When Dennis Lormel was young, he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“Since I was 12 years old, I wanted to be an FBI agent,” he told Federal Times in an interview.
At 24, his wish came true. Lormel then spent the next three decades leading financial crime investigations and dismantling terrorist funding pipelines after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He retired in 2003.
“I served for 28 years and, you know, I cherish that,” said Lormel, who now serves as the president of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, which has 8,700 former and active members.
Lormel keeps tabs on the FBI and issues affecting its members, including the House hearings on the so-called weaponization of federal government that began last month. Lawmakers have criticized several three-letter federal law enforcement agencies, with some even calling to defund or disband them.
Congress is now taking up the White House’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2024, which may fuel debate over funding these agencies at the levels requested. The heated rhetoric risks burying “threads of truth” of government overreach that may merit legitimate questioning, Lormel said.
“That’s troubling for our members,” he said. “I’m an advocate for hearings if they’re objective. I don’t view these to be objective at all.”
Federal Times reached out for comment from two of the larger federal employee unions, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, though neither elaborated further on the committee’s proceedings.
‘Culture of unaccountability’
Chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government has tasked itself with investigating the alleged politicization of the FBI’s leadership and other federal law enforcement agencies.
House Republicans issued a thousand-page report in November based on what they said were whistleblower accounts describing the Washington hierarchy as “rotted at its core” and maintaining a “systemic culture of unaccountability.” The panel has also taken up constitutional questions of content moderation on social media, which they say censors conservative voices.
At the very first hearing, Rep. Jordan listed several agencies that he said ought to be examined.
“Americans have concerns about the double standards at the Department of Justice,” he said. “Americans have concerns about the Disinformation Governance Board that the Department of Homeland Security tried to form. Americans have concerns about the ATF and what they’re trying to do to the Second Amendment. And, of course they have concerns, about the IRS and the thousands of new agents who are coming to that organization.”
The subcommittee has held several hearings thus far with another set for Thursday. It’s yet unclear what its findings will be or what longterm impact it will have on the agencies it’s investigating. Despite several Republican lawmakers saying they’re not aiming critiques at the agency’s rank-and-file employees, federal law enforcement officers and Democrats have said nonetheless they’re concerned about how this messaging will affect public trust, the agencies’ abilities to recruit and workforce morale.
Democrats, including Ranking Member Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, shared misgivings about the subcommittee’s intent at its first hearing and noted reports in the past of threats against agents and agencies, particularly following the FBI’s execution of a search warrant in Palm Beach at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property.
According to the FBI, in 2016, a total of 1,447 federal law enforcement officers were assaulted. In 2019, the latest year for which data is available, that number was 2,136 and about half of them were on patrol or guard duty when they were attacked.
“This committee is based on the premise that the American people are under attack by the federal government, by the Justice Department, by the FBI, by the Department of Homeland Security” said Massachusetts Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Democrat, at the first hearing. “I just regret the impact this this is going to have on people who might otherwise consider serving in those agencies.”
A Pew Research Center report from June found that about 20% of respondents say they trust the government in Washington, D.C., to do the right thing always or most of the time.
“One of the reasons that this committee has a difficult task before it, is that there’s a crisis of faith, and it’s not just simply with some of our constitutional values,” said Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University Law Center, in his committee testimony on Feb. 9. “Polls are showing that people have a distrust for the federal government, but also with the FBI.”
The special committee is formally charged with investigating how federal agencies “facilitate action against American citizens,” which could include how the executive branch collects and shares information, the laws and programs authorizing it do so and “any other issues related to the violation of the civil liberties of citizens of the United States.”
Republicans have said they’re aiming their criticism at the agencies as political bodies or at the top of their leadership, not the men and women working for them or agents in the field.
Still, Congress must understand that its attacks on federal law enforcement agencies and calls to reduce or eliminate them trickle down to the individual agent and seep into public perceptions of officers who “have to work harder to prove themselves,” said Laszlo Simonyi, a former ATF employee of more than 20 years who now serves as vice president of the ATF Association Foundation, which advocates for agency workers and retirees.
“The laws aren’t going to go away,” he said, of proposals to impose reductions-in-force. “They’re just going to be enforced by somebody else [if not the ATF].”
The ATF often is equated with being anti-Second Amendment, as it was during another subcommittee hearing on March 23. Simonyi said the agency holds people accountable who violate federal firearms laws and equally ensures that law-abiding citizens and their rights to own a firearm are protected.
And while any agency can issue its own regulations with the full force of law, they must still be within rules already enacted by Congress.
No source who spoke to Federal Times disputed the importance of rigorous oversight and investigation of federal agencies. Rather, they said it must be done in good faith. Watchdogs have uncovered instances of poor law enforcement work by federal agents, including weak controls over certain ATF-seized munitions and numerous ongoing investigations into whether the Federal Bureau of Prisons personnel used their authority with integrity.
Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, also said there are existing mechanisms within agencies for identifying unethical behavior and conflicts of interest, like independent inspector generals and internal investigations.
Employees of the FBI and some in the ATF, for example, also fall under a “further restricted” class that is held to stricter Hatch Act rules precluding participation in political campaigns, even off-duty.
“The vast majority of federal law enforcement officers are strictly committed to their job and the law,” he said.
Recruitment is already tough for federal law enforcement, Cosme said. Such jobs demand around-the-clock availability, exposure to dangerous situations and long hours.
Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger — who represents Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia and is a former CIA officer and is not on the panel — told Federal Times such public criticism could harm recruitment at the agencies, as well as undermine U.S. standing on the global stage.
“To be clear, we are supposed to be rigorous in our oversight,” she said in an interview last month. “We are supposed to be critical in our look at our federal agencies, but impugning the actual people who choose to enter a career of public service believing in the role of the public trust, that’s a different thing.
And what does it say to Russia and China and Iran, and any other country that watches members of Congress attack their own public servants?”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.