This story was originally published by ProPublica.
Investigating cybercrime was supposed to be the FBI’s third-highest priority, behind terrorism and counterintelligence. Yet, in 2015, FBI Director James Comey realized that his Cyber Division faced a brain drain that was hamstringing its investigations.
Retention in the division had been a chronic problem, but in the spring of that year, it became acute. About a dozen young and midcareer cyber agents had given notice or were considering leaving, attracted by more lucrative jobs outside government. As the resignations piled up, Comey received an unsolicited email from Andre McGregor, one of the cyber agents who had quit. In his email, the young agent suggested ways to improve the Cyber Division. Comey routinely broadcast his open-door policy, but senior staff members were nevertheless aghast when they heard an agent with just six years’ experience in the bureau had actually taken him up on it. To their consternation, Comey took McGregor’s email and the other cyber agents’ departures seriously. “I want to meet these guys,” he said. He invited the agents to Washington from field offices nationwide for a private lunch. As news of the meeting circulated throughout headquarters, across divisions and into the field, senior staff openly scorned the cyber agents, dubbing them “the 12 Angry Men,” “the Dirty Dozen” or just “these assholes.” To the old-schoolers — including some who had risked their lives in service to the bureau — the cyber agents were spoiled prima donnas, not real FBI.
The cyber agents were as stunned as anyone to have an audience with Comey. Despite their extensive training in interrogation at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, many were anxious about what the director might ask them. “As an agent, you never meet the director,” said Milan Patel, an agent who attended the lunch. “You know the director, because he’s famous. But the director doesn’t know you.”
You also rarely, if ever, go to the J. Edgar Hoover Building’s seventh floor, where the executive offices are. But that day, the cyber agents — all men, mostly in their mid-30s, in suits, ties and fresh haircuts — strode single file down the seventh-floor hall to Comey’s private conference room. Stiffly, nervously, they stood waiting. Then Comey came in, shirt sleeves rolled up and bag lunch in hand.
“Have a seat, guys,” he told them. “Take off your coats. Get comfortable. Tell me who you are, where you live and why you’re leaving. I want to understand if you are happy and leaving, or disappointed and leaving.”
Around the room, everyone took a turn answering. Each agent professed to be happy, describing his admiration for the bureau’s mission.
“Well, that’s a good start,” Comey said.
Then sincerity prevailed. For the next hour, as they ate their lunches, the agents unloaded.
They told Comey that their skills were either disregarded or misunderstood by other agents and supervisors across the bureau. The FBI had cliques reminiscent of high school, and the cyber agents were derisively called the Geek Squad.
“What do you need a gun for?” SWAT team jocks would say. Or, from a senior leader, alluding to the physical fitness tests all agents were required to pass, “Do you have to do pushups with a keyboard in your backpack?” The jabs — which eroded an already tenuous sense of belonging — testified to the widespread belief that cyber agents played a less important role than others in the bureau.
At the meeting, the men also registered their opposition to some of the FBI’s ingrained cultural expectations, including the mantra that agents should be capable of doing “any job, anywhere.” Comey had embraced that credo, making it known during his tenure that he wanted everyone in the FBI to have computer skills. But the cyber agents believed this outlook was misguided. Although traditional skills, from source cultivation to undercover stings, were applicable to cybercrime cases, it was not feasible to turn someone with no interest or aptitude in computer science into a first-rate cyber investigator.
The placement of nontechnical agents on cyber squads — a practice that dated to the 1990s — also led to a problem that the agents referred to as “reeducation fatigue.” They were constantly forced to put their investigations on hold to train newcomers, both supervisors and other cyber agents, who arrived with little or no technical expertise…