Andrew McCabe, the former deputy and acting director of the FBI, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor in George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government, gives a masterclass on the indictment of Donald Trump under the Espionage Act, and goes deep with Mason President Gregory Washington into some of his career's most controversial and important moments.
That includes his assessment of the investigation by Special Counsel John Durham into whether the FBI should have examined whether Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign coordinated with Russia. McCabe called Durham’s report “flawed and politically motivated from the beginning.”
More Access to Excellence Episodes
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- June 2, 2023
Trailblazers and research innovators and technology, and those who simply have a good story all make up the fabric that is George Mason University - where taking on the grand challenges that face our students graduates and higher education is our mission and our passion. Hosted by Mason President Gregory Washington: this is the Access to Excellence podcast.
Gregory Washington (00:26):
You know, one of the greatest things about being at George Mason University is the opportunity to hear and learn from those who not only were a part of history, but can actually help us contextualize events that are now truly and honestly shaping our lives. My guest today checks that box and then some. Andrew McCabe, the former deputy and acting director of the FBI, and a distinguished visiting professor in Mason, Schar School of Policy and Government, brings a lifetime of service within the Justice Department to the courses he teaches in National Security. McCabe was part of the investigation into the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and he oversaw the planning and arrest of Achmed Abu Katala for his involvement in the 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya. His book, the Threat, how the F FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror, and Trump was called by the New York Times, a substantive account of how the FBI worked during a moment when its procedures and impartiality. Were under attack now an intelligence analyst for CNN. He is also a triathlete who was known for riding his bicycle, 35 miles <laugh>, to work in Washington, D.C.. And the reality of that statement is, it's not the distance, it's actually riding on a bike for 35 miles in Washington D.C.. Some people out there know what I'm talking about. Andrew McCabe, welcome to the show. Yes,
Andrew McCabe (02:06):
Sir. Thank you so much for having me. It's a, it's a pleasure and an honor to speak to you and to talk to the Mason community, so thanks for having me.
Gregory Washington (02:14):
Well, so first and foremost, I assume from the look of you, you're still doing triathlons, is that right?
Andrew McCabe (02:20):
I stay pretty active. I haven't done a triathlon yet this year, but I actually just did a half marathon last Sunday, so a few days ago when the whole family, we went out there and did one. So I, I try to stay pretty active.
Gregory Washington (02:31):
Ah, outstanding. Is it just health? What's the challenge there?
Andrew McCabe (02:35):
Well, it's definitely health, but I think it's both physical and mental health. It's always been something that I had to have in my life, even when I was at my absolute busiest working counter-terrorism in the, in the FBI as a almost a 24 hour a day job. And I would get up at four in the morning to get the workout in or to get the ride on the stationary bike in before I went into the office, because of course, once you're there, there it's very hard to break away to do anything. But it was important to me to do that. It was also a way of keeping control over some very small part of my day and my schedule. So that was important to me as well. So I've tried to keep it up over the years. Ah,
Gregory Washington (03:12):
Very good. Very good. So for those of you who may or may not know, professor McCabe has been working at Mason for three years now, and he teaches a graduate level class on the legal framework of national security. What is it you're trying to get students to understand?
Andrew McCabe (03:29):
One of the things that I treasure the most about George Mason is their commitment to having people like me teaching students. So I am not an academic. There are so many distinguished academics here on campus. I'm not one of them. I'm more of a practitioner. And so my goal with this class is to really put my students in the room. I had the privilege of participating in some pretty significant national security conversations in the White House, in the situation room as a member of the Interagency National Security team, as it were from representatives, from all different agencies involved in things like counter-terrorism and counterintelligence issues. And so from that experience, I try to show my students how it actually works, what's the difference between the agencies, how each agency is pursuing its own agenda in that conversation, how things like personal relationships between agency heads or between the president and his national security advisor have such a huge impact on the direction and ultimate decisions and the national security area. And then we look at individual issues like, we'll spend a week studying detention and interrogation policy or targeted killing or domestic terrorism, and talk about the policy process around those issues. What's bogging them down, how different administrations have handled those persistent questions in different ways over the years. That's the insight that I hope to give them. And really, it's all about the conversations we have in class around those issues. It's, it's a great time. I love it.
Gregory Washington (04:56):
Well, I don't know if you can see me over here smiling, but what you just said, the discussion, the points that you just highlighted are the best possible advertisement for why a student should attend George Mason University. This is the exact thing that we hope to bring with bringing individuals like you here to have you engage. So much of what students learn today is textbook. So much of what students learn today is theory. So little of what students learn today is application from people who actually know, for people who say, no, you can't use that theory because if you use that theory in real life, here is what will happen. That's right. Here is what can happen. And there's no better education than that. We call it experiential learning, and it is a fantastic thing. So with your experience, I think you could bring your students clearly, as you said into the room, that is a tremendous value. How do the students react to this? What do they say?
