Majority members on the House Oversight Committee are about to attempt another effort to cast the FBI as an evil force in our body politic. In a six-hour hearing in February, they hoped to link the FBI to a conspiracy involving both Twitter and then-presidential candidate Biden. The majority claimed, without evidence, that these alleged “co-conspirators” had combined forces to prevent the New York Post from using the Twitter platform to disseminate its controversial article on the Hunter Biden laptop. Even those calling these events an affront to the First Amendment looked rather foolish when their three witnesses failed to confirm an iota of evidence, much less any element of a conspiracy. This despite hours of near-comical interrogation by Republicans of their own witnesses.
Apparently, the majority members on the House Oversight Committee have now decided to correct the course of their investigative hearings into the FBI’s alleged weaponization of the government against the political right. This time, they are recruiting friendlier witnesses who themselves sincerely believe what the majority members of the Oversight Committee are having a hard time establishing as fact: that the FBI, President Biden, and the Democratic National Committee have conspired to harm the political right. The next witnesses are all former FBI agents, and the Republican committee members have gone so far as to label them “whistleblowers.”
It is hard to know whether the House Oversight majority sincerely believes what these new witnesses are saying. There is little doubt, however, about the sincerity of these former agents. Before we examine the elements of what makes a whistleblower, I must first admit that I am experiencing déjà vu involving a poignant event in my own life involving the FBI that parallels what we are seeing right now on a national level.
Eons ago, the FBI cast a dark shadow over me and my family. It started while I was an 11-year-old paperboy collecting for the Indianapolis News in a farm town in northern Indiana. One of my customers enticed me into his trailer with the exciting news that he was “an agent” for the FBI investigating local communists. I saw a letter of appreciation from none-other than J. Edger Hoover that was proudly framed and hung on his wall along with photos of real FBI agents seeming to be handing over an envelope – presumably that same letter. That was all it took to convince me of this man’s credibility and patriotism. Even though the investigation was supposedly highly confidential, in hushed tones he allowed me to examine his investigative scrapbook that contained the evidence that the local United Methodist minister – incidentally, my father – was, indeed, a communist. The number one exhibit was a front-page story in the Noblesville Ledger with my father’s picture and a revelation that he had answered a survey indicating that he opposed Indiana’s right to work laws.
Of course, I did not let on that I even knew my father and soon raced home to confront him at the dining room table, where he, ironically, was reading the Noblesville Ledger. I recall shouting, my tone being blatantly accusatory, when I asked him if it was true that he was a communist. He asked me about the circumstances that led to my demanding question, and I filled him in about the evidence I had seen. My father denied nothing, but merely said, “Son, I do not know who this man is or the real truth about who he says he is, but I am sure he is sincere in his beliefs. But you should know that sincerity is the cheapest of the virtues. Even Hitler was sincere.”
Reared in a Cold War culture that for a few minutes undermined my love for my father, I learned that to establish the truth of any matter, facts and evidence are all important, and sincerity of beliefs is at best a distraction and at worst is extremely delusional and harmful. There is no such thing as “alternative facts” or any person’s “version of the truth.”
The three FBI “whistleblowers” could well be another trainwreck for the upcoming House Committee hearing on the supposed weaponization of the government by the FBI, at least according to some of the Democratic accounts and press reports that are surfacing about them. And while it would be wrong to refute their testimony before it is even presented, there are numerous red flags that undermine the credibility of these witnesses and the entire weaponization of government hypothesis. I will list three of many such reservations:
- The driving force that has compelled the “weaponization” hearings are highly partisan attacks on Biden and Democrats geared toward courting the extreme MAGA base of the Republican party, courting favor with Trump, undermining the credibility of the bipartisan January 6th House Committee, and deploying a ton of disinformation to influence the 2024 elections. The key leaders of this oversight are themselves 2020 election deniers and several participated with Trump in various schemes to promote the bogus notion that Trump actually won that election, even though there is no evidence of any widespread fraud and ample evidence to the contrary that it was one of the cleanest elections in our history.
- At least two (if not all) of these alleged whistleblowers have received cash payments and jobs from associates and organizations closely linked to Donald Trump. Being paid to blow the whistle is not recognized under federal law, and in our experience at the Government Accountability Project having represented or guided over 8,000 whistleblowers, we have never seen this happen. In this case, those payments obviously came from highly partisan political sources.
- Whistleblowers are employees of conscience who disclose information they reasonably believe is evidence of violations of law, abuses of authority, or substantial, specific dangers to public health and safety. It is an objective and clear standard. Disagreements with policy or management decisions alone are not protected whistleblowing speech. So far, the only significant allegation that has surfaced suggesting actual wrongdoing is whether the FBI should have donned weapons and body armor when they arrested a man belonging to a rightwing militia for participating in the invasion of the US Capitol and who had circulated a photo of himself on the grounds of that building in full body armor and carrying an assault rifle. It is impossible to imagine how any reasonable person could conclude that such a lawful management decision would qualify as an abuse of authority. One of the “whistleblowers” has now admitted that the criminal suspect was likely armed, which under the FBI risk assessment matrix justifies the decision to use SWAT teams.
As the leadership of the House Oversight Committee speeds toward what is looking like another embarrassment, the collateral damage to whistleblowing and future whistleblowers could be severe. Whistleblowers come from all walks of life. They courageously hold the powerful accountable for actual wrongdoing, corruption, and gross waste and mismanagement. They risk financial ruin, professional suicide, and joblessness. Throughout history, they have represented the fuel that has enabled Congress to carry out its Constitutional mandate to oversee the expenditures, activities, and practices of the Executive Branch. Actual whistleblowers are truth-tellers, not partisan actors. Phony whistleblowers erode the legitimacy of those in the past and in the future who have paid or will pay a heavy price for their reasonable belief in the truth of their revelations.
So as my father taught me so many years ago, sincere belief in a proposition, theory, conjecture, or characterization is no substitute for a reasonable belief based upon actual facts. Holding a hearing with ideologically infused witnesses is not an improvement over holding a hearing with truthful witnesses who cannot be persuaded to legitimize a conspiracy theory that does not hold water. It seems that the majority on the House Oversight Committee are losing credibility as they try to convince Americans that there is an FBI-centered conspiracy to weaponize the federal government against conservative victims, such as Trump.
As I analogized about the committee’s embarrassing efforts in February to prove that the FBI, Twitter, and private citizen Joe Biden had conspired to censor an article about Hunter Biden’s laptop, if you are trying to prove that the moon is made out of green cheese, do not call astronomers as your witnesses. I also do not think you get very far convincing folks that the moon is made out of cheese by calling friendly but discredited conspiracy mongers to dissemble on the Congressional witness stand.
Louis Clark is the longtime executive director and CEO of the Government Accountability Project.