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Dynamics Between Management and the Line Special Agents

A New Discipline for the FBI?

by Gary Aldrich
August 9, 2001 - Volume 1 Issue 38

These days I’m asked all the time about the FBI. Variation on this topic is limited, however. It is only the leadership within the agency that they want to hear about, not the quality of the average agent. The average agents’ education, intelligence, training and experience are just assumed now, and that may be a good thing. Positive perceptions about the ’rank and file’ FBI agents helps get the job done, for the public’s confidence in the FBI coincides with the level of citizen cooperation necessary to the success of any investigation. But it is the agency at-large that determine its’ success and this can be achieved only by a positive dynamic between the line agent and management. Besides, history reveals that FBI management is composed mostly of agents who have moved up the administrative ladder.

The ’rank and file’ agents are just as important as the upper-tiers of management, maybe more. It is the ’rank and file’ agents who interface most with citizens for investigative purposes. Imagine how difficult it might be to get information if every citizen thought they needed to hire an attorney before they would even talk to an agent. Consider how long it might take to conduct an investigation if every citizen was forced to talk by way of a grand jury subpoena. Without question, the federal law enforcement system would collapse if not for the good attitudes and cooperation of the average citizen. The average citizen wants an effective FBI and they want to help - but they will not tolerate incompetence and abuse. So, with that in mind, we must applaud American citizens for their cooperation and confidence they’ve lent the agency.

However, now is the time that the Bureau take a long look at what problems really plague them. History is mankind’s best teacher, so one might conclude that the FBI’s problems center around four distinct elements: Discipline, Responsibility, Accountability, and Assessment.

Discipline within the FBI, especially at the leadership level, has softened. One instance after another has surfaced to illustrate this internal weakness, and the consequences cannot be understated. After Hoover died, there was an effort to "de-Hooverize" the Bureau, which included a new ethic that allowed for such things as coffee breaks, mustaches and colored shirts. Hoover disapproved all three and much, much more, but FBI leadership has gone too far in efforts to appear kinder and gentler.

For example, it now takes inordinate amounts of time to resolve even the smallest agent’s mistakes or corruption. The "big" ones take longer. Hoover’s discipline was swift and sure. Allowing agents under administrative suspicion to hang around for months or years while a sluggish management cannot make up its mind only corrodes the group. Hoover’s philosophy and administrative tactics never slipped into this mode, and the Bureau reflected his discipline.

During my career, I met far too many managers who actually believed that FBI agent discipline was not their responsibility. In my view, the discipline of a single errant FBI agent is the responsibility of any and all FBI managers. FBI managers simply must not be allowed to dodge this vital responsibility. Like errant or incompetent agents, if management misperforms, they must be removed. Demotions are rare within the FBI hierarchy.

If management does not choose to properly discipline, the accountability factor that ’rank and file’ agents must adhere to is nearly side swept. Confidence in upper authority is dramatically lost. That’s only human nature. If management does not care enough to remove a bad apple, why should ’rank and file’ care?

Instead of enjoying a high morale and positive espre de corps, ’rank and file’ agents are left to grouse about those whom they’re forced to work with - those who simply do not measure up. I cannot count the number of times I heard the same complaints about the lazy, the incompetent, the dishonest, and yes, even about the corrupt. And they did stand out and were not hard to spot. If we could see them, how was management so blind?

As difficult as it may be for the former and current agents to admit, the FBI tolerated and continues to tolerate too many corrupt or poor performing agents. I’m talking about small corruptions, like fudged working hours or goosed up expense vouchers. Everyone knows corruption, while small, inevitably leads to larger corruption.

Because the FBI management has tolerated flawed agents and too many "little corruptions" along the way, problems and problem employees begin to accumulate. Think of a sleek racing sloop. If too many barnacles are allowed to grow on the bottom, it doesn’t matter how bright the color of the hull is, or how large the sail area is, the boat won’t win any races! On a regular basis even the finest racing boat must be hauled and the bottom scraped. There needs to be an objective assessment made on a regular basis. If the Bureau’s management does not assess and perform these basic maintenance tasks on the world’s most prestigious law enforcement agency, the FBI will not maintain its high performance standards nor be able to keep its reputation.

And so, new FBI Director Robert Mueller has his work cut out for him. I’ve read about his great accomplishments and broadening experiences he’s had in the past. His military background should serve him well in an agency that prides itself on following the chain of command. But nowhere in his background can I find the magic wand that gives me total confidence that he can make the major changes necessary to turn the FBI around.

I am very hopeful that he can perform this magic act, but for Mr. Mueller to succeed, he’s going to have to virtually haul the agency out of troubled waters and give its bottom a good scraping. Can he do this without the officers conspiring to commit a mutiny?

Other good men have come to Washington and had their hand at trying to give federal agencies a good scrubbing and scraping, and they’ve been met with much bureaucratic molasses, designed to wear them out. Perhaps these previous warriors for excellence in the vast federal system should be sought for their counsel, so that they may offer advice about how to successfully attack complacency and arrogance in mid and high level management. The ’rank and file’ or line FBI agents are ready and waiting to be led - they know how to do their jobs, and they can do them well.

It’s only fair to say that the FBI deserves to be restored to the agency it once was, and the American public demands it.

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