Frank Figliuzzi Interview: FBI Veteran Defends Bureau's Integrity in the Aftermath of Trump
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Frank Figliuzzi joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a special agent in 1987 ad has worked for the FBI in the Atlanta, Washington, D.C. headquarters, San Francisco, Miami and Cleveland offices. In 2011, then director Robert Mueller appointed him assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. Following his FBI service, he joined General Electric and served for five years as assistant chief security officer for investigations, insider threat, workplace violence prevention and special event security for GE's 300,000 employees in 180 countries.
Figliuzzi is currently a national security contributor for NBC and MSNBC News. His book, The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence, is released January 12, 2021. In The FBI Way, the 25-year FBI veteran reveals the Bureau’s field-tested playbook for unlocking individual and organizational excellence through dramatic stories from his own storied career.
"I swore I’d never write a book about my FBI career or the inside workings of the Bureau, but I was prompted to do it after four years of hearing the institution I love bashed, the institution I dedicated 25 years to maligned on a daily basis. And I think, even more importantly, the men and women of the FBI being harangued by the highest levels of our government."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Frank, how are you and your family doing during the pandemic?
Frank Figliuzzi: Thank you for asking. We’re taking it very safely. Everybody’s fine. So far, so good. How about your family?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: We’re good so far also and staying in as much as possible. The FBI Way is very well-written and informative.
Frank Figliuzzi: Thank you. That’s kind of you.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you feel the need to write the book?
Frank Figliuzzi: Well, I’ve done something, Melissa, that I thought I’d never do. I swore I’d never write a book about my FBI career or the inside workings of the Bureau, but I was prompted to do it after four years of hearing the institution I love bashed, the institution I dedicated 25 years to maligned on a daily basis. And I think, even more importantly, the men and women of the FBI being harangued by the highest levels of our government.
I had enough of that, and I needed to kind of preserve the public perception or attempt to set the record straight about the FBI because the bottom line is the FBI can’t succeed without the trust of the American people. When FBI agents present themselves with their credentials at someone’s door and ask for help on a case or particularly when they need somebody to cooperate with them even as sources of information, they can’t do that if the public questions, even for a moment, the credibility of the FBI. So I think the institution’s been damaged, and I thought it was time for me to set the record straight and to share my thoughts on what I believe it’s really about, which is the intersection of leadership and values.
I felt over the last four years that leadership and values were sorely lacking in our country, and I think we need them more than ever. So my kind of retort to the perceptions of the Bureau coming from some people is, “You know what? Not only is what you’re hearing not entirely true but the FBI could be held up as a model of preserving what matters most to your life, your business, your company, your community and your country.” So never before has the internal affairs of the FBI been written about, what goes on internally in investigations inside the FBI, which I played a role in throughout my career.
The concept of applying how the FBI protects what matters most to your life, your business and your part in our society is something I’ve distilled down to what I call the “Seven C’s.” If you read through the Seven C’s, you’ll see not only how the FBI does it as a national defense mechanism but how the FBI does it inside the institution, and then hopefully, you can take those lessons and apply them to your life.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: By saying that you were prompted to write the book after the last four years, you are referring to how the FBI was treated by President Donald Trump? I recall one instance in 2017, where Trump stated the FBI was “tainted,” it’s reputation was in “tatters,” “the worst in history.”
Frank Figliuzzi: I am, and I want to be very clear about something, Melissa. This is not a book that claims that the FBI is perfect because when you say, “Hey, what prompted you to write a book?” or something like, “Is this all about Trump bashing the Bureau?” That’s in large part where the damage has come from, but I will readily admit, as I do in the book, that there are certain FBI senior leaders who didn’t help matters. In fact, they handed President Trump and his allies reasons to bash the Bureau.
Jim Comey, a man of very high integrity, and he operates with good intentions and good faith, made some errors in judgment that helped contribute to what I call the politicization of the FBI, and the last thing that the FBI needs is to be perceived as political. That is just something that will last for a long time if the FBI is perceived as political. It’s why the FBI director has a 10-year term. He or she needs to cross over presidential administrations to remain above politics. So between Trump and some of the errors in judgment at the top of the FBI, we got into an unacceptable situation where the Bureau is being perceived as political, it’s being perceived as part of a deep state, and my book is here to tell you, here’s how I see it. Here is my experience of 25 years, good, bad and ugly.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: James Comey was the director of the FBI when he held the press conference on July 5, 2016, and announced he wasn’t recommending charges be brought by the Department of Justice against Hillary Clinton for her mishandling of classified data. Are you saying he shouldn’t have announced this publicly?