Andrew McCabe (05:56):
You know, it, it typically takes a class or two before people really warm up to the environment and understand that nothing is outta bounds with me. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I am happy to share anything I can from my own experience, and I want to hear that conflict of ideas, that conflict of approaches, because that's what happens in that room around that table in the West Wing where you literally hash your way towards a result or a decision or a policy. Those are the sorts of perspectives that you get from George Mason. Students. They are not consistently leaning in one direction politically or ethically or operationally. They are very diverse. I have students from all sorts of different backgrounds. I have maybe half the class are students who graduated from undergrad within the last two or three years. And the other half of the class are people who are in the middle of successful careers and seeking to increase their opportunities going forward.
Andrew McCabe (06:51):
People who are at the end of military careers and are looking to change their direction professionally. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> in that mixture. It really creates just a vital and interesting course of conversation. We have a class on active measures, and we use the example of what the Russians did in 2016 in their efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. You know, I was obviously very involved in the FBI's response to that issue. And they can sit there and ask me, why did you, why did you decide to do this? Or why didn't you do something else? Exactly.
Gregory Washington (07:26):
Andrew McCabe (07:27):
I'll, I'll tell them exactly the way we thought about it then the ways I think differently about some of those things now. So it's really a process of learning for the both of us. I find it enormously helpful to me. It kind of put, uh, some of these things in a different context sometimes. So it's a lot of fun.
Gregory Washington (07:42):
Oh, oh man. And if I can go back and be a student again, this is the kind of class I'd want send. No, especially today, with the stuff we're dealing with today, how could you not want to get an understanding of the real why? Right. That's right. We get the sound bites, we hear the sound bites on both sides, but I think people in their heart or hearts know that there's something more. There's a reason why certain events happen the way they happen, and being able to talk to people in who were in the room and have that discussion in a contemporary context. Right. To me, I don't know of a better education that a student can get. I just don't.
Andrew McCabe (08:23):
And Mason students are those kind of students. They're dialed in, they read, they consume the news, they come to the table with a great background and a great curiosity, which is the most important thing. So when we talk about domestic terrorism and why does the government pursue domestic violent extremism in one way, but in not another way? And we talk about the differences that the First Amendment makes on how you investigate and prosecute people for domestic terrorism activities. And then the Biden administration releases their new framework for how to approach domestic terrorism. And we talk about it in the next class. And so we are literally debating and analyzing these policy proposals that are coming out in real time.
Gregory Washington (09:07):
Ah, I love it. I love it. So what do you find is the biggest misconception among your students about what really happens and the misconceptions they have in terms of what they think might have happened before they enter the class?
Andrew McCabe (09:22):
I think one of the most fundamental misperceptions about the policy making process is this kind of people who, who bring to that question the idea that government actually knows and has a way to solve every problem. One of the things I try to explain to my students is that these issues, no matter from what perspective you see them, these are hard, impactful problems. Right. And there are no easy answers. Every choice that you make invariably eliminates other possibilities. And there's no rule book there. Well, there, there are rule books. There's the constitution, there's some, there's some very important rules, but there's no manual that tells anyone how to decide to do these things. There's no place you can look for me in my FBI training at Quantico, or in my experience over 20 years when confronted with the issue of the Russians efforts to undermine our presidential election.
Andrew McCabe (10:21):
How do you handle that? That's not in the manual anywhere. Those sorts of questions, the easy ones, they get filtered out long before you gather in that room to make these decisions. And so you have to bring to that conversation, your own ethics, your knowledge, your understanding of history, of law, of legal authorities, and, and of course what the administration's trying to accomplish. And they put all those things together and there are still tough decisions to be made. You rarely ever get them all right. But if you go through that process in a deliberate and diligent way, factoring all those things together in the best way that you can, you can at least come to a result that you can stand up and acknowledge publicly, even if it didn't accomplish the things that you wanted. So I think that process is incredibly important.
Gregory Washington (11:11):
Oh, that's amazing. Sounds to be honest with you, a lot like being a university president <laugh> these days. <laugh>. I'm
Andrew McCabe (11:17):
Sure it is. I'm sure it is.
Gregory Washington (11:19):
So look, let's just jump right in. The big news recently is that former president Donald Trump, was formally charged by the Justice Department in a discovery that hundreds of classified documents were taken to his Mar-a-Lago home after he left the White House. There was a 37 count indictment, if I'm not mistaken, any person who was involved in the national security apparatus as a person who was involved in this framework, what are the consequences in the way that the former president handled these documents? And how was this different? What we saw with Mike Pence in some of the documents that he had that were discovered, uh, with Joe Biden and with the documents that he had, and with Hillary Clinton with the emails Sure. Uh, that she had, the pundits will say, ah, there's a double standard here. Because at least on the part of the two Democratic individuals who did have classified materials illegally, they were not charged. That's right. They were not paraded in front of the country. So again, in your heart or heart, you're looking at this and you say, there must be something more to the story. Can you enlighten us just a little bit?
Andrew McCabe (12:29):
Sure. There is a lot more to the story, and I think you've hit on it very well. There is, in a sort of headline perspective, when you compare these different events, these different incidents of this handling of classified material, there's a bit of a rush to make comparisons, but it's really impossible to do that until you start to drill down and understand the details of what makes these cases more or less significant and what makes them very different from each other. So let's start by talking about the actual documents that are involved in the Trump case. So over 300 documents stored at his residence club, the Mar-a-Lago Club down in, uh, Florida. We know that just from what's publicly available from the search warrant that was conducted last August, we know that those documents included top secret documents, well documents at every classification level, right?
