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How 9/11 and the quest for power turned the FBI into a political weapon


From left to right: James Comey, Hillary Clinton, Robert Mueller, Merrick Garland, Christopher Wray Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie; Comey: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Clinton: Spencer Platt/Getty; Mueller: Alex Wong/Getty; Garland, Wray: Kevin Dietsch/Getty; FBI building: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty

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Ryan-Marie Houck woke up early at her home in rural Pennsylvania, preparing for a busy day. It was late September 2022, and she planned to take her seven children to their homeschool co-op. Her husband, Mark, had already gone downstairs to put a breakfast quiche in the oven. Ryan-Marie was on her way to take a shower when she saw flashing police lights reflected on the wall. She looked out a front window and was shocked at what she saw: FBI agents, guns up and wearing tactical gear, advancing on the Houcks’ home. Law enforcement vehicles covered the driveway and front lawn, and the approaching agents took cover behind them as if preparing for a firefight.

Several agents reached the house, and one pounded on the door. That woke the children, who ran down the stairs crying and screaming. Ryan-Marie did her best to hold them back.

Mark left the kitchen and stood on the other side of the door. He yelled at the agents, “I’m going to open the door, but please, I have seven babies in the house!”

When Mark opened the door, agents swarmed in, weapons aimed at Mark and Ryan-Marie. One told Mark he was under arrest while another handcuffed him.

He asked Ryan-Marie to bring him a rosary and a sweatshirt because it was cold, and he was still in his pajamas. She ran to fetch those things, but when she got back, he was already gone.

Mark Houck isn’t a dangerous criminal. Instead, he leads a nonprofit men’s ministry and regularly prays and protests peacefully outside abortion facilities. The FBI had come to arrest him over a minor incident that took place a year earlier. Outside a Planned Parenthood facility in Philadelphia, an abortion-center escort began harassing Houck’s 12-year-old son. After the man ignored Houck’s requests to leave the boy alone, a scuffle ensued. Houck’s lawyer, Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society, insists his client wasn’t to blame: “Our position is the alleged victim was the aggressor.”

Someone at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., wanted to make an example of Mark Houck.

The local district attorney reviewed the case and declined to prosecute. “That’s where the matter should have ended,” Breen says. “Instead, someone at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., wanted to make an example of Mark Houck.”

Enter the FBI. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is America’s premiere law enforcement agency. It boasts sweeping investigative authority in many areas, ranging from domestic terrorism to civil rights. It’s also an intelligence agency and can apply for warrants to wiretap American citizens via the special court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Given these vast powers, the FBI could inflict enormous harm if weaponized for political ends.

Critics say that’s already happened.

Just before Christmas, journalist Matt Taibbi released a trove of documents provided by new Twitter CEO Elon Musk. The emails between former Twitter executives and government officials show the company fielding—and in many cases honoring—requests to censor content and users the government disagreed with. The FBI was at the center of many of those requests, which included alleged COVID-19 misinformation and election-related messages. To compensate for the time Twitter staffers spent reviewing requests, the FBI reportedly paid the company $3.4 million.

In November, Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee released a report based on interviews with more than 20 FBI whistleblowers. They claim to have witnessed “a systematic culture of unaccountability.” Now that Republicans hold a majority in the House of Representatives, they plan to investigate the agency, likely using the November report as a road map.

After the FBI hustled Mark Houck out of his home in his pajamas, 22 Republicans sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland demanding to know why. The Justice Department had decided to charge Houck under the Federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, even though the incident had nothing to do with blocking access to abortion. Given Houck’s lack of a criminal record and the minor nature of the incident, the normal procedure would be to allow his attorney to bring him in. Instead, the FBI treated him like a violent threat. After dragging Houck from his home, agents drove him to the local U.S. Marshal’s office and chained him to a table for about four hours. He was eventually released on a $10,000 bond and his own recognizance.

But Houck’s children are still processing the trauma of what they witnessed. “Ryan-Marie says they are getting counseling,” Breen told me. “The older kids appear to be better able to process it. For the younger ones, there’s a lot of lost sleep. For their 4- and 6-year-olds, it is really hard for them to understand how their daddy was taken away in handcuffs by lots of men with guns.”