Frank Figliuzzi: The short answer, Melissa, is yes, he should not have. I can’t emphasize enough that Jim Comey is a man of the highest integrity. I believe he was operating in absolute good faith. He’s the kind of guy you’d want living next door to you, watching the house while you’re gone, to leave watching the kids while you were running an errand. That’s not the issue here.
The issue here is that he took a highly charged issue, the issue of whether Hillary Clinton could or would be charged criminally for her handling of emails while being Secretary of State and turned it into a decision that the FBI isn’t supposed to make. The FBI investigates. They don’t make prosecuting decisions. So when he called that infamous press conference where the American flag was draped behind him, and he announced to great fanfare that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring charges against Hillary, what he did was he forgot his position. He forgot that he was accountable to the Department of Justice and the Attorney General and that right across the street from headquarters is a building full of attorneys who make those decisions. So he should have announced that we’re done with our investigation, that we conducted all of our evidence gathering and interviews, and we’re now turning over our investigation to the DOJ for a decision.
I know why Jim Comey did that. He wanted to take that burden away from the DOJ, and he wanted to act with integrity. He had some trust issues with the current Attorney General at the time, and he thought he’d take the hit and be all things to all people. But he forgot who he was accountable to, and he did not totally factor in the longer term damage to the FBI by making that decision himself.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Former FBI agent and Chief of the Counterintelligence Section Peter Strzok led the FBI probe into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia until it was found that he had sent anti-Trump texts to Lisa Page. Did his actions damage the integrity of the FBI?
Frank Figliuzzi: Melissa, I would assert that Peter Strzok did more damage to the FBI than Jim Comey did. I’m a national security contributor with MSNBC, and I was on television saying early on that Peter Strzok is going to get fired, that he needs to be fired, and that’s exactly what happened. But his firing helped get on the restoration path for the FBI because, as I say in my book, I refer to the Seven C’s. Let’s talk about two of those C’s. One is consequences, and the other is credibility. We all need to understand the consequences of our actions, and we all need to act with credibility. Credibility doesn’t mean being perfect. Again, the FBI’s not a perfect organization. It’s a human organization, but credibility means transparency and jumping on the consequences of what needs to happen and being honest and open about it.
Peter Strzok was essentially a senior leader of that initial Russian investigation, but that turned into the Special Counsel investigation when he made the decision as a senior executive to engage in highly partisan discussions with Lisa Page, who we think he was having an extramarital affair, using FBI devices to have those partisan discussions. He erred in judgment as a senior executive, and the damage he did to the FBI was such that he had to be fired. I hope people understand. That’s part of the process of having values and preserving them. You’re dealing with people that undermine your values, and that’s what happened there.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Mueller Report refrained from recommending prosecution, saying there were “difficult legal issues that would need to be resolved,” in order to reach a conclusion that the crime of obstruction of justice was committed by Trump. Were you surprised by that?
Frank Figliuzzi: Yes, I was, and I continued to be disappointed and flummoxed by the perimeters that Mueller felt constrained to stay within, but I am equally upset, more upset, with Attorney General Barr for how he mischaracterized the Special Counsel Report on that four-page written summary and in his press conference prior to its release where he again misled the American people. I understand people aren’t going to read a 400-page report. I had to read it on the air on national television and quickly figure out what it said. I’ll never forget that day. As I’m on TV, I’m going through it page by page and raising my hand to the producer in New York saying, “I found something in a footnote,” and I’m on with Nicolle Wallace and Brian Williams all day.
Here’s the deal. The report found in Volume I that there was absolutely collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia. Now what people just do not understand, in part because they’ve been misled by Barr, is that Mueller was looking for criminal conduct only. So what he was searching for was something called “criminal conspiracy.” So when Barr said, “There was zero collaboration with Russia,” he’s lying. What he really should be saying is, “There was nothing chargeable from a criminal conspiracy standpoint with regards to collaborating with Russia.” But it’s clear in Volume I of the report that that happened and also clear is the incredible expense in which the Russian government went to in order to mess with our election.