Andrew McCabe (13:23):
Confidential secret and top secret. Top secret is the most serious classification. It means that anything classified top secret, uh, the government considers that its disclosure could cause grave harm to the US national security. But even beyond top secret, there are levels of handling restrictions on even more sensitive matters, right? SCI secure compartmentalized information, no foreign or con, all these different handling restrictions. You have some documents that were found at Mar-a-Lago that are what you call compartmented documents. So they're part of special programs that very small lists of people even have access to. These are truly some of our nation's most closely guarded secrets. And in many cases, their disclosure could lead to the loss of a collection method, right? So that's either a technical collection method, meaning we have the ability to technically capture intelligence through cyber systems or communication systems, things like that. Or they're the result of human intelligence.
Andrew McCabe (14:31):
So it's information that's given to us by individuals who we've recruited in foreign countries to provide information to us. If that information is disclosed, those people could be killed. And we can lose, not only lose a human being, which is bad enough in and of itself, but we lose the access to that intelligence. If we compromise a technical means, same thing. Our lights go out, we're in the dark, we know less about our adversary. So this is very, very sensitive information. Now, the former president has been charged with 31 counts, violations of the Espionage Act, it seems on its surface. Again, there's been a lot of hyperbolic claims about this. He has not been accused of being a spy, he's not been accused of taking this information and giving it to foreign governments. The Espionage Act is very big, and it covers all sorts of different activity.
Andrew McCabe (15:20):
Some of what it covers is the unauthorized retention of national defense information, which is the allegation that is now sitting against the former president. So very serious documents. He had them as a private citizen, not as president of the United States. He held onto those documents for over a year while the National Archives, the entity that actually essentially owns and controls all presidential papers, as soon as you are no longer president under the Presidential Records Act, the National Archives takes custody of all your papers, all your work. They are the property of the US people. So for about a year, he resisted giving these things back. He ultimately made the decision to return some of the documents, many classified and retained many more. He was served with a subpoena officially requiring him to turn over all classified material he did not do. So the government has alleged that he actively, personally conspired with another person, Walt nata, to trick his attorney into not providing the documents back to the government under the subpoena that he had received and held onto those things ultimately until his mar-a-Lago was searched last August.
Andrew McCabe (16:32):
So that's in a very kind of roundabout way, the summary of the case against Donald Trump. So let's compare him with the Mike Pence case, because that's the one that's been most recently resolved. Mike Pence undertook a voluntary inspection of his own papers. When he saw all these things happening with President Biden and former President Trump, he found a few classified documents. Not too many, I think maybe a dozen or so, I don't have the numbers exactly. His attorneys immediately contacted the Justice Department and the National Archives. He made arrangements to return those, and then he allowed the government to come in and search his residence to make sure there wasn't anything else there. Those are two very different sets of circumstances, far fewer materials. No indication that Mike Pence ever intended to deprive the government of those materials. It appeared to be more of a, a mistake or an error on he and his staff's part, and he immediately turned them over.
Andrew McCabe (17:25):
There's no resistance, no obstruction to the government's efforts to get those back without any evidence that Mike Pence had tried to deprive the government of those materials intentionally. There is essentially no criminal case there. That's why the investigation of Mike Pence ended in a declination rather than an indictment. So now let's talk about Hillary Clinton just for a second. Hillary Clinton, while Secretary of State used a personal email server rather than the one provided by the State Department, that was a poor decision, but nonetheless, that's what she did. The FBI investigated her use of that server at the request of the State Department Inspector General. We all know, uh, the basic facts. Hillary Clinton and her attorneys voluntarily went through all of her emails, which they estimated to be about 60,000. They determined which ones were work related, and therefore, state Department property turned those over about 30,000 and the remainder of the other 30,000, they claimed they were personal, and so they were retained and ultimately destroyed.
Andrew McCabe (18:29):
When the FBI came in to investigate, we of course looked through all of the 30,000 emails that were returned. We also conducted an incredibly extensive investigation to recover as many of the other emails as we possibly could, and we found thousands of those as well. From the entirety of all those emails, what we found were about 60 email conversations that included classified material somewhere around 38, if I have my numbers correct, were secret. I think there were eight to 12 or so that were top secret, about 35 to 40 that were at the secret level, and then a few that were at the confidential level. What we didn't find with Hillary Clinton's use of her private email server was any indication that she intentionally, intentionally discussed classified material in any of those tens of thousands of emails. There was no clear evidence of intent. She also cooperated with the investigation, provided us access to the emails that they had, and also to the devices that she used, the ones she still had to process that material.
Andrew McCabe (19:34):
I think it's also worth pointing out that none of the emails that we recovered from Hillary Clinton, these were not classified documents. Right. They weren't drafted with headers and footers and classified markings and portion markings on every paragraph. Those are the sorts of things that you expect to see in a classified document. This was just email conversations with her communicants that included material that we determined was probably classified. That information was probably part of a classified. I see, I see the difference document when she sent the email. So it's a very, very different set of circumstances.
