“We’ve Got a Job to Do”
In late September—as FBI director Christopher Wray fielded questions on Capitol Hill about voter fraud, election security, roiling racial tensions, police bias, and an ongoing probe into the conduct of FBI agents who oversaw the Russia investigation during the heat of the 2016 election—Jason Jones spoke to DAM about his new job as the bureau’s general counsel. An English major and Shakespeare enthusiast who rode out Dartmouth winters in the basement of Theta Delta Chi, Jones spent nearly 10 years as a federal prosecutor, served on the Guantanamo Review Task Force in 2009, and worked in a private practice—alongside Wray—before joining the FBI in August.
What does the general counsel to the FBI do? My job is to lead the organization of 200 lawyers and 100 staff that represents the interests of the FBI, not of any one person. We’re not special agents. We’re support—35,000 FBI employees is a big organization with a big legal team. There are criminal cases where there are questions of Fourth Amendment, First Amendment, Fifth Amendment issues. We’re there to render legal advice on intelligence collection, FISA issues, dealing with the intelligence communities. We’re there to help respond to inquiries from Congress.
Do you help the director prepare for appearances such as the one he’s making today before the Senate Judiciary Committee? I have a team that works very hard on that, but I often provide personal advice to him and the senior leadership.
This is a challenging time for the FBI. The FBI has been around for more than 110 years. The bureau has gone through hard times before—war, financial crises, unrest. The goal is to stay focused on the mission, which is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution. If we focus on those things, a lot of the day-to-day distractions tend to seem less important to us than they may to folks watching the 24-hour news cycle.
We like to say, “Keep calm and tackle hard.” We’ve got a job to do. The American people need to be protected from all manner of threats. Obviously the No. 1 continuing threat is that of terror attacks. There are also cyber threats, public corruption, sexual violence, civil rights violations. All those things are not going away just because people are on TV bickering about who’s right and who’s wrong in a given election cycle.
Is your job more difficult because of how politicized the FBI has become? Look what happened to former director James Comey. We’re not a political organization, or at least we shouldn’t be, and I find that when people stray from the mission of the FBI or our partners and wade into the political arena, that’s a perilous place to be. Our focus should be less on what does one party or the other think of what we do, and more on what do the American people think of what we do. And do they still believe that we are the preeminent law enforcement organization in the world? And do they trust us to do that job? That’s the critical part.
Do all of the hot-button issues of racial and civil unrest, Antifa, right wing militias, and police misconduct cross your desk? All those issues cross my desk, because all those issues are wrapped up with issues of constitutional concern. So, for example, you mention the racial unrest: It is very clear that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies are not in the business of regulating people’s speech. It doesn’t matter what people are saying. It shouldn’t matter to any investigation what people are saying. That’s putting aside issues of incitement or threats. But the First Amendment protects organization and making views known, and we’re there to protect that right.
At the same time there are people who are opportunists—meaning they’re not there to engage in speech but they see an opportunity in the chaos to loot or steal or break. Those are crimes, and they deserve to be prosecuted. Those crimes have victims, and those victims have a right to be vindicated. Things such as Antifa—pick your organization, right wing, left wing—those types of issues are important to us insofar as any of them turn out to be organized, funded efforts at committing a crime, such as burning courthouses or shooting people. That’s why they come across my desk.
The Justice Department prosecuted Russian nationals who interfered in the 2016 election, but the interference continues. How frustrating is that? I can’t talk about a specific case. What I can tell you is that the FBI is very focused on election security and efforts by foreign powers to influence elections, regardless of the direction of that influence. There are powerful foreign intelligence services looking to gain an advantage over the United States in whatever way they can, including corporate espionage and influencing elections. That has not gone unnoticed and is indeed actively investigated by the FBI and turned over for prosecution whenever we can.
How do you approach groups such as QAnon, which exist mostly online and are engaging in activities that may—or may not—be criminal? The criminal organizations and our adversaries have sophisticated ways to carry out crimes in ways that are very difficult to detect. And they cloak it in what looks like completely appropriate behavior. When you have an organization on the dark web that seems to be just a message board, but when you dig a little bit deeper you discover it is a vehicle for trafficking in weapons, narcotics, and child pornography—that’s a difficult threat to meet. The FBI has to constantly innovate its methods with technology and new authorities from Congress to try to uncover that conduct.