Photos from the morning the FBI arrested Mark Houck in front of his children; Mark Houck (left) with his family; Attorney General Merrick Garland

Photos from the morning the FBI arrested Mark Houck in front of his children; Mark Houck (left) with his family; Attorney General Merrick Garland Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie; Garland: Tasos Katopodis/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images; FBI: Mary Margaret Olohan/Twitter; Houck: givesendgo.com

Mueller’s overreach

Seven weeks before FBI agents pounded on Mark Houck’s door, Jim Long’s phone pinged. Long, a retiree living in Mission Viejo, Calif., received a simply worded text message about the agency he once worked for.

“The FBI is corrupt,” the text said.

The message came from a former colleague and friend who had just retired. Confused, Long wondered what had happened. It took him less than 30 seconds on his computer to discover the cause of his friend’s cryptic text: Dozens of federal agents had surrounded another home, at an address with a bit more prestige than the Houcks’: Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s South Florida estate.

“My first response was, ‘This is a terrible day for democracy,’” says Long, who served in the FBI from 1998 to 2018. But he was not surprised. “I saw it coming.”

Long is among a group of retired agents who say the FBI is already both politicized and weaponized. They trace the roots of these problems to the massive reorganization undertaken by former Director Robert Mueller after 9/11. Citing an avalanche of intelligence failures leading up to the attacks, critics demanded reform. Mueller decided the answer was centralized control from Washington, D.C..

For most of its history, FBI operations revolved around 56 field offices. Mueller’s predecessor, Director Louis Freeh, started his career as an FBI field agent and supported the agency’s long-standing office-of-­origin system. In that framework, a single field office is responsible for running a case and that office sends out leads as needed to other field offices, who then report back. The field office system also ensured the FBI’s power was diffused rather than concentrated in one location.

Mueller, by contrast, was a former federal prosecutor who had never served in the FBI. That showed in the way he approached the reorganization, Long says. “Mueller felt like headquarters knew better than anybody, and he did not trust the agents on the streets of any field office.”

Mueller created what are called flying squads, Long says: “When there was a big case, he would fly a squad in from headquarters rather than use the boots on the ground.”

Long emphasizes that his views are his own and do not represent the FBI, but he is not alone in his thinking. Kurt Siuzdak, who retired from the FBI last year, now runs a law firm representing FBI whistleblowers. He says Mueller began hiring non-FBI agents for important functions such as liaising with the public and with congressional offices. The end result of his reorganization was a cultural shift within the agency. “The politics became more important than real world investigative experience,” Siuzdak says. He means party politics—as in doing the bidding of the party in power. “You had guys who had no ability to actually do cases becoming managers, and then that group started self-selecting.”

These trends accelerated under Mueller’s successor, James Comey, who took office in 2013. Three retired agents interviewed for this story all pinpointed a single day when they knew the FBI had lost its way: July 5, 2016.

The problem lies with the FBI structure that centralizes high-profile cases in D.C., in the hands of politicized actors with politicized incentives. Quite simply, the problem—the rot within the FBI—festers in and proceeds from Washington.

That was the day Comey announced Hillary Clinton would not be prosecuted over her private email server. The announcement came as Clinton was in the midst of her presidential campaign. Many people—from ordinary Americans to those in law enforcement—found Comey’s statement stunning. “That is not something the FBI does,” says Doug Wolfe, who served in the agency in the 1980s. “The FBI investigates, and the DOJ attorneys make the decision to prosecute.”

President Donald Trump fired Comey in 2017. But some say the former president missed an opportunity to reform the FBI when he appointed Christopher Wray as Comey’s successor. “Wray had an opportunity to clean up the leadership culture at the FBI, to end the politicization, and to restore trust and integrity in the FBI’s mission,” the November House report states. “By any objective measure, Wray has failed.”

The report, written by the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee, lists 11 instances of alleged politicization of the FBI and the DOJ, including the raid on Mar-a-Lago and Mark Houck’s arrest. It also lists 69 attacks on pro-life facilities that have occurred since the draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson, the case that overturned Roe v. Wade, was leaked. The report notes that none of the attacks has resulted in a single arrest. “The problem lies with the FBI structure that centralizes high-profile cases in D.C., in the hands of politicized actors with politicized incentives,” the report says. “Quite simply, the problem—the rot within the FBI—festers in and proceeds from Washington.”