Gregory Washington (20:10):
So this wasn't the retention of documents that are marked top secret
Andrew McCabe (20:15):
Gregory Washington (20:15):
That's correct. On the top and the bottom right? That's correct. There were no attachments that had this top secret stuff all over him. Is that that what you're saying?
Andrew McCabe (20:23):
That's exactly right. There was, I think, one email that had what we thought were portion markings on the paragraph. So in other words, maybe it had been cut out of a document and pasted into an email. But again, it wasn't stamped with any sort of clear classification on it. These were people who were bringing information to the attention of Hillary Clinton in the course of her duties and airing in what they were putting in this unclassified email server and in their email communications. There's no question. There was all kinds of things that they should have done differently here, but what we couldn't say at the end of the investigation was that there was any clear evidence of an intent to traffic in classified information to exchange classified information or to take classified information and put it someplace it shouldn't be. And so that's why we didn't request that the department pursue an indictment.
Andrew McCabe (21:14):
The department reviewed our findings and agreed with that. I know that many, many people disagree with that conclusion. In a free and fair democracy, people should know what we did, how we did our work. They should have the ability to criticize our decisions, our judgment to ask for explanations of these things. But what's not fair or accurate, what does not contribute to the public's understanding is to make these head headline comparisons of you didn't prosecute Hillary Clinton, so you shouldn't prosecute Donald Trump. That's not the way our system of justice works. If I rob a bank on the way home and I'm seen on video and I get arrested, I can't go into court and raise as a defense. Well, there was another bank Rob that week and you didn't arrest that guy, so you should let me go as well. It doesn't work that way. Every case is evaluated on its own facts and under the law that applies to that case. And these two cases, Hillary Clinton email investigation and the Donald Trump Mar-a-Lago documents investigation are very, very different. Okay.
Gregory Washington (22:18):
Now what about the Joe Biden, uh,
Andrew McCabe (22:20):
Case? Yeah, so that's a great question. So we don't know a lot about what they're finding in that investigation. The attorney general appointed, uh, special counsel to investigate the current president. I think that was the right call. He appointed a guy named Rob Herr, who was a DOJ official in the Trump administration. For all we know, he's been conducting his investigation very quietly because there hasn't been much public discussion about what he's found yet. I don't think we've seen any publicly available court findings. So we'll see if Rob Hur, who I know from my past experience, if Rob Hur finds reason to believe that the president or his staff violated the law and can show evidence to prove that there are intentional violations of the law, I expect that he'll recommend an indictment. But whether or not he finds that evidence of intent, that's always the hardest thing in these document cases. People make mistakes and take things home, and then they find them, and most people try to give them back. That happens all the time. Those cases never get prosecuted because there's no evidence of intent. If they find evidence of intent here, though, I expect a charge would be forthcoming, but we just don't know yet.
Gregory Washington (23:28):
So let's talk about this a little bit and uh, little bit more detail, but from a slightly different perspective. You're hearing these attacks on government. They've been a steady drumbeat. They actually go back even before you with Comey and many of the others. Yeah. So many of these people who are running in the 2024 election against President Trump have come to his defense. They have attacked a special counsel. I've heard words like weaponization of the Justice Department. My feeling is that that is causing a certain level of distrust in a certain level of anger in many cases, against those entities that are put in place to protect and support us. What is your response to that?
Andrew McCabe (24:14):
I think you're exactly right. There is no question that a public trust in the institutions like the Department of Justice and the FBI institutions, we depend upon to protect and defend our democracy, to help us maintain this democratic experiment are under relentless attack. And the result of those persistent attacks, I think, is eroding public trust in a very concerning and corrosive way. And you're right, this is not brand new. It's not novel to hear complaints, particularly from the political community. Anytime the bureau and the department are poking into matters that impact politics, it's usually the entity, whether it's Republican or Democrat, that's on the pointy end of that investigation. That's right. That you hear the complaints from. And that's a probably a normal human reaction. And there's a certain amount of that that we've always had that I think is understandable and and sustainable. What's changed is the direct assault from the head of the executive branch that the department and the FBI experienced during the Trump administration that raised this level of attacks to something I don't believe we've ever seen before. It also strangely put the Republican party on this side of the antagonist of law enforcement and of justice and of the justice system, which is
Gregory Washington (25:39):
Never before in the history.
Andrew McCabe (25:41):
Gregory Washington (25:42):
That's right. Never before in the history has that, at least in modern history, post-civil rights era That's right. History. Has that actually been the case? That's right. The Republican Party has always been the party in support of law enforcement,
Andrew McCabe (25:54):
Taken a lot of pride in thinking of themselves as the, as the party of law and order. So this is a very strange time for people in law enforcement. And I think that this is something that Donald Trump kind of normalized, for lack of a better word. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, these routine attacks on cases, on investigations, on individuals like myself and James Comey and others have now become kind of an accepted part of the process. And with that, you now see the President's supporters on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House, are really raising that to the next level. And that's why you've, we have something like this, I don't know, awkwardly named, I guess, committee in the house, empaneled to investigate the weaponization of, of the Department of Justice, like a committee in panel to investigate what they've concluded and named their committee about, I guess if,
Gregory Washington (26:44):
Which is interesting, right?