Don’t forget that Mueller identified 12 Russian intelligence officers who hacked into the Democratic National Committee and who propagated social media disinformation. He then indicted them, which leads to Volume II of the report which addressed the issue of obstruction of justice, and again, we have Barr misleading the public, and Trump is just jumping on that train saying, “No obstruction! No obstruction!” Au contraire, the second volume of the report, if people would simply read it, gives us at least ten examples of chargeable obstruction of justice by the president of the United States, but Mueller felt constrained by that memo at the Department of Justice that says that you really shouldn’t charge a sitting president.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In your opinion as a national security expert, how much different would the coronavirus pandemic have been now if Donald Trump had acted on the intelligence information when he received it back in January of 2020?
Frank Figliuzzi: As an intelligence professional, I look with great concern at not even the reports you are referring to but the far more recent reports in the last few weeks where we’re learning of internal discussions at the White House about herd immunity, meaning that they wanted millions of people to catch Covid and even had discussions to the affect of, “Hey, we don’t even like that colleges are closing down because we want healthy college kids to get sick as part of a herd immunity plan.”
I find that extremely disgraceful because of the deaths that inevitably flow when millions of people get Covid, but here’s my national security spin on this. Number one, these last four years have been a period of public consumption of intelligence information and learning about threat and the role of the intelligence community. If somebody had told me 10 years ago that I would be on national television regularly talking about very sensitive intelligence matters, I would’ve thought they were crazy, and I would’ve asked what in heaven’s name has happened that requires the public to see behind the scenes like this.
But I can tell you that in my career in the FBI, the annual intelligence reports to the Congress and the White House that come out of the DNI (Director of National Intelligence) for example, the concern about a global pandemic has been in that report for as long as I can remember. Exercises and drills on such topics often had a scenario where that virus came out of China. I know for this president and this administration to say, “Hey, we were blindsided. This should’ve never happened. We had no resources or plan,” that’s nonsense. Nonsense.
My sources tell me that very, very early in the Covid-19 scenarios, the intelligence community was recording that there’s something very ugly happening in China, and this could be very bad. So, look, the president has engaged in a kind of disinformation that I worked against. When foreign adversaries were doing it, I put it in that category. So we’re bombarded with disinformation and propaganda from countries like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, and it saddens me to say that in particular to this deadly virus, we’ve been bombarded with disinformation and propaganda from our own country.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What or who is the biggest threat to the United States today, and has there been an increase in white supremacist terrorist groups during Donald Trump’s presidency?
Frank Figliuzzi: Let me address this on kind of a macro level and then on a more precise micro level. So on an almost ideological, philosophical concerned level, let me say this about the threats facing the country. Number one, even FBI Director Chris Wray in public testimony has referred to this concern. Number one, our own threat could be ourselves. By that I mean a couple of things. First, we have learned some things about ourselves. I think we’ve learned, sadly, that with our inability to unite against a common enemy and to come together even to battle a deadly virus, we’ve managed to become so political and polarized that we can’t even get it right to wear a mask or socially distance, that somehow we think that is a political decision.
I keep going back in history to a time during WW II. We sent our men and women off to war. We sent wives and sisters to factories to help build armaments. People grew victory gardens. People rationed food, and people lost their loved ones in the battle against a common enemy. I fear that the resilience, fight and united effort escapes us right now. I worry about that in terms of the future and the threat we pose to ourselves and the vulnerability that that reflects to our foreign adversaries.
Let me get more specific about specific threats. Internally in the United States, it’s the president and the approach he’s taken to the office. I won’t get into various theories that he is or isn’t compromised by a foreign power. I’m just going to talk about the approach he’s taken to the office which has made us more vulnerable. The intelligence community has told us, both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have both said to us, “Domestic terrorism, white supremacy is becoming equal to or greater than the threat posed by international terrorism.” So we’ve got to access where we are as a country and where we’re going based on our own internal vulnerabilities and threats that we pose.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Along those same lines, let’s discuss the violent insurrection that was carried out by armed Trump insurgents at the Capitol on January 6. Were intelligence agencies aware that this was going to happen?
