In normal times, the televisions are humming at the FBI’s 56 field offices nationwide, piping in the latest news as agents work their investigations. But these days, some agents say, the TVs are often off to avoid the crush of bad stories about the FBI itself. The bureau, which is used to making headlines for nabbing crooks, has been grabbing the spotlight for unwanted reasons: fired leaders, texts between lovers and, most of all, attacks by President Trump. “I don’t care what channel it’s on,” says Tom O’Connor, a veteran investigator in Washington who leads the FBI Agents Association. “All you hear is negative stuff about the FBI … It gets depressing.”
Many view Trump’s attacks as self-serving: he has called the renowned agency an “embarrassment to our country” and its investigations of his business and political dealings a “witch hunt.” But as much as the bureau’s roughly 14,000 special agents might like to tune out the news, internal and external reports have found lapses throughout the agency, and longtime observers, looking past the partisan haze, see a troubling picture: something really is wrong at the FBI.
The Justice Department’s Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, will soon release a much-anticipated assessment of Democratic and Republican charges that officials at the FBI interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign. That year-long probe, sources familiar with it tell TIME, is expected to come down particularly hard on former FBI director James Comey, who is currently on a high-profile book tour. It will likely find that Comey breached Justice Department protocols in a July 5, 2016, press conference when he criticized Hillary Clinton for using a private email server as Secretary of State even as he cleared her of any crimes, the sources say. The report is expected to also hit Comey for the way he reopened the Clinton email probe less than two weeks before the election, the sources say.
The report closely follows an earlier one in April by Horowitz, which showed that the ousted deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, had lied to the bureau’s internal investigations branch to cover up a leak he orchestrated about Clinton’s family foundation less than two weeks before the election. (The case has since been referred to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., for potential prosecution.) Another IG report in March found that FBI retaliation against internal whistle-blowers was continuing despite years of bureau pledges to fix the problem. Last fall, Horowitz found that the FBI wasn’t adequately investigating “high-risk” employees who failed polygraph tests.
There have been other painful, more public failures as well: missed opportunities to prevent mass shootings that go beyond the much-publicized overlooked warnings in the Parkland, Fla., school killings; an anguishing delay in the sexual-molestation probe into Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar; and evidence of misconduct by agents in the aftermath of standoffs with armed militias in Nevada and Oregon. FBI agents are facing criminal charges ranging from obstruction to leaking classified material. And then there’s potentially the widest-reaching failure of all: the FBI’s miss of the Russian influence operation against the 2016 election, which went largely undetected for more than two years.
In the course of two dozen interviews for this story, agents and others expressed concern that the tumult is threatening the cooperation of informants, local and state police officials, and allies overseas. Even those who lived through past crises say the current one is more damaging. “We’ve seen ups and downs, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Robert Anderson, a senior official at the FBI who retired in 2015.
The FBI’s crisis of credibility appears to have seeped into the jury room. The number of convictions in FBI-led investigations has declined in each of the last five years, dropping nearly 11% over that period, according to a TIME analysis of data obtained from the Justice Department by researchers at Syracuse University. “We’ve already seen where the bad guys and witnesses look at those FBI credentials, and it might not carry the same weight anymore,” says O’Connor.
Indeed, public support for the FBI has plunged. A PBS NewsHour survey in April showed a 10-point drop–from 71% to 61%–in the prior two months among Americans who thought the FBI was “just trying to do its job” and an 8-point jump–from 23% to 31%–among those who thought it was “biased against the Trump Administration.”
Many of the bureau’s woes developed on Comey’s 3½-year watch. They extend beyond the most visible controversies, like the Clinton email and Russia investigations, to his costly confrontation with Apple over unlocking an iPhone used by one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting in 2015, and beyond. Critics say Comey’s penchant for high-profile moral fights has, ironically, undermined the bureau’s reputation. Trump himself has used that line of argument to challenge the FBI.
Democrats have questioned the integrity of the bureau as well, with Clinton and her aides claiming Comey and the FBI helped tip the election to Trump. But the biggest difference between past crises and the current one, according to virtually everyone interviewed for this article, is the President. Trump has continually attacked the integrity of the institution and its leaders, alleging not just incompetence but bad faith in the commission of justice. Ronald Hosko, who retired in 2014 after 30 years at the bureau, compares the moment to a wildfire, saying Trump “is either the spark that creates the flames, or he’s standing there with a can of gas to stoke the flames.”
The bureau’s current director, Christopher Wray, recently said his first priority is to “try to bring a sense of calm and stability back to the bureau.” But the FBI is facing one of the greatest tests of its 110 years. In the coming months, it must fix a litany of internal problems, fend off outside attacks on its trustworthiness and pursue investigations touching on a sitting President, at the same time a growing number of Americans are asking themselves: Can we trust the FBI?