Andrew McCabe (26:45):
Yeah. It's, uh, a bit of, uh, pre-judgment there. But nevertheless, I can tell you from my own experience in government, 21 years in the FBI, obviously working closely with colleagues in the Department of Justice, you may not like what do DOJ or the FBI is doing at any given moment. And neither entity is perfect. They both make mistakes. I made mistakes while I was there, my colleagues did as well. That'll always happen. It's an organization of human beings. But what the FBI and the department don't do is open and close and investigations to help or hurt different political parties. And I know that I may be the last person standing by myself in the forest shouting that <laugh>, everyone else has abandoned that idea. But I will never give it up because across 21 years, that's just not something I ever experienced. Not in my own work and not in the people I supervised.
Andrew McCabe (27:36):
And I think that the indictment that we saw this week about the Mar-a-Lago documents case as a perfect example of that, many, many people do not like the fact that Donald Trump has been indicted. And I understand that he's their preferred candidate, their preferred leader, and those breathless, but ultimately baseless comparisons of why not Hillary? Why not Mike Pence? Why not Joe Biden don't help that status of polarization. But read the indictment. Donald Trump was not indicted for politics. Donald Trump was indicted because he had hundreds of highly classified documents in his presence. He was asked for them numerous times by different government agencies. He refused to give them back. He personally decided to review those documents and made the decision to keep them. He showed them to other people and acknowledged the fact that they were classified and that he had never declassified them. And then he deceived his own attorney to ensure that DA documents would not be returned in response to the subpoena that he had been served with.
Andrew McCabe (28:36):
That's why he was indicted. Now, you may still hope that he becomes the next president. You have every right to that preference and to express it and with your vote. But this is what the government was able to convince a grand jury of Donald Trump's peers in Florida, that there was enough evidence to prove that there was probable cause to believe that he committed these offenses. And so now we must step back and let the criminal justice system work through this issue to come to a resolution that's just an accurate, whether it's conviction or acquittal.
Gregory Washington (29:08):
It's not just about Donald Trump in the FBI in the documents. Right. I'm thinking of the time when Donald Trump and the Republican congressman who endorsed defunding the FBI and, and as it relates to this recent special counsel report that suggested that the FBI failed to uphold its mission. And that's in quotes in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 Trump campaign. And you were acting director of FBI at the time. It's interesting. I was listening to CNBC this morning. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> on the way in to work, and Mike Pence brought this issue up. Can you give some feedback as to that, what happened there? What is the whole story?
Andrew McCabe (29:52):
All right. So let's talk about that special counsel report. That's the report written by then special counsel, John Durham. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Okay. John Durham. Despite his solid reputation historically, John Durham was brought in by William Barr, then Attorney General Barr, for the purpose of settling political scores for Donald Trump. Full stop. This was never a legitimate investigation. And how do we know that? Because John Durham and William Barr announced their conclusions of what they would find in the investigation at its inception, both made public comments that they thought that we had engaged in wrongdoing and that we would be, those of us involved in these issues would be prosecuted criminally. And John Durham then spent years and millions of dollars literally traveling around the world trying to prove these theories that he brought to this investigation. And none of them, he was not able to prove any of them. And the reason he wasn't, it wasn't because he didn't work hard enough or didn't spend enough money or take enough time.
Andrew McCabe (30:52):
He didn't prove those theories because they never happened. And every other investigation of our work, and there have been many, the Department of Justice, inspector General, the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is then chaired by a Republican, the work of the Mueller Special Counsel probe, every one of those investigations bore out the fact that we were correct in opening the case to investigate whether or not anyone from the Trump campaign in 2016 had coordinated with the government of Russia. And that I was correct in later adding Donald Trump as a personal subject. In that case, as we know from the Mueller report, we had information and were concerned that there might have been a national security threat, and that Donald Trump as president may have committed a federal crime, that being obstruction of justice. And you can read the Mueller report to see exactly what they found about that.
Andrew McCabe (31:46):
But all those very different investigations concluded the same thing, that we had ample reason to open those cases. The only outlier is John Durham who will say in the headline that he felt we failed to meet our mission. And when you get into the details of that report, his position is that we should have opened a preliminary investigation instead of a full field in investigation. This is an esoteric and insignificant difference that really only employees of the FBI understand. So I guess he thinks we should have opened a preliminary investigation, run that for a month, and then elevated it to a full investigation. That's great. He disagrees with our position. He has, has his right to that opinion. The end of the day, all that effort, all that time, all that money he mounted, two prosecutions, both failed. The only conviction he has to show for his efforts is that of Kevin Kleinsmith, who committed a grave error as an FBI lawyer and whose malfeasance wasn't uncovered, not by John Durham, but by the Department of Justice Inspector General. So yeah, I think as you can probably tell from my answer, I don't have any respect for that report or its author. It was flawed and politically motivated from the very beginning, and that's exactly where it ended up.
Gregory Washington (33:02):
Well, there's nothing else then for me to say about that. <laugh>,
Andrew McCabe (33:07):
I told you I'm happy to answer any question.