Frank Figliuzzi: Yeah. This was not an intelligence failure. This was a security failure. I say that because it was a failure to act upon the available intelligence. So all of the dots were there. Many of the dots were connected. Those dots were shared, and connections were shared with the appropriate law enforcement agencies. In fact, I think those who are on television saying this is some kind of FBI failure are going to look very foolish when they learn that this could’ve been a whole lot worse but for certain FBI measures that took place prior to the event.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did the Trump administration receive this same intelligence information?
Frank Figliuzzi: The police departments responsible for securing the Capitol received the intelligence information. I cannot speak from any position of knowledge as to whether or not the Trump administration had all of the intelligence. But we know that we have a president who does not take briefings from the FBI nor does he read his presidential daily brief nor is there any reason to believe that since his loss, he has taken any intelligence briefing. We simply don’t know.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: If the Capitol Police had this information, then is there a probability this was an inside job, that the mob was aided by certain police officers and staffers in the building?
Frank Figliuzzi: We’re going to see hearings and inquiries. We’ve already seen Washington Post reporting that numerous police departments in the country have opened inquiries internally to determine whether or not their officers participated in traveling to Washington and perhaps being a part of this. So we need answers. The answers will come.
But right now, there are clear indicators that number one, insufficient resources were applied to secure the Capitol. Number two, even when faced with a clear imminent threat, the actions of those Capitol police officers indicated a lack of motivation to propel the protestors. So at best, we have a complete breakdown in security. At worst, we have some kind of deliberate mindset that facilitated this insurrection.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: This type of breach also makes America look weak to our adversaries, and that’s frightening.
Frank Figliuzzi: Our adversaries right now are deciding whether this is the window of opportunity to move on us. That can be anything from a debilitating cyberattack to an encroachment or an incursion into territories that they’ve had their eyes on for a long time. So China or Russia might decide this is the moment to annex a territory or to test our resolve to repel them from taking some actions against allied or United States’ interests. If we’re wondering who’s in charge, you can bet our adversaries are wondering the same thing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you think there were any foreign agents among the group of insurrectionists at the Capitol?
Frank Figliuzzi: There’s no way to tell. But I have to tell you, there are enough foreign intelligence officers on any given day inside the District of Columbia through the official diplomatic establishments of all nations, and they are not covert operatives from foreign adversaries that function inside the Beltway. So I think the damage assessment on the intelligence side of this needs to include the probability that some foreign adversaries infiltrated this group. I’m not saying they led it. I’m not saying they’re a part of organizing it. But I am saying it’s a safe assumption that anyone in any foreign intelligence service watching this play out on television could likely have sent some operatives to join the crowd.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is it a strong probability that more violent acts will take place before or even during Joe Biden’s inauguration?
Frank Figliuzzi: The indicators on social media are equal to or greater than the kinds of rhetoric we saw before the insurrection at the Capitol. So indeed. Known players, known leaders in extremist violent groups are speaking of some kind of action in the District of Columbia leading up to the inauguration or during the inauguration.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will the FBI eventually charge all of the perpetrators of the insurrection that can be identified?
Frank Figliuzzi: Yeah. Every single one of the identifiable rioters (and rioters is the kindest word I can use, I think they’re domestic terrorists) will be charged and will be charged with the highest charge, the most significant charge and consequences that they can come up with. There is a dramatic dynamic going on that involves a race against the clock. By that I mean, the FBI is very good at methodically developing the strongest case possible against people in gathering every bit of evidence and even convening a grand jury so they can make an arrest on indictment which is a much stronger case. However, that dynamic against that relates to the inauguration and to ensure that the baddest of the bad are racked up and taken down so they cannot continue to plan and aid and abet something even up to the inauguration.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will it be difficult to charge Donald Trump and others with inciting violence?
Frank Figliuzzi: There are two questions in your question, which is the president himself and those enabling him and facilitating him. I think we’ve already heard the answer with regards to charging a sitting president, but I think a new administration, a new Attorney General will look anew at that infamous DOJ memo that says you shouldn’t charge a sitting president. I think once Trump gets out of office, you’ll see various US attorneys begin to charge him. Then with those around him including Rudy Giuliani, who on that awful day, said publicly from a stage, “We need trial by combat,” saying we failed in the courts, and now we need combat, I think he’s facing possible criminal exposure as well.
