Civics: Why FBI Directors Want to Be Autonomous and Unaccountable

Ira Stoll:

The best explanation of the firing of FBI director James Comey and of the subsequent investigation by special counsel and former FBI director Robert Mueller may just come from a social scientist who died years before President Trump took office.

When James Q. Wilson died in 2012, he was remembered primarily for his influential 1982 Atlantic article with George Kelling, “Broken Windows: The Police And Neighborhood Safety,” advocating police tactics focused on maintaining order and reducing fear.

It turns out, though, that Wilson—whose colleagues in the government department at Harvard included Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—also wrote a whole book about the FBI.

That book, The Investigators: Managing FBI And Narcotics Agents, was published in 1978 by Basic Books and funded in part by a grant from Irving Kristol’s company, National Affairs, Inc. It is based on in part on Professor Wilson’s personal experience as an adviser to FBI director Clarence Kelley, who served from 1973 to 1978.

Its insights relevant to Comey and Mueller come in a chapter considering the motivation of FBI executives, and of government officials in general. Wilson writes, “In my view, it is the desire for autonomy, and not for large budgets, new powers, or additional employees, that is the dominant motive of public executives.”

What does Wilson mean by “autonomy”? His book explains, “An agency is autonomous to the degree it can act independently of some or all of the groups that have the authority to constrain it.” Autonomy comes “by acquiring sufficient good will and prestige as to make attacks on oneself or one’s agency costly for one’s critics.”