Gregory Washington (33:09):
No, this is, this is great. Look, let me shift gears just a little bit, because clearly you've dedicated your life to government service.
Andrew McCabe (33:19):
Gregory Washington (33:20):
Talk a little bit about your trajectory, you know, all the way up through the time that you retired. Sure. And I guess they're near the end where we got into the politics of things. As someone who had dedicated their life to service, to then have the level of conflict between the president and the FBI, can you talk about on the tail end of that service, how did that make you feel about your actual choice to serve in that manner? Yeah, yep. And where does it leave you now? Do you have any regrets?
Andrew McCabe (33:57):
You know, I joke about this with my students. I probably, over the course of the semester, I make multiple pitches to encourage them to continue to pursue careers in government. And then I say, admittedly, I may be the worst poster child, the the worst recruiter for a career in government of, of anybody you can think of. But in other ways, I think I'm the best simply because having gone through a really hard time at the end of my career mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I can still sit here and tell you that I absolutely treasure every day of that opportunity, every day of that experience. And I would do it all again tomorrow. But just to kind of summarize it, I went to law school at Washington University in St. Louis, worked for the Department of Justice during the summer before my last year in law school. Developed this interest in the FBI by doing that.
Andrew McCabe (34:43):
Ultimately worked in private practice for a few years, and then went into the bureau in 96, spent the first half of my career doing criminal work in New York City, organized crime work, most actually exclusively Russian organized crime work. And then I came to headquarters in 2006 and started doing national security stuff. I didn't know a single human being in the FBI. When I entered the organization, 37,000 employees, I had the unbelievable luck to serve really at every single level that an agent can serve from coming in as just a GS 10 street agent. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> all the way up to being acting director in those many different positions. I had the great opportunity to see the majesty of not just the most righteous mission, I believe in this country, protecting the American people and upholding the constitution, but also to work with this incredible group of people who were all drawn to that mission and joined the organization for that reason.
Andrew McCabe (35:42):
I wouldn't trade that for the world. You know, when I left in 2018, that summer, I wrote the book that you graciously mentioned at the beginning of the podcast. And really, it was a very tough time. It was very hard on, on me and on my family, the circumstances under which I left getting fired essentially by the president having been hectored and kind of terrorized by him for months in his social media postings. And then ultimately getting fired 24 hours before I, I was supposed to retire. And with that, losing my pension and benefits and my connection to the organization and my ability really even to communicate with the friends and colleagues I put together over 21 years, it was just crushing. But writing the book forced me to look beyond that tough experience and to really appreciate the significance and the joy of the entirety of my career.
Andrew McCabe (36:36):
You know, I kind of buried myself in the work for many months, and I think that kind of got me through that summer anyway. And when I look back, I've spent a lot of time thinking about those decisions, particularly in 2016 and 17, that really built towards that sort of an OMI end. There are a few things that I think I wish we had done differently, but I don't have any regrets. The reason I, I was fired because I did what I believed was my job and my obligation to my organization and to my country. And I don't see that any differently today. And I would do the same thing again. And I think it's really important that people who serve in government, particularly at high levels, where you are responsible for the direction of your agency and and responsible for the people that you lead, you have to be willing to stand on principle and the law and your ethics.
Andrew McCabe (37:29):
And if that costs you your job because of some political nonsense, then that's okay. You have to be willing to walk away to make the right decision, the decision you believe in, and to lose the job as a result of that stance. I wouldn't do it any differently. I think presented with the same information we had then, which was limited, but very concerning. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I felt we had an obligation to open the cases we did. I knew at that time, opening a case on the president would be bring nothing but grief, <laugh>, and peril. I guess I was right about that <laugh>, but know
Gregory Washington (38:02):
Andrew McCabe (38:04):
Absolutely. You know, I I, I wouldn't do it any differently. I understand. I really wouldn't understand. It's a privilege to be able to do those things. And you know, I still say to people they should consider, consider a career in government. It's really unlikely to happen the same way twice. So don't worry what happened to me.
Gregory Washington (38:19):
It won't happen to to you happen to you. No, I get you. I
Andrew McCabe (38:22):
Get you. But it's a great, great, great way to live. It's so incredibly fulfilling and exciting and and impactful and yeah, I wouldn't do any differently.
Gregory Washington (38:31):
Outstanding. To shift gears yet again, so we hear a lot of debate about the balance between public privacy and safety. You have described in one of your jobs as an agent in New York after nine 11 as being part of an effort to do clearance investigations on people who were detained because of their immigration status. So can you give us a thumbnail of your duties in that context, and what is the balancing act for law enforcement, especially in times of crisis between privacy and liberty? And I, and I bring this up because as a university, believe it or not, we are caught in the midst of many of these issues. Yes, we have a large foreign population here, students who come seeking an education, but there could be some who may come for more nefarious purposes. Yes. And so if you can talk a little bit about that.
