Time to fire FBI Director James Comey
By William W. Keller, contributor – 12/14/16 12:40 PM EST 252comments
It’s a tough time for the intelligence community in Washington these days.
They can’t seem to steer clear of the election. President-elect Trump is so annoyed that he won’t accept the CIA’s daily briefing, and he’s mocked their assessment that Russia hacked the Democratic and Republican National Committees in an attempt to influence the election.
President Obama, of course, took the opposite position, ordering a full inquiry into the matter. And now, outgoing Senate Minority leader Harry Reid says Congress should investigate FBI Director James Comey’s attempt to sway the election. “Comey,” he said, “who’s of course a Republican…has let the country down for partisan purposes.”
It would be prudent to wait for President Obama’s report before evaluating Mr. Trump’s denial of Russia’s partisan hacking exploits. But, Reid is right about Comey and the time to act is now. The FBI’s intervention in the 2016 presidential election cannot be tolerated. His excuse—that he had to keep Congress informed about the highly partisan issue of Hillary Clinton’s emails in the closing days of the campaign—carries no water. The best course would be to dismiss the FBI director immediately. This would send an unmistakable signal to heads of other government agencies—especially the Intelligence Community—that elections are off limits.
The FBI has a long and dishonorable record of political interference and malfeasance, often associated with its first director, J. Edgar Hoover. He placed his agents on the staffs of the most powerful committees of Congress. He turned the FBI into a political police, infiltrating and disrupting the nation’s “enemies” as he defined them—the USA Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, anti-Vietnam War protest organizations, the civil rights movement, the New Left, and even white hate groups like the KKK.
All became targets of FBI dirty tricks, infiltration, and disruption. And what’s more, Hoover did it on his own authority—ignoring Justice Department guidelines and the recommendations of his superiors—not unlike Comey.
Some say Hoover’s power was rooted in the infamous secret files on members of Congress—known as the director’s “confidential files” that he kept in his inner office. But after Hoover’s death, Congress came to its senses.
In 1975, it empowered the Church Committee to investigate and rein in the illegal domestic spying activities of the Intelligence Community, specifically including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And it legislated term limits.
Today the FBI director is nominated by the president and appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate for a 10-year term—10 years, that is, during good behavior and at the pleasure of the president. Following the Church Committee investigations, it was widely believed that the FBI had been brought to heel by superior power emanating from the U.S. Congress.
But that was before 9/11 and the explosive growth of the intelligence agencies and assets over the past 15 year. New powers of surveillance, internal security, and counterterrorism were added across the Intelligence Community, and especially to the FBI’s portfolio and budgets, which mushroomed.
Now comes Director Comey, who was a registered Republican until July, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013. In a spectacular arrogance of power, Comey put his office in jeopardy, as well as the FBI, wading into the political arena, intervening not once but twice, in the closing days of the presidential election of 2016. But make no mistake about the gravity of his misconduct.
It was a direct assault on the electoral process, even if he says it was not; no matter his intentions, it was an attempt to subvert democracy as it has been practiced in the United States for 240 years.
Against the advice of his superiors in the Justice Department and common sense, Comey sent a vaguely worded letter to Congress, insinuating that the highly charged political issue of classified materials in Hillary Clinton’s emails was still relevant. It was a high-stakes move, and candidate Trump was on it like a 900-pound gorilla. He told a raucous crowd of supporters in Manchester, New Hampshire that the FBI is “reopening the case into [Clinton’s] criminal and illegal conduct that threatened the security of the United States of America.” He said it was “worse than Watergate.” He beat it like a drum in the closing days of the election, and the crowds responded with an ugly chorus of “lock her up, lock her up,” an idea that seemed to resonate with the Republican candidate himself.
Following Comey’s letter to Congress, Clinton’s lead in the polls began to slip. Two days before the election, Comey again raised the issue to Congress, this time exonerating Clinton, but the damage was done. Now we cannot say for certain that Hillary Clinton lost the election because of Comey’s 11th hour interventions. At the same time, it cannot be discounted because she thinks it’s the case, and no one thinks it was an irrelevant or insignificant factor. Comey’s interference, moreover, is emblematic of the rise of the surveillance security state in America. They no longer know the limits of their expanded powers. What must the FBI director have been thinking? Did he think that he was above the law or merely that he could dabble in electoral politics with impunity?
One thing is certain. Comey overstepped the authority of his office and it will take more than a slap on the wrist to set things right. The message needs to be sent loud and clear to the intelligence chiefs and every other appointed government official to keep their hands off of the elections. As a democracy, we cannot tolerate electoral intervention by the FBI or any other agency of the government. How could this happen? Comey suggested in an internal letter to FBI staff, many of whom were dismayed by his shenanigans, that he could not keep the existence of possibly new and possibly relevant emails from the Congress; emails that the FBI had not yet read and whose contents were still unknown; emails that the Republican leadership and their Congressional committees inflated to inflict political damage on the Democrats.
At worst, Comey sought to influence the selection of the next president of the United States. Perhaps he thought his agency would fare better under Trump than Clinton. Or it may be he hoped to ingratiate himself to Trump, a man who had criticized him in the past. But his motivations are far less important than his actions. By inserting himself into the election, he crossed a line, throwing his agency into partisan politics, betraying his oath of office and the trust of the American people.
Accusations have arisen that Comey violated the Hatch Act, engaging in partisan politics as a government employee, an offense for which he could be fired. But this is not the most important factor, even if it is true. Comey’s action was, at best, a colossal error in judgment, arising out of a conceit of power. And it must be added that the FBI is a police power, a power that must be carefully contained and controlled if the democratic will of the people is to prevail.
So Director Comey has to go. It has long been clear that President-elect Trump has no great love for him. And since Trump is often willing to play it fast and loose with the truth, as he did with Comey’s intervention, having an unethical and electorally manipulative FBI director might be a very bad combination. If Trump makes good on his threats—to deport millions of immigrants, bring back torture, kill the families of terrorists, build a wall with Mexico, imprison Hillary Clinton, and fill Guantanamo will more suspects in his war on terror—he will have to find a like-minded FBI director to do his dirty work.
But in all events, this is not a job for the president-elect. The task falls to President Obama because it should be performed immediately, and as president, Obama is the only one in a position to do it now. He should dispatch Director Comey for his poor judgment and his attempts to tamper with the democratic process.
William W. Keller worked as a security analyst for the U.S. Congress for ten years, as executive director of the Center for International Studies at MIT, and as director of the Ridgeway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of six books and has written extensively about the FBI, defense technology, the intelligence community, and the arms trade. His latest book, Democracy Betrayed: The Rise of the Surveillance Security State, will be released from Counterpoint Press in January 2017.