for the state of Texas, Ron Paul, contended that the FBI sent censorship requests to Twitter’s former Head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth about 150 times between 2020 and 2022, in violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
Without a doubt, the platform has avoided accusations of it violating Americans’ right to freedom of expression as a private company. However, in the opposite direction, internal communications have been revealed between the social media giant’s employees and government officials at the FBI, US intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security. This as a whole confirms that Twitter controls the contents of Americans’ conversations, and that the citizens have become potential enemies for the FBI.
2. Cooperating with giant tech companies: Dozens of FBI agents and other veterans—especially military intelligence agents—have been involved with leading social media platforms to coordinate and block some of the narratives circulating about the bureau. This was revealed in a lawsuit filed by the Attorney General of Missouri and his counterpart in Louisiana in 2022. On a related note, a recent poll showed that 70 percent of Americans believe that Congress should take action to end collusion between the FBI and big tech companies. The former, in turn, has emphasized that it regularly works with various private sector entities to track necessary information about various subversive, undeclared, hidden, or criminal activities.
3. FBI website hack: The weakness of the FBI’s cybersecurity measures became apparent after Killnet hackers hacked its website in December 2022. This hack resulted in the theft of 10,210 employees, including the passwords to their accounts on online shopping sites and medical cards, as well as their Google and Apple accounts. This was revealed in one of the videos posted by the perpetrators of the hack, explaining the operation. They also revealed that the stolen passwords are used by employees to enter Department of Defense networks.
4. Duplicity in applying laws to politicians: While the FBI was eager to continue investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, without reaching clear evidence of collusion, it showed the opposite when Hunter Biden’s laptop was handed over, despite it being an important target for criminal investigators given the great number of photos and emails saved on it. However, reports indicate that FBI officials have stopped, or at least slowed the pace of, the investigations. Accordingly, the FBI has been criticized for its role in stopping the publication of important data and information about the son of US President Joe Biden before the 2020 presidential election.
On the other hand, allegations arose that the FBI’s violations are due to White House interference in its work. This manifested in its poor performance in investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails after ignoring warnings that the Steele dossier—which was largely funded by the Clinton campaign—and the issue of Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia were most likely used by Russian intelligence to spread misinformation. This is largely due to former FBI Director James Comey’s mismanagement of many of the bureau’s cases. In a related context, some Republicans pointed out last November that the problem lies in the structure of the FBI, which casts the cases it investigates into the hands of politicized actors, in what they described as "the rot within the FBI" that "festers in and proceeds from Washington."
Trends of Reform
The previous criticisms are accompanied by various calls to reform the FBI. These reforms revolve around the following trends:
1. Holding sessions in the House of Representatives to discuss reforming the bureau: With the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, both the new Republican Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Jim Jordan and his counterpart on the Committee on Oversight and Reform, James Comer, have promised to hold several hearings on the FBI. Some Republicans are also going to create a new Select Subcommittee related to various federal government agencies. Comer has said the FBI "needs to be dismantled," while some Republicans want to fire current Director Christopher Wray.
2. Fundamentally restructuring FBI functions: Some Republicans, especially some of those who partially defend the FBI—such as the former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy—prefer to reconsider its functions. Given the conflict in FBI functions due to its dual nature, specifically intended for law enforcement and homeland security, it is necessary to rethink the tasks of the FBI and separate its two functions by turning it into a pure intelligence agency on one hand, and choosing an experienced and competent director on the other.
3. Changing the internal culture governing the bureau’s work: Some voices contend that the FBI stems from a "corrupt culture at the top," and that its ruling culture has gradually shifted from that of an investigator to that of a lawyer for the US administration. This means it suffers from internal challenges that require treatment and a cultural shift, what some have described as "the bad apples." On a related note, Thomas J. Baker, the author of the book The Fall of the FBI, argues that it is necessary to go back to a culture of "swearing to tell the truth," which has declined due to the prevailing intelligence approach.
4. Appointing competent FBI directors: Since the death of J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI, it has been rare to appoint competent directors, who include, exclusively, Clarence Kelly and Louis Freeh. Thus, reform—alongside appointing highly qualified leaders—requires limiting the FBI’s authority in some cases. Already, 20 armed FBI agents used excessive force to arrest activist Mark Houck, accused of assault against an abortion escort, who did not pose a threat to them. This means some structural changes are necessary.
In conclusion, the Watergate scandal previously caused dramatic changes not only at the level of the US presidency, but to a number of federal agencies—foremost among them the FBI. The citizens demanded clear answers about the extent of the involvement of the FBI and other federal agencies in domestic American politics. Congress not only investigated it at the time, but also a number of other intelligence agencies. The current criticisms directed at the FBI are no less serious than the repercussions of the Watergate scandal. They have put the bureau in the crosshairs of political criticisms accusing it of bias, politicization, and violating citizens’ rights to freedom of expression after the fight against misinformation became one of its specialties. The FBI has even described its critics as conspiracy theorists who are spreading misinformation about it to discredit it.