So this will all get looked at, and don’t forget that various state authorities are looking at things. For example, the State of Georgia is looking at Trump and that phone call he made to the Secretary of State down there. The US Attorney in the District of Columbia has said he is opening an inquiry into the president in terms of inciting a riot. So stay tuned on that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will these organized right-wing supremacists or self-styled anti-government militia groups continue wreaking havoc even after Donald Trump leaves office?
Frank Figliuzzi: I say it with a high degree of confidence that we are developing a kind of home-grown permanent insurgency in the United States, and when this president leaves, that threat doesn’t go away. In fact, you could argue that as Trump moves to his plan to launch a digital media platform perhaps now that he’s been taken down from Twitter and Facebook, we essentially are cordoning off a frenetic, violent extremist group that he will leave unchecked without any guardrails about them.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Now that Donald Trump will be leaving office, will the perception of the FBI and other intelligence agencies begin to improve?
Frank Figliuzzi: I think the road to recovery is going to be long, but I think we’ll see resilience within institutions. I think we’ll see morale pick up. One of the concerns I’ve had over the past four years is that information on the hard stuff, particularly the unpleasant news involving Russia, was not getting briefed on whether that’s because it’s not being allowed, it’s being cut off before it gets to the House or Senate Intelligence Committees and/or it won’t get to the president simply because he doesn’t want to hear bad news or it’s contrary to his own narrative.
I think things will will start rolling again, and that’s really encouraging. That’s going to happen. But rest assured that Biden and Harris are going to have some serious threats to deal with. The globe is still reeling from a massive cyberattack from Russia that’s been occurring over the past few months. Biden is probably going to face Vladimir Putin throwing down what I call a cyber gauntlet as soon as he takes office. But, yeah, the short answer is that things can improve, and I believe that they will.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: On a much lighter note, Frank, do you watch television crime dramas such as FBI and Criminal Minds and sort of critique them?
Frank Figliuzzi: There’s a thing going on in my household which is that my wife tends to watch those shows, and she likes them. I can’t bring myself to watch them because what happens inevitably, Melissa, is my blood pressure goes up if they get it wrong. I don’t like suspending reality very much. If things are repeatedly wrong and requires a suspension of reality on an FBI show, I can’t sit there and enjoy it because they either haven’t gone to the trouble of researching it for accuracy or they’re doing things for dramatic effect, which I understand.
But I can tell you what. When the rare instance comes up where there’s a show that gets it right, I applaud it, and I do watch it. There’s a series that I highly recommend called Mindhunter. It’s the story of the very, very early days and the inception of the Behavioral Science program in the FBI and profiling. I found it to be extremely accurate. But it’s no surprise that it’s accurate because it’s been produced by John Douglas who is probably the most famous FBI profiler in history.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I love that show also. It’s interesting that you had a connection with attorneys and MSNBC contributors Joyce Vance and Barbara McQuade before you became an MSNBC contributor.
Frank Figliuzzi: Yeah. I don’t want to give it all away because I want those who are fans, as I am, of Joyce Vance and Barbara McQuade, to know that the book reveals how we knew each other before MSNBC. They can read it and find out. But indeed, Joyce and I were on set in New York at 30 Rockefeller Center on TV one day. Those were the pre-Covid days when we actually got to fly in occasionally to New York and be in the studio, and the light bulb went on over my head that, “Wait a minute. She’s the United States Attorney in Birmingham, and her last name is Vance.” We had a brief discussion, and we figured out that we had something very much in common.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any final words about The FBI Way?
Frank Figliuzzi: This book is going to be many things to many people. If you want some war stories from an FBI career, you can get that. If you’re looking for a leadership book on how to preserve what matters most in a process known as values-based leadership, you’re going to get that leadership book. If you want to understand the inner workings and read never before told stories of inside the FBI (that had to be cleared for this book), you’re going to get that. I encourage people to pick it up.
I would especially be excited if the book is gifted to young people who might be interested in a public service career. I hope this book encourages and inspires young people to consider a career in public service. So I’m excited about it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is another book in the works? I’m thinking possibly a true story of the intriguing life and career of an FBI agent turned writer and respected National Security Analyst.
Frank Figliuzzi: Since I’ve operated in clandestine mode for most of my career, I’m going to keep under wraps my plans for perhaps another book (laughs). But I like what you’re thinking. I like it a lot.
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