Feuds over the direction of investigations — and particularly some of the high-profile politically-involved probes — began to build up as the 2016 election approached, and as the FBI felt pressure from its political masters at the department.
Agents in field offices did not trust department lawyers they viewed as Washington bureaucrats, while the department’s headquarters, known in the business as Main Justice, felt rank-and-file agents weren’t following orders and, at times, strongly disagreeing with superiors.
The department’s inspector general exposed just how deep the feuding ran in a new report last week investigating the actions of former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. The report recounted an August 2016 phone call from a high-level Justice Department official who complained the FBI had taken “overt” actions to investigate the Clinton Foundation, potentially embarrassing then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Mr. McCabe said he got the sense the Obama Justice Department was telling him “to shut down” the probe. Later he called the exchange as “very dramatic” and said he’d never had a confrontation like that with the Justice Department.
“The engine driving all of this, which is alluded to in the report, is that the FBI people in New York were closer to the facts on the Clinton Foundation and angry it wasn’t going anywhere,” said J. Christian Adams, who served as an attorney in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from 2005 through 2010.
“People in the FBI wanted to follow the facts and the law wherever it took them and this mysterious PADAG calls the number two man at the FBI and tells him to shut it down,” Mr. Adams said. “That’s amazing.”
The inspector general said Mr. McCabe was caught in “an increasingly acrimonious fight for control between the Justice Department and FBI agents pursuing the Clinton foundation case,” and described the broader FBI-Main Justice relationship as “being under great stress.”
It didn’t help that Mr. McCabe’s boss, then-FBI Director James Comey, was viewed by field agents as an extension of the Justice Department. He had never served as an agent and came to bureau after a stint as Deputy Attorney General under George W. Bush. He is the one who selected Mr. McCabe as his second in command.
Former agents said the relationship began to sour well before 2016, though, with much of the bad blood dating back to former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who led the department for President Obama from 2009 to 2015.
“I know from talking to some agents in the FBI at that time that there conflicts between the Holder DOJ and its priorities and how the FBI wanted to work cases,” said Danny Denfenbaugh, a 33-year FBI agent, who retired in 2002.
“The FBI had always taken pride in following the evidence to where it would lead and never allowing politics into their investigation decisions,” Mr. Defenbaugh continued. “But then the DOJ at times would say, ‘we don’t want you to do this.’”
One major source of contention was Mr. Holder’s push to investigate local police agencies for civil rights violations.
The department opened more than 20 civil rights investigations into local police departments between 2009 and 2014, more than doubling the number of reviews from the previous five years.
Some in law enforcement, including the FBI, were demoralized by the probes, believing they were risking their lives without any support from Main Justice, said a former department lawyer.
“Eric Holder waged an anti-police campaign that he believed in,” Mr. Adams said. “He was so successful in merging his ideology with the Justice Department some people there didn’t even realize he was doing it.”
The battle intensified as the Justice Department and the FBI’s field office in New York battled over the 2014 death of Eric Garner in New York City. Garner died in July of that year after a New York City Police Officer confront him for selling untaxed cigarettes. The officer was seen on video using a chokehold, prohibited by the New York Police Department, to subdue him.
FBI agents took over the case and opposed charging the officer, a recommendation supported by New York federal prosecutors. But lawyers at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division claimed there was clear evidence to the charge the officer.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who succeeded Mr. Holder, removed the FBI agents investigating the case, replacing them with agents from outside New York. The move was described as “highly unusual.” Ultimately, a federal grand jury decided not to indict the officer, Daniel Pantaleo.
That was part of what led to the August phone call between Mr. McCabe and the high-ranking department official, whom the report didn’t name.
But others say cultural differences that existed in both organizations before Mr. Holder or Ms. Lynch arrived at the Justice Department caused the bad blood, stemming from their separate roles with the FBI as the hard-charging investigators and the department lawyers having to figure out what cases can actually be pursued.
Having Washington involved is yet another complication.
FBI agents typically deal with their local U.S. Attorneys Office, which is staffed by prosecutors who are likely to be more aggressive and to make decisions fairly quickly, said Ron Sievert, a former department attorney and current University of Texas professor.
Mr. Sievert estimates that about 90 percent FBI investigations end up with local U.S. Attorneys with agents only dealing with Main Justice for cases involving political corruption, national security or interstate drug trafficking.
“For years Main Justice had a reputation for being overly cautious,” Mr. Sievert said. “What you can do with one supervisor’s signature in the field you have to do with three or five in Washington because everyone is thinking about the political and legal ramifications of each case.”
Mr. Sievert recalled his own difficulty getting a program approved during his time at the Justice Department. It took about fourth months to secure support from each supervisor in the chain of command.
When his project was finally green-lighted by the attorney general himself, Mr. Sievert was told that he now had to seek approval from the Treasury and Commerce departments along with the intelligence agencies — a process that would take about four more months for each department.
“At the U.S. Attorney’s Office, if you have a great idea that makes sense and legal, they will tell you to just go for it,” he said.
“It has to be Sessions,” he said. “The bureau reports to him and the Justice Department reports to him, yet he’s been silent on the issue. He needs to be a strong attorney general.”