Last Saturday morning, an armed Islamic terrorist named Malik Faisal Akram entered Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, and took the rabbi and three congregants hostage. Eleven hours later, after the hostages freed themselves and FBI officers entered the synagogue and either killed Akram or watched him kill himself, the episode ended. Matt De Sarno, the FBI agent in charge at the scene, walked over to the waiting press corps to brief reporters on the events of the day. And there he announced, incongruously, that what had just happened was not an anti-Semitic attack.
As he put it, Akram’s motive in entering a synagogue during prayer services and taking four Jews hostage wasn’t “specifically related to the Jewish community.”
The disconnect between De Sarno’s claim and the self-evident reality of the event that he was ostensibly charged with handling provoked an enraged response from American Jews. Some media organs also voiced criticism of the FBI’s denial of the obvious fact that a man who enters a synagogue during Shabbat services, cursing Jews and “Jewish power,” and takes Jews hostage is by definition motivated by hatred for Jews.
In the face of the outpouring of angry criticism, and after receiving a gentle push from U.S. President Joe Biden, who helpfully referred to the incident at Beth Israel as “a terror attack” but didn’t have a good explanation for “why [Akram] was using anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli expressions,” the FBI reversed course.
Sunday afternoon, the Bureau released a statement acknowledging that the anti-Semitic terrorist attack at Beth Israel had in fact been a terrorist attack that targeted the Jewish community.
Some people (largely located on the left side of the political spectrum) will argue that De Sarno’s denial of Akram’s anti-Semitic motive was a “professional” oversight. Since De Sarno is a “professional,” rather than a “politician,” so the thinking goes, everything De Sarno does in his job is necessarily based on purely “professional” considerations. To fix what failed, De Sarno and his ilk require more professional training.
But the fact of the matter is that at least initially, no one was casting aspersions on the professional competence that De Sarno and his team demonstrated outside Beth Israel. True, the FBI didn’t free the hostages. The hostages freed themselves. And true, we still don’t know how Akram was killed, and if it was the FBI officers who killed him, why they killed him.
We also don’t know who was responsible for permitting Akram, a British national with a criminal record, a history of public support for terrorism and a mental illness, to enter the United States. But then again, it’s fairly clear that De Sarno and the FBI Dallas Field Office he leads played no role in that failure.
At any rate, given the outcome at the scene, from a professional statecraft perspective, De Sarno and his team played things by the book. De Sarno’s denial of the terrorist’s anti-Semitic motivation had nothing to do with professionalism. It was a political/ideological pronouncement. It wasn’t made in a vacuum, and it should be deeply disconcerting to all Americans because it is a testament to a growing pathology within the FBI.
Over the past 15 years, much of the federal government, including the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, have been politicized and radicalized. The first major demonstration of the politicization came in 2013 with the IRS’s discriminatory use of its regulatory authorities against organizations and individuals aligned with the conservative and Republican side of the ideological/political spectrum.
In 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies unlawfully targeted Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. To promote a clear political agenda, the heads of the FBI and the Department of Justice wrongfully used their authority as intelligence and law enforcement “professionals” to conduct politically motivated, evidence-free criminal probes, first of candidate and later of President Donald Trump and his advisers. These investigations, which cost U.S. taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, hamstrung Trump and his administration for two and a half years. They subverted Trump’s domestic and foreign policies and contributed to unprecedented discord and division in American society.
And this brings us to De Sarno’s absurd denial of the anti-Semitic nature of Akram’s actions at Beth Israel. As FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Merrick Garland have proclaimed in congressional testimony over the past year, as far as the FBI and the Justice Department are concerned, the gravest terror threat facing the United States emanates from “domestic terrorists” (aka Trump supporters). Islamic terrorists and violent far-left groups like ANTIFA and Black Lives Matter who looted and burned America’s cities, killing dozens and causing billions of dollars in damages throughout much of 2020, lag well behind the MAGA crowd in terms of the danger they pose to America and its citizens.
Given the gravity of the perceived threat, naturally, U.S. counter-terror and law enforcement agencies have invested their time, manpower and resources in investigating American citizens who participated in or supported the violent demonstration at Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021.
Akram was not a Trump supporter. He was not a white supremacist. He was an Islamic anti-Semite and terrorist. And so he was an inconvenient distraction from the real threat the FBI is concerned with.