Siuzdak represents more than a dozen FBI whistleblowers, all of whom agree with the House committee’s assessment: “They’re telling me there’s been an infusion of politics in the FBI but only in upper management.”

Christopher Wray disagrees. During testimony before Congress in November, Wray disputed any suggestion that the FBI is being weaponized for political ends. “The FBI that I see every single day and that I hear about from all of them is an FBI that does the right thing in the right way, with rigor, with professionalism, with objectivity, with skill. I will stack our workforce up against any, anywhere in the world, anytime.”

Wray also insisted public trust in the FBI remains high. As proof, he cited the growing number of applications to work at the agency over the past three years, “at a time when I hear all the time law enforcement all over this country is having the opposite experience,” he said during his testimony.

The J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C.

The J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C. Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie; Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A troubled history

Though Mueller’s reorganization of the FBI has laid it open to claims of weaponization, the agency’s history has never been squeaky clean. The agency’s founding director, J. Edgar Hoover, served from 1924 until his death in 1972 and left a controversial legacy. He compiled dossiers of embarrassing information on prominent Americans like the Kennedys, failed to prosecute the Italian mafia (judging communism a greater threat), protected President Richard Nixon, and wiretapped private citizens, including Martin Luther King Jr. In 1975, Congress formed the Church Committee to investigate federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies after the Watergate probe. Afterward, to curb the power of future FBI directors, Congress passed a law limiting future FBI directors to a 10-year term.

But that didn’t prevent other kinds of corruption, as in the case of Whitey Bulger, the violent gangster who worked as an FBI informant beginning in 1975. In 1995, Bulger commenced 16 years on the run after his FBI handler tipped him off to an imminent racketeering indictment. This though Bulger was implicated in the murders of 19 people.

Then in 1992, an FBI sniper shot and killed the wife of right-wing separatist Randy Weaver, whom U.S. marshals were attempting to arrest in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Vicki Weaver wasn’t wanted for any crimes and was holding a baby at the time she was shot. A year later, the FBI locked itself in a 51-day standoff with members of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, resulting in a fire and the deaths of 75 people, including 25 children. The disaster sparked a public outcry and multiple investigations, and the FBI subsequently steered clear of heavily armed raids.

The generation of agents that grew up under Freeh and saw all these changes under Mueller and Comey—we could not wait to get out.

But recent enforcement actions seem to suggest a return to such tactics, and recent targets seem more political—a politics that suggests FBI’s leadership leans left. Meanwhile, Siuzdak says agents themselves have, like many law enforcement professionals, tended to be more conservative.

Not that individual political views mattered to most agents, who considered themselves “unbiased agents of the federal government,” Siuzdak adds.

But that may not last much longer. “The generation of agents that grew up under Freeh and saw all these changes under Mueller and Comey—we could not wait to get out,” says retired agent Jim Long.

One reason: FBI managers have begun policing agents’ personal politics.

Siuzdak says he knows of two agents who attended Trump’s speech on Jan. 6, 2021—off the clock, on their own time. The agents did not go to the Capitol afterward and were not present when Trump supporters entered the halls of Congress. Still, the FBI withdrew the agents’ security clearances as a result. Siuzdak says the FBI has discovered this to be a convenient and effective way to punish agents.

“Here’s the thing with clearances, you are technically not terminated, but you just lose your clearance for 12 years and you have to report where you’re working. The bureau has to approve everywhere you get a job,” Siuzdak says. Unlike other agencies that outsource, the FBI handles its own security clearances. Technically, there’s an appeals process, but it is within the bureau, Siuzdak says: “So the people who authorized you to be removed are the same people who are going to do your appeal.”

According to Siuzdak, agents who have their security clearances revoked generally choose to resign. The prospect of seeking FBI approval for their employment for the next 12 years, with no guarantee their clearance will be reinstated at the end, is too onerous.

The FBI meted out this treatment to agent Kyle Seraphin, who blew the whistle before Congress when the DOJ dispatched FBI agents to investigate parents who spoke out at school board meetings against left-wing curricula.

