November 1, 2016
by Tim Weiner
Do the words “extremely careless” ring a bell?
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s director, James B. Comey, threw that stinging criticism at Hillary Clinton in July, shortly after announcing that the bureau’s long investigation of her handling of classified information had turned up no crime. Now he faces the same judgment from her — and his superiors at the Justice Department.
In hurling barbs at Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Comey has at once revived his reputation for confronting commanders in chief and resurrected the spirit of the F.B.I.’s most infamous high priest. Somewhere, tearing wings off flies in a dark star chamber in the sky, J. Edgar Hoover is smiling. The use of secret information to wound public figures was one of his favorite sports.
The United States has spent many years trying to stand clear of Hoover’s long shadow. But it lengthens in an age of relentless government surveillance and pitiless political publicity. And Mr. Comey has chosen to become a singular force in American politics. His miscalculated decision to unleash his letter to Clinton hunters in Congress looked less like a legal maneuver than an act of political warfare.
The F.B.I. has an essential role in national security and law enforcement, and it also has the awesome power to destroy someone, delivering blows as only the bureau can. It cannot and must not devolve into what it was in the 20th century after the Cold War — a backbiting, bitter, badly led phalanx of spies with guns — or revert to its old role under Hoover as an instrument of political warfare.
Thomas Kean, the Republican chairman of the September 11 commission, concluded more than a decade ago: “We can’t continue in this country with an intelligence agency with the record the F.B.I. has. You have a record of an agency that’s failed, and it’s failed again and again and again.” That is one reason President Obama chose Mr. Comey in 2013: to command and control the F.B.I. under the rule of law.
Yet despite that mandate, the bureau remains the closest thing we have in this country to a secret police. With the barest oversight from lawmakers, Mr. Comey sits at F.B.I. headquarters — the J. Edgar Hoover Building, that crumbling Brutalist parking garage deliberately situated midway between the White House and Congress — playing by his own rules.
Only Mr. Comey can tell us why he went public with a weeks-old investigation into the emails of the Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, a certain ex-congressman (for the record, Anthony Weiner is no relation). But it was immediately clear that Mr. Comey had violated Justice Department protocols in disclosing the case at its earliest stages.
The only explanation I can think of is a barely plausible one, which delves into the terrain of the cheap political thriller, but hews to the twisted plots of this presidential campaign. F.B.I. agents in Washington and New York were frustrated after laboring mightily on the former secretary of state’s handling of classified emails and producing no indictable offense. Mr. Comey, who must flourish or fail by the respect in which his agents hold him, revived the thrill of their chase when a federal case against the aforementioned ex-congressman developed, and now the F.B.I. was on the hunt again. Its agents seized a computer from him; emails from Ms. Abedin were on it.
Were these communiqués classified? Threats to national security? Recipes for risotto or blueprints for building a hydrogen bomb? And what if anything did they reveal about the epistolary endeavors of the former secretary of state and current Democratic nominee for president? The F.B.I. had no idea when Mr. Comey made his remarkable disclosure.
This case is not about personalities. Mr. Comey is not Hoover’s ghost. Nor should it be about politics. The F.B.I. is supposed to be above that. But it is about power, its use and abuse.
Mr. Comey’s reputation for independence in the face of executive power was forged in a 2004 confrontation with President George W. Bush over the widespread and mostly secret warrant less searches of Americans’ emails. When Mr. Comey, then the acting attorney general, found out about it he confronted the president, declared the program illegal, and said he would resign if it were not altered or abolished. He later reflected that it was hard to straddle the tracks in front of a speeding railroad train and yell, “Stop!”
Sadly for many who admired his courage, Mr. Comey now more closely resembles the runaway train. His conduct calls to mind the testimony of another Secretary of State, George P. Shultz, in the aftermath of the Iran-contra imbroglio — the disastrous decision by the Reagan administration to sell overpriced weapons to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, skim off the proceeds, and slip millions to rebel cadres in Central America after Congress had cut off its support.
Mr. Shultz said, of the Director of Central Intelligence during the Iran-contra affair, William J. Casey: “The C.I.A. and Bill Casey were as independent as a hog on ice and could be as confident as they were wrong.” Substitute “the F.B.I. and Jim Comey” and we have a sense of where we are.
In his role as the Director of the Bureau, Mr. Comey is not supposed to be a Republican or a Democrat. He is supposed to stand as the living embodiment of the statue of Justice — wearing a blindfold, holding a sword in one hand, a balancing scale in the other. In light of his recent conduct, the blindfold and the sword seem intact, but the scale seems to have gone missing. America could use the balance.