Director Wray on FBI morale

What does some tough public criticism and an employee climate survey showing confidence concerns about its leadership mean for the FBI’s job performance?  Will it decline as bloggers Scott Anderson and Ben Wittes suggest in a recent post?  I don’t think so, and allow me to explain why.

At the Aspen Security Forum this week, FBI Director Christopher Wray addressed head-on claims that FBI performance will decline amidst continuing criticism and leadership questions.  Statistics and other information he shared indicate that the FBI’s environment and future isn’t as dire as Anderson and Wittes presume.

Specifically, Anderson and Wittes said the survey showed:

Across an array of metrics, both at headquarters and in the FBI’s 56 field offices, employees still express high esprit de corps about the FBI itself and their work for the bureau.  But when asked about confidence in the vision of the FBI director, the value of direct communications from him, the honesty and integrity of senior bureau leaders, or respondents’ respect for those leaders, there is a striking drop in confidence from previous years.

Consequently, Anderson and Wittes believe that:

For institutions like the FBI, morale and leadership matter.  Employees with a shortage of the former will work less hard and collaborate less effectively.  They will take fewer risks and innovate less for fear that they will not be supported.

On Thursday (July 19th) in Aspen Director Wray spoke about employee morale and the survey in a sit down interview with NBC News correspondent Lester Holt at the highly regarded national security conference.  Here’s an extract from the transcript:

Lester Holt: The FBI is under fire. I know you’ve said many times it comes with the territory, that criticism is part of what you deal with, and your folks are professionals and they are focused. But that stuff does tend to erode. Can you comment on the morale and what it’s like to hear the President of the United States malign you and your folks?

Christopher Wray: Look, there are a lot of opinions out there about us from a lot of people, expressed in a lot of different ways. The opinions that I care about, the opinions that I think our workforce cares about are the opinions of people who actually know us through our work and express their views through their engagement with us on our work. So what do I mean by that? We care about the opinions of victims and their families. Who do they trust, when their child is kidnapped, to get them back? Who do the American people trust to keep them safe from terrorist attacks? Who do the American people trust to investigate public corruption? What do judges think when one of our agents takes the stand in their courtroom or when they’re presented with a search warrant? What do our state and local partners or our other federal agency partners, our intelligence community partners, our partners in the private sector, frankly, increasingly is a very big part of what we do. What do those people think? And the feedback that we get has been uniformly positive.

And when I look at morale, I’m more interested, again, in how people express their views through actions. I’m a big believer in the idea that talk is cheap; actions matter a lot more. So I look at, how is our recruiting done? Our recruiting is great. We have about 12,000-plus. We’d like to have even more agents applying every year. We have a 5% selection rate. That’s better than Harvard. It’s better than Yale. It’s better than Princeton.

I look at our attrition rate at the backend. Our attrition is 0.8%. This year it’s 0.6%. I bet there’s not an organization out here that has a 0.6% attrition rate. So again, that’s because people who work in the FBI love the mission. They love the mission, and that’s what keeps them there.

Would they prefer not to get criticized? Of course we would prefer not get criticized. But at the end of the day, the criticism that we care about is the criticism from people who actually would know us through our work. So the day juries don’t trust us, that I care about.

Lester Holt: You’re not seeing that?

Christopher Wray: I’m not. I’m not.


Lester Holt: Your own survey data indicates the FBI workforce is frustrated with leadership. Why do you think that is? I’m wondering do you think there is a feeling among the rank and file, they want you to be more forceful, come out in a stronger defense? 

Christopher Wray: The survey, one of the things that’s important about that survey is that it was relatively early in my tenure. One of the other interesting takeaways from it was that the morale of the organization, which you asked about earlier, stayed constant, even through all the turbulent times we’ve been through, and the affection and the enthusiasm and the passion for the mission remained unchanged. I’m a more low-key guy. I get that. It’s going to take people a little while to get to know me, but the feedback that I get when I go out, and I’m trying to get to all 56 field offices by the end of the year and I’m up in the high thirties now, and the feedback I get in office, after office, has been strong. That was also a time period that was right around the time that the then-deputy director had just gone on terminal leave and the reasons for it were not yet apparent, so I think that may have contributed to the results.

Lester Holt: Are there times you feel it’s time for a morale talk? For example, after the news conference in Helsinki, did you gather folks together? Did you send a message? Did you say, “Buck up,” or, “We’re okay?”

Christopher Wray: I find that our folks, contrary to what you hear on TV or see on TV, love the mission. I look at story after story and example after example … I look at the … I went to the San Juan office. Those people had been through a real storm, not just a figurative one, and the enthusiasm that they had for the mission and the work was really off the charts. I look at the woman in Miami that I met the other day who had got 12 stitches in her face and, the next day, she’s back at it. I look at the guy in Chicago on SWAT who got shot at point-blank range by an AK-47, lost the use of his right arm, re-taught himself to shoot left-handed, re-qualified for SWAT left-handed. Try to think about how hard that would be. Does that guy love his job?

I think Wray did a very good job at answering the suppositions raised on the blogpost.  While it is certainly true that, as Anderson and Wittes say, “morale and leadership matter,” I think they are mistaken in fearing that views about senior leadership will translate into morale issues that will cause FBI professionals to ”work less hard and collaborate less effectively” and “take fewer risks and innovate less.”

Based on my decades in government through a variety of administrations from both political parties, I have a rather different view.  I found that professionals – especially in government – are less sensitive to political machinations at the top of the food chain than many people – Anderson and Wittes included – may think.

True professionals – as I believe the vast majority of the FBI employees are – don’t slack off simply because they may be unhappy with what is happening at the very senior levels at a particular time.  They recognize that the institution’s mission is just too important, and their dedication to it breeds an altruism that supersedes other considerations.

Sure, there are times when even professionals decide that the organization is not for them, but they typically do not respond by diminishing their performance.  Rather, they “vote with their feet” and leave (even more quickly when a low unemployment rate as exists today offers alternatives).  However, Wray’s report of the FBI’s extraordinarily low attrition rate (that seems to be declining even further this year) is a powerful rebuttal to what Anderson and Wittes appear to presume about those in the FBI.

Moreover, my sense is that confidence in and respect for Wray’s leadership will continue to grow within the ranks.  In any event, I don’t think we are at risk of the FBI professionals working “less hard” or ease up on performing their duties.  I believe the institution’s professional ethic – and that of the vast majority of the people working there – is too strong to allow that to happen.

Still, as we like to say on Lawfire®, gather the facts, assess the arguments, and decide for yourself!

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