Former Attorney General Speechwriter: James Comey Most Autonomous FBI Director Since J. Edgar Hoover
from the J.-Edgar-Comey dept
Riley Roberts, speechwriter for former attorney general Eric Holder, has a fascinating examination of James Comey’s first four years as the head of the FBI. It details his frequently-antagonistic relationship with, well, nearly everyone, as well as his long history of going head-to-head with high-ranking government officials.
Roberts says no FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover has acted with such autonomy. The unprecedented public discussion of the agency’s Clinton email investigation is just one such example. While Comey was undoubtedly correct that there was significant public interest in not just the outcome, but the inner workings of the investigation, his decision to hold a press conference and release investigative documents came as a surprise to his closest colleagues.
By and large, Justice Department lawyers have declined to criticize Comey in public, for fear of angering the FBI director. But in personal conversations and expletive-laden email threads, many were apoplectic at his handling of the Clinton case. One aide described senior officials who should have been involved in the announcement scrambling to watch it on television. Some were particularly incensed by the editorial commentary sprinkled throughout Comey’s statement.
While there is some begrudging respect for Comey’s refusal to adhere to protocol or outside political forces, there are just as many that feel Comey’s actions aren’t prompted by a desire to make the FBI look better, but rather to make Comey look better. Comey serves Comey first, something that has led to him touting the heavily-debunked “Ferguson Effect,” arguing against long-overdue federal sentencing reform, and fiercely advocating for encryption backdoors when even the Obama administration won’t back him up.
Comey appears to be the worst kind of idealist: one that clings to his beliefs, but only when they serve his purpose. Comey was a key figure in a highly-publicized fight against NSA overreach back in 2004 — one that culminated in a bedside visit to a hospitalized John Ashcroft in order to block the Stellar Wind domestic surveillance program. But Comey was only very temporarily a champion of the public’s privacy and civil liberties.
Senior White House officials descended upon the intensive care unit where Ashcroft was convalescing after emergency surgery, hoping to bully the ailing attorney general into approving the surveillance program. Comey raced to the hospital to head them off, enlisting then-FBI Director Robert Mueller III to accompany him. With backup from Comey and Mueller, the bedridden Ashcroft held firm, the White House was forced to retreat, and the courageous deputy attorney general was hailed—almost universally—as a hero.
This is where the story customarily ends: with Comey, who would sooner have resigned (and taken Mueller with him) than violate his principles, riding into the sunset. But like so much of the mythmaking that goes on in Washington, this heroic picture—like Comey’s victory—is incomplete.
The truth is that Stellar Wind did not meet an ignominious end in Ashcroft’s hospital room in 2004. It continued through late 2011; some elements remain in place even today. And the program was reauthorized, with slight modifications, not in defiance of Comey’s categorical denunciations, but on his signature—less than a month after this high drama took place.
The problem with Comey’s willingness to push his own agenda, rather than one that more closely adheres to his agency’s, is that his office is pretty much a law unto itself. The agency has no clearly defined mandate that governs its actions, and the director’s office isn’t overseen directly, but rather grouped into other Congressional and administration oversight efforts — none of which have been consistently effective in curbing agency misconduct or abuse of its powers.
Roberts notes that there could be more trouble ahead. Comey has only served four years of his 10-year appointment, meaning he’ll soon be interacting with a new Commander-in-Chief. If it’s Hillary Clinton, it’s safe to assume the antagonism and resistance to White House instruction and intervention will only become more aggressive. If it’s Trump, the end result could be much more unpredictable — and not in a way that will generate any positive side effects.
A Donald Trump presidency, on the other hand, would pit the headstrong FBI director against a know-nothing strongman—a “law and order” president with little regard for the law. Dramatic and likely escalating, clashes would be virtually inevitable. And the potential for lasting damage would be immense.
One thing is guaranteed: Comey has cared little for official administration stances on issues like encryption, and installing a new person in the Oval Office isn’t going to change that. The question is how long he lasts when faced with an administration — Trump’s or Clinton’s — that might start pushing for an early retirement.