Andrew McCabe (39:22):
Yeah, sure. So the post nine 11 situation I refer to in the book was I was a criminal agent on a Russian organized crime squad. I was on the SWAT team and had been detailed out to SWAT duty for about a month after, uh, nine 11. And then everybody was working the nine 11 case in one way or another. And the attorney general had essentially in a public announcement, changed the way the federal government interacted with people who were here in the United States illegally. So people who had maybe overstayed their visas or weren't here on valid kind of immigration status as a prior to nine 11, there wasn't a very aggressive enforcement effort to find those people and to deport them. But in the wake of nine 11 with, you know, almost 3000 Americans dead at the hands of a foreign terrorist group, and really the law enforcement intelligence community really kind of on their heels trying to figure out how we had missed this immense tragedy, this disaster.
Andrew McCabe (40:22):
The government went into overdrive in many ways. And one of them was that the Attorney General decided that any persons that we interacted with in the course of investigating nine 11, whether they were related to it or not, if we were out conducting an interview and we came across a person who admitted that they no longer had legal immigration status, that those people would be taken into custody and ultimately processed for deportation. But before they were deported, we would have to, and I quote, clear them for ties to terrorism. So slowly at first, but then with greater speed, people started getting detained in and around New York and in many places around the country. So the FBI, New York Field office where I was working, put together a small group of agents and said, Hey, clear these people for terrorism. And quite frankly, we didn't really a bunch of, you know, Russian OC guys, we didn't really have, uh, much of an idea how to do that.
Andrew McCabe (41:15):
So we came up with a process to run all sorts of records checks to send requests to other agencies for any information that we had about these people. And we tried to do what we had been asked to do. And it took way too long. And there were way too many people had been detained for really not doing much at all other than simply overstaying a visa. And ultimately, they were housed in places like county jails across New Jersey where the federal government had to rent space because they were literally detaining more people than we had the capacity to hold onto. And those people were treated really poorly. You can imagine being arrested and detained in the course of the nine 11 investigation and thrown into general population in a state prison. Right. These people, many of them really suffered. And we struggled to try to do what we've been asked to do.
Andrew McCabe (42:07):
And the process really held people for far too long in adverse circumstances. I ta I gave a talk recently to Masters of Public Policy students at Duke University, and we were talking about different policies and my how, my own experience trying to execute policies that were poorly thought out and in completely communicated to the people responsible for actually doing the work. And I use this as my example as one of those, how we learned things through this policy process, even as an agent on the ground in New York. So it was frustrating for us, but really much worse for the people that we interacted with. And ultimately, the whole thing was kind of shut down and there'd been a lot of litigation about it. I think you're in a tough spot here, sir, running a, a major university because tell me about it. Yeah, it's, you know, there are some legitimate threats that as the leader of a large organization with a deep investment in technology and responsible for creating and environment where academics and students can interact and benefit from open communications and sharing of work and writings and data and things like that, that's what you want at a university, right.
Andrew McCabe (43:15):
But we also know that some of our adversaries try to take advantage of that great American opportunity to take advantage of the unique talent and development and research that comes up from our major institutions. And so at the FBI, we spend a lot of time trying to counsel people like you and people in your position to try to think about things like cybersecurity and data security. And sometimes that results in investigative attention on certain individuals in the academic world. To be clear, we've had kind of an uneven history with that. There have been people who have been investigated and put through that ringer unfairly, but there have been many others who we were fortunate to find and investigate and prosecute. So that's a very tough balance. And as with every one of these questions of privacy versus security, the FBI, law enforcement, intelligence agencies are always gonna be on the side of active aggressive enforcement. That's their job. I think the hard thing is figuring out that balance of security versus privacy. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> is probably not something that we should leave up to the FBI or any law enforcement entity. It's something that we need our elected representatives to weigh in on. And I don't think we've gotten nearly enough leadership from them on that count.
Gregory Washington (44:36):
So as we wrap up here, speaking of safety, in the first five months of 2023, there were 25 mass shootings in the US and that breaks out to about and shootings in which four or more people were actually killed. Okay. And so, according to a database by the Associated Press USA today in Northeastern University, that is a record setting pace. It is. How much of your time at the FBI was consumed with gun violence?
Andrew McCabe (45:03):
An enormous amount. I mean, what you've cited is just one more symptom of a situation that we have in this country as a direct result of the fact that we are a wash in guns. We are the only nation on earth that has 120 guns for every hundred people. There are more guns in this country than there are citizens in that statistic. The second highest nation guns per hundred people on Earth is the Falkland Islands at 60 per hundred. And I mean, do we really compare ourselves with the Falkland Islands? Wow. Third behind the Falkland Islands is Yemen. So it's hard to get people to understand how many more firearms there are in this country. And I know that we have a long history with independence and freedom, and those concepts are for many people intertwined with their constitutional right to bear arms. But it's also important that we recognize some other things.
Andrew McCabe (45:59):
I think the fact that we have so many guns in this country has a negative impact on many other things that we suffer with not just mass shootings, but violent crime in general. Homicides in this country, gun homicides in this country are off the charts higher than other comparable nations. Suicide by firearm in this country is much, much more prevalent than it is in comparable nations. Yes. And mass shootings, obviously no place else on earth experiences, mass shootings the way that we do here, and I would even argue many of the problems that we currently have, some of the things that we are alarmed about in law enforcement are directly traceable to the fact that law enforcement officers today know that when they go out to a domestic call to pull somebody over on the street, the chances are pretty good that the people that they're interacting with are armed. And when you bring that sort of assumption to your work day to day, you are elevating the likelihood that police officers are going to feel like they need to draw their guns more quickly. That's right. And resolve these situations with gunfire rather than deescalation. So I think there are many things happening in this country that are to some degree, impacted and accelerated by our state of firearms ownership.