By contrast, FBI agents who kneeled during a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C., on June 4, 2020, got perks. A supervisor praised their actions, and the FBI Agents Association, a nonprofit that represents agents’ interests, gave them $100 gift cards. Siuzdak called the gift card rewards unprecedented.

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie; Manny Ceneta/AFP via Getty Images

Politicized investigations

It’s normal for politics to influence the FBI’s work to some extent. Robert Higdon served as U.S. attorney for North Carolina’s Eastern District during the Trump administration. He previously worked as an assistant U.S. attorney and today is in private practice. Higdon says the goals for the Department of Justice and FBI come straight from the top: The president sets priorities with very broad executive orders. The attorney general makes them more specific. Then, “the deputy attorney general would make them more working-day type ­priorities, and I would translate that into action in my district,” Higdon says. “The FBI would know what my priorities were. They were what you would expect: drugs, violent crime, public corruption. The FBI would pitch cases, and we would make a judgment as to whether those cases advanced the goals.”

But while a limited degree of politicization is ­perhaps unavoidable, managers at FBI headquarters have in recent years crossed new lines.

Take, for instance, Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI’s investigation into possible links between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. In a lengthy report, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz describes some of the abuses committed during that operation: Agents failed to follow the most basic ­procedures and misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court in its application for a ­wiretap warrant.

The FBI’s treatment of former Trump national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn is another Crossfire Hurricane abuse, according to Heritage Foundation legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky: Two FBI agents interviewed Flynn. They then went back to their office and filled out a Form 302, summarizing what Flynn told them. “This is standard FBI protocol,” von Spakovsky says. “These agents later said they didn’t think that Flynn lied to them, but [FBI agent] Peter Strzok, who was their supervisor, came in and edited their summaries. He had not been in the meeting with Flynn, and yet he’s editing their summaries. It was those edited versions that were then used to prosecute Flynn for supposedly lying to these FBI agents.”

More recently, the FBI’s Washington headquarters has been running the investigations into the events of Jan. 6, 2021. Nearly 1,000 people have been prosecuted for various crimes connected with that day. The House whistleblower report says the D.C. headquarters asked field offices to open cases related to Jan. 6 but in reality are running every aspect of the investigation. This runs contrary to standard practice. According to the report, one whistleblower said, “The manipulative case file practice creates false and misleading crime statistics. Instead of hundreds of investigations stemming from a single black swan incident at the Capitol, FBI and DOJ officials point to significant increases in domestic ­violent extremism and terrorism around the United States.”

Put plainly, whistleblowers say the FBI is cooking the books to exaggerate the threat of domestic terrorism.

Siuzdak agrees in principle that only a small fraction of Jan. 6 protesters meant harm, but the Capitol melee still broke his heart. Siuzdak was working at the FBI office in New Haven, Conn., that day. “I was in tears,” he says. He believes FBI agents in D.C. should have gone out to defend the Capitol. Still, Siuzdak ­considers current DOJ prosecution of Jan. 6 offenders overkill. “There were definitely people in that group actively seeking to do something bad. They had helmets and they had bottles of mace and they were in formation. Those people are dangerous.”

While such people should face criminal charges, he says, the majority were mere trespassers.

Von Spakovsky believes strong congressional oversight and legal protections for whistleblowers are needed to put the FBI back on track—and to keep the agency in check. He also believes authority should be returned to the field offices. “I think you would get less partisan activity there, particularly because those agents are tied in with a local community.”

That policy might have prevented what happened to Mark Houck. Today, the pro-life activist is back home, hoping his lawyers can get the charges against him dismissed. If that fails, Houck will face trial.

And he’s not alone. Just a few weeks after the Houck raid, 11 more pro-life activists were arrested under the FACE Act, including two whose homes were swarmed like Houck’s. So for now at least, the FBI shows no signs of curbing splashy enforcement actions against soft targets that seem made for ­television—and for the party in power.


Emma Freire

Emma Freire is a senior writer for World magazine. She is a former Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies. She also previously worked at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Dutch multinational bank. She resides near Baltimore, MD, with her husband and three children.

@freire_emma

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