De Sarno’s false construal of Akram’s motives flows naturally from the political/ideological closed circle of today’s FBI.
The FBI’s about-face on the nature of the terror attack at Beth Israel was welcome. But we’ll only know if it represents a change in its perception over time. How the FBI and the Justice Department contend with Islamic anti-Semites and jihadist terrorism going forward will tell us if the FBI was paying lip service to reality on Sunday or if the corrected statement means that the FBI is now serious about contending with Islamic Jew hatred and terrorism.
De Sarno’s deliberately deceptive political statement exposed a much more general truth about politics in the public service. This truth is usually obscured by arrogant talk about “professionals” who purportedly serve the public devoid of ulterior motives on the one hand, and “politicians” who are motivated by “political considerations,” which are always crude and tawdry and oftentimes corrupt, on the other hand.
The simple truth is that when it comes to questions of ideology and policy, regardless of their rank and seniority, public servants have no advantage over the rest of the public. And they certainly have no advantage over the public’s elected representatives.
A metaphor is useful here. In a democratic society, a professional civil servant is supposed to act like a car that can go wherever the driver decides to take it. Senior civil servants are supposed to act like the car dealership, responsible for providing good cars and reliable servicing.
The car’s owner is the public, and the driver is the person the public elected to represent it. Just as a driver owes an accounting to the car owner, who can fire him if he doesn’t deliver the service the owner expects, the public can fire their elected officials if they fail to deliver the country to the destination to which the public elected them to lead it. The car remains, regardless of who drives it, ready to move in any direction.
Just as drivers don’t need to know how a car works to know how to drive it, politicians don’t need to have the same professional background and capabilities that the civil servants they oversee have acquired. And just as maintenance crews and car dealerships are responsible for the upkeep and performance of the car but don’t decide where it should go, senior civil servants are responsible for the professional competence of their subordinates, but aren’t empowered to set policy.
When unelected public servants decide on their own what the proper policies should be, or cast aspersions, criminalize and subvert the policies of the public’s elected representatives, they aren’t acting as professionals. They are acting as politicians. Indeed, they are acting as the worst sort of politicians—the kind that aren’t accountable to the public. That is, they are acting like dictators.
If the situation is bad in America, it is far worse in Israel. In the United States, senior members of the civil service and federal judges are appointed by elected officials and in that sense, they are accountable to them. In Israel, senior civil servants and Supreme Court justices effectively appoint themselves. And tenders for government lawyers tend to be internal and controlled by the self-appointed senior attorneys. As an effectively independent power center completely unaccountable to either the public or its elected representatives, government lawyers in the state prosecution and the Attorney General’s office and Supreme Court justices make decisions on the basis of their political and ideological positions, without reference to what the law says.
Together with the justices, government lawyers have seized the power of elected officials to dictate foreign, military, energy, fiscal, immigration, environmental, health and other policies. They define the boundaries of individual liberties, including freedom of speech and religious worship.
They have adopted the radical concept of group rights and identities at the expense of individual rights and liberties. They selectively enforce law based on an individual’s group affiliation rather than the legality of an individual’s actions. This would be bad enough if their positions were aligned with the values and interests of the public, as those are manifested at the ballot box. But the political and ideological views of Israel’s legal fraternity are on the radical, post-Zionist fringe of the political spectrum.
Not only have the unelected lawyers of the civil service and the Supreme Court seized the power of elected leaders to determine policy, they have seized the power of elected lawmakers to legislate. The lawyers dictate to Israel’s lawmakers what laws can be written, and how they must be written. And, if an objectionable law gets past the filters of the self-appointed, unaccountable legal advisers in government ministries and the Knesset, then Supreme Court justices have seized the power to abrogate duly promulgated laws based on nothing but their personal opinions, political convictions and ideological habits.
And that is not all. In Israel, the unelected, unaccountable lawyers not only dictate policies and laws, they investigate, indict, try, judge, punish and imprison elected officials who dare to sit in the driver’s seat, grab the wheel and try to steer the car in the direction they pledged to voters that they would take it.
Americans need to understand, and Israelis need to understand all the more urgently, that if they wish their governments’ policies to reflect their values and advance their national interests, lobbying politicians to adopt this or that policy will not be enough to ensure their voices are heard. The first and most urgent action that must take place in both countries—and again, most urgently in Israel—is the removal of all “professionals” from the driver’s seat.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate