FBI director Christopher Wray has countered strident attacks on his agency by US President Donald Trump, saying: “There is no finer institution than the FBI.”
Mr Wray gave evidence before the House Judiciary Committee as Democrats and Republicans clashed over the significance of Mr Trump’s attacks on the agency.
In a storm of tweets last weekend, Mr Trump called the nation’s top law enforcement agency a biased institution whose reputation is “in Tatters – worst in History!” and urged Mr Wray to “clean house”.
Democrats pushed Mr Wray to respond forcefully, while Republicans echoed Mr Trump in suggesting they worry about political bias in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of possible Trump campaign ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
Like Mr Trump, they seized on revelations that an FBI agent was removed from Mr Mueller’s team because of anti-Trump texts.
“There is no shortage of opinions out there, but what I can tell you is that the FBI that I see is tens of thousands of agents and analysts and staff working their tails off to keep Americans safe,” Mr Wray said of the agency he has led for just four months.
“The FBI that I see is tens of thousands of brave men and women working as hard as they can to keep people they will never know safe from harm.”
Mr Wray conceded that agents do make mistakes and said there are processes in place to hold them accountable.
His defence of the FBI came after the committee’s chairman, Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte, said he was concerned by reports about Peter Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent involved in the Hillary Clinton investigation, being removed from Mr Mueller’s team last summer following the discovery of text messages seen as potentially anti-Trump.
“It is absolutely unacceptable for FBI employees to permit their own political predilections to contaminate any investigation,” Mr Goodlatte said.
“Even the appearance of impropriety will devastate the FBI’s reputation.”
Representative Jerrold Nadler, top Democrat on the House judiciary panel, predicted Mr Trump’s attacks on the FBI will only grow louder as Mr Mueller continues investigating.
“Your responsibility is not only to defend the bureau but to push back against the president when he is so clearly wrong, both on the facts and as a matter of principle,” Mr Nadler told Mr Wray.
Mr Wray’s tenure as the new FBI chief would be difficult enough even without the intense scrutiny of the Russia investigation.
Since he was sworn in on August 2, the US has experienced two of the deadliest shootings in its modern history and an attack seen as terrorism in Manhattan.
Mr Trump’s weekend tweets created a fresh dilemma for Mr Wray.
With his bosses, attorney general Jeff Sessions and Mr Sessions’s deputy Rod Rosenstein, staying publicly silent, it fell to Mr Wray to defend the agency.
But FBI directors traditionally have been low key and stoic – with Mr Wray’s predecessor James Comey a notable exception.
And Mr Trump’s firing of Mr Comey while he led the Russia probe shows what can happen to a director who antagonises the president.
Mr Wray repeatedly deflected questions about the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, saying the entire matter was under review by the justice department’s inspector general.
Republicans repeatedly pressed him on reports that Mr Strzok tweaked the language of the FBI’s finding from “grossly negligent” – the standard laid out in the relevant statute – to “extremely careless”, which was the language that Mr Comey ultimately used in discussing the Clinton case with the public.