Comey doing his best to destroy FBI reputation
Columnist Bill Press discusses director James Comey and the reputation and impartiality of the FBI.
It took 44 years after the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972 for the FBI to restore its reputation for honesty and impartiality. It took Director James Comey two days to destroy it.
Because of his actions this week, Comey will be remembered as the worst FBI director since Hoover, with one major difference. Back then, Hoover threatened politicians with the existence of secret photos. Today, Comey intimidates politicians with the existence of secret emails. The result’s the same.
Even his critics admit that Comey earned a great reputation as a straight shooter in the Justice Department while serving as deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush, dramatically blocking an effort by the White House to get Attorney General Ashcroft to authorize NSA’s massive domestic surveillance program. And, until this week, his reputation for honesty and independence prevailed at the FBI.
Early last summer, the Justice Department launched two investigations directly related to the 2016 presidential campaign. One involved alleged secret deals between Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s then-campaign manager, and business interests in the Ukraine. The second centered on so-called “pay to play” relationships between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and donors to the Clinton Foundation.
Public knowledge of either investigation would have rocked the 2016 campaign. But, as reported by The New York Times, Director Comey decided to issue no subpoenas or take any actions that would make the two cases public, lest the FBI be seen as trying to interfere with the election.
Later, Comey argued against revealing the conclusion of 17 intelligence agencies that the Russian government was behind the hacking of email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Why? Again, because he feared giving the appearance of taking sides in the election.
But that judicious approach went out the window on Friday, Oct. 28 — just 11 days before the election — when Comey dropped a stink bomb in the middle of the race, announcing in a letter to congressional leaders that the FBI was resuming its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails — based on emails discovered, not on her private server, but on a laptop owned by the disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner, estranged husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin. And Comey did so while acknowledging he knew nothing about the emails: neither how many there were, nor whether they were relevant, significant or contained any classified material.
Then, four days later, on Tuesday, Nov. 1 — now just one week from D-Day — the FBI dropped another political bombshell, releasing all files related to former President Bill Clinton’s controversial 1999 pardon of financier Marc Rich. And suddenly the FBI was not only smack dab in the middle of the 2016 presidential election, it looked like an arm of the Trump campaign.
What happened to Comey? What drove him from impartial observer to partisan player? Justice Department insiders speculate it was his fear of criticism from congressional Republicans, most of whom were already angry at him for failing to indict Clinton last July, after concluding the FBI’s first investigation into her emails. Not willing to upset them again, Comey turned the FBI into the CYA.
Whatever his reasons, Comey’s actions were a monumental display of incompetence, mismanagement, bad judgment and naked partisanship, roundly condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi suggested he was in the wrong job if he “couldn’t take the heat.” Three former attorneys general — one Democrat, two Republicans — accused him of violating a decades-old Justice Department tradition of religiously staying away from politics, especially so close to an election. And President Obama lectured Comey that “we don’t operate on innuendo and we don’t operate on incomplete information.”
Ironically, Comey’s letter to Congress was so vague and contained so little information that it didn’t hurt Hillary Clinton at all. Despite Donald Trump’s claim that this was “worse than Watergate,” most Americans had already made up their minds about Clinton’s emails, and news of this latest batch may slightly alter her margin of victory, but not victory itself.
In the end, the only people hurt by Comey’s Hoover-like behavior are those working for the FBI, which must now rebuild its reputation yet again, and Director Comey himself, who will be out of a job on Nov. 9.
And what do you know? Donald Trump may be right. This election may be rigged, after all. Rigged by the FBI in favor of Donald Trump.