How did you meet FBI Director Wray? I was a prosecutor for about 10 years. Six-and-a-half in Brooklyn and three in Washington prosecuting Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases. Then I went back to King and Spalding, where I had started my career, but this time here in D.C. In that capacity I got to know him very well. Then he left to become the director of the FBI. Flash forward to this summer. I’m sitting at home with my kids and my wife, trying to juggle maintaining a successful law practice while parenting and weathering a pandemic, when my cell phone rings. The director and I caught up for a few minutes and then he asked if I would be willing to be general counsel. I told him I needed to talk to my wife.
It didn’t sound appealing? My wife and I talked about all the reasons not to take the job, including the criticism of the FBI from a lot of different corners and leaving a job during uncertain economic times. As we talked, all of those reasons started to sound more like reasons why I should say yes. I feel very strongly that the FBI is an organization that is singularly focused on doing the right thing, but more importantly doing it the right way, every time. We can’t be an organization where the ends justify the means. We have to be an organization where the means justify the ends. Whatever happens at the end of any investigation, whether we were able to put a case together or not, it’s a lot more important that we did it the right way. That was something that I couldn’t pass up at this time of need.
“We have to be an organization where the means justify the ends.”
How have your first two months been? It’s been dizzying. Every day is completely different than the prior day. There’s very little time to breathe. It’s maybe the most fun I’ve ever had in a job. It’s also the hardest job I’ve ever had, because the issues are so important and crucial to get right. It makes for some interesting days.
How did you wind up at Dartmouth? I grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Like many high school kids, you start going on your college tours. Getting out of the car in Hanover was transformative. It’s an amazingly beautiful place. I really liked the vibe I got from all the people I met there. At one of the other schools I was interviewing with, it was in the Ivy League but I won’t say which one, the guy asked me, “If you were a vegetable, what vegetable would you want to be?” And you know, I was a smart-alec teenager, but I couldn’t come up with a response. I thought, “This school probably isn’t for me.” Then I ended up at Dartmouth. From the get-go—getting there, going on the DOC trip—until the day I left, it was an amazing experience.
Do any professors stand out in your memory? One of my favorites was Peter Saccio, a Shakespeare professor. I was an English major, and his introductory Shakespeare class was always oversubscribed. He offered a seminar that was focused entirely on Hamlet. Just being able to be in a small, 15-person class with one of the greatest Shakespeare teachers in the world, studying one of the greatest plays in the world, was really a remarkable experience. I also ended up taking a seminar on the lyrics of Bob Dylan from Lou Renza, which had a slightly different feel to it. It was amazing in its own right. The idea you could spend an entire semester studying those two very different types of works really encapsulates a lot of what I loved about learning there.
Did you know you wanted to go to law school? The other career path I was looking at was being a high school English teacher. I interviewed at a couple of high schools and just decided that, on balance, it would probably be easier to go to law school and decide that wasn’t for me than to go teach and decide that wasn’t for me and then try and go to law school. I think I would have really enjoyed being a teacher, but I’ve certainly loved being a lawyer.
The September 11 terror attacks had a formative role in directing your career. I was clerking for a federal judge in Boston in a beautiful courthouse right across the water from Logan Airport. I remember very vividly going into work that morning and having the TV on and seeing the planes hit the towers. The judge came in and we told him that the World Trade Center had just been attacked. There was a fair amount of general panic in the courthouse. But the judge, [U.S. District Court] Judge [Joseph L.] Tauro, he said, “Well, we have a job to do.” And we went to work.
Your first job as a prosecutor was in the Eastern District of New York, known to handle some of the toughest criminal cases in the country. What was that like? It was very gratifying to try to bring violent criminals to justice and to help vindicate the rights of the victims. But those are hard cases. Everybody has a story, and so it was just very different than anything I had done before.
Are there cases that stick with you even now? There was a case we prosecuted against this gang out of Brooklyn. We worked with the FBI and NYPD very closely. It was referred to as the “Folk Nation” case. The gang had ravaged the community. These guys had killed a lot of people. One of them, Tabatha Buckman, was a young woman in her 30s. She worked at a chicken restaurant, sang in the church choir. One of the gang members sprayed the restaurant with gunfire. He believed someone in the restaurant was a rival gang member. Hit her in the head. Killed her almost instantly.
It was very gratifying to at least give her family the closure of prosecuting her killers. There was a similar case, an MS13 case with a young African American kid standing out on the street. They shot him dead, and his only sin was that he was wearing a red sweatshirt and they thought he was a rival gang member. Certainly that makes it worthy of getting up and going to work every day.
What was it like going to see detainees at the Guantanamo Bay camp? A little surreal. At the time it was a closed base. It felt a lot like a prison, very professionally run. It was an experience that will certainly sit with me for a long time.
Matthew Mosk is a senior investigative producer for ABC News.