Gregory Washington (47:23):
No, I get it. You've been hearing about artificial intelligence and the powers of artificial intelligence as a scientist, as a researcher, let me draw a connection from you and get your reaction. Sure. So in a recent Texas Mall shooting in which eight people were killed and seven others were wounded, the shooter was a, out of the military for mental health issues. Yep. B frequented social media platforms that praise Nazism and white supremacy, and C, he was able to buy his guns legally. One of the things that we do as a researcher in artificial intelligence is we let the data highlight patterns. Yes. And from a practical standpoint, I believe that while it might be difficult for law enforcement to draw the DOT connections Yep. To an individual like that, I think it's reasonably easier for computers to do so, especially with the need for artificial intelligence.
Gregory Washington (48:23):
Is this something that's plausible? Is this something that could be used to help law enforcement? Because what happens when there's a mass shooting, we go through and we do the background immediately, get the background of the person, and most times there are red flags that are in abundance. And so if we're not gonna do anything with the guns, and I get why people avoid that issue and don't want to, we got other tools. How about using some of these other tools to help us from the perspective of at least helping people have an understanding of where the actual threats are.
Andrew McCabe (48:55):
There are many more opportunities with artificial intelligence than, certainly than I'm capable of, of imagining. And I, I think you've honed in on what's most relevant about ai, and that is our cyber system's ability to aggregate data and analyze it for those sorts of commonalities trends. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> that would take human beings much longer to do. And so there's got to be some ways to move that technology forward in a productive way. On this issue, as always, the problem is what can you possibly do with those trends, those suggestions, that targeting, can you use that data and those conclusions to deny people access to firearms? Probably not. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> in the way that firearms laws are currently written, probably not even just on the mental health factor. The, uh, excluders the things that can cause you to fail the background check and therefore be prohibited from purchasing a firearm. The mental health prohibit requires an adjudication of mental defective. So you act have to actually have been essentially involuntarily committed by a court before your mental health issues prohibit you from buying a firearm. Okay. It's not simply enough to be depressed, alienated, looking at questionable stuff online. Sometimes those are helpful indicators to investigators. Right. I get, but the question on the policy level, we need to determine what are we gonna do with that data and with those conclusions. And right now, we're not really in a good position to do much different.
Gregory Washington (50:33):
No, I get you. But, and you bring up something else. Right. The assumption that people make is, oh, well, it's a mental health problem, but the way you just described it Yeah. You're way down the line of a diagnosis of mental health
Andrew McCabe (50:47):
Gregory Washington (50:48):
Right. In order to stop you from buying a gun. Right.
Andrew McCabe (50:50):
Right. We say that about mass shooters, like, well, this person clearly was suffering with mental health issues. Sure. But it's almost irrelevant,
Gregory Washington (50:58):
Right. Because those mental health issues wouldn't deny you from getting a firearm in the first place. Absolutely not. What I think I
Andrew McCabe (51:04):
Hear you saying, absolutely not, not unless you'd been in front of a judge and they had sent you to a, sent you to a facility and issued an order along those lines.
Gregory Washington (51:12):
Okay. So last question. Yep. What would you say was the lowest and highest points of your FBI career?
Andrew McCabe (51:18):
<laugh>, you saved the hardest one for last <laugh>. Oh, wow. Um, I had so many high points. There's no way I could pick just one. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> first big arrest as a new agent in New York. My first big case was a organized crime case. And I remember wrapping those guys up after a long investigation and working with informants and making confidential recordings and things. I remember what that felt like to this day. I remember going as deputy director and swearing in my first class of new agents my career. I was very lucky. My career was filled with incredible moments that I'll never forget. Lowest point, I, it's pretty obvious walking out on a cold day in January when, uh, I'd essentially, essentially been kind of thrown out of my, my job before I was fired in March. That was incredibly, incredibly sad. And I was, I was very sad and humiliating and, and just on a kind of a sickening level. So I remember that as well. I wish I could forget that one, but <laugh>, unfortunately, I can't. But you know what, like all things you move on. And I've been very fortunate to have recreated now a new life after the FBI. I get to still talk about and analyze law enforcement and intelligence issues that fascinate me. I get to teach these wonderful students at George Mason,
Gregory Washington (52:39):
And that's what I love there. I
Andrew McCabe (52:40):
Mean, it's all good. It all comes around. If you work hard enough and just keep shooting at what makes you truly happy, then uh, things work out. Uh,
Gregory Washington (52:47):
Outstanding. Outstanding. Well, Andrew McCabe, we are truly thankful for you being a part of the conversation here at George Mason University. I am President Gregory Washington saying, until next time, stay safe, Mason Nation.
If you like what you heard on this podcast, go to podcast.gmu.edu. For more of Gregory Washington's conversations with the thought leaders, experts, and educators who take on the grand challenges facing our students graduates in higher education. That's podcast.gmu.edu.
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