Thursday, May 4, 2017

FBI's James Comey testifies before Judiciary Committee

FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee concerning the presidential election. The big issue concerned Comey's informing this same committee, less than two weeks before the election, that he was looking into new data that might be relevant to the investigation of Hillary Clinton's emails.

Meta-data of thousands of emails, to and from Clinton, had just been discovered on the computer of Anthony Weiner, the husband of Clinton's long-term aide, Huma Abedin.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) asked him to explain his decision.    Comey described the context.   He had already announced back in July 2016 that no charges would be brought against Clinton.   At that time, he also told the Judiciary Committee that if anything changed, he would keep them informed.

Thus, when these new emails emerged, and knowing that the FBI had never found any emails from Clinton's server for her first three months as Secretary of State, he realized that he had to look into the possibility that these could be relevant.   And, at that point, he would have to acquire a warrant to allow the FBI to examine the emails' contents, and he did not know if there was time to accomplish that prior to the election in just 11 days.

Comey said he always observed the tradition of avoiding any action that might influence an upcoming election, if at all possible.   But in this case he saw only two options:  "speak" or "conceal."  He felt "no action" was ruled out by his commitment to the committee to keep them informed if anything new turned up on this investigation.

Speaking "would be really bad," he said, because the election was only 11 days away.  But concealing this information "would be castastrophic."   So he informed the committee in writing, which he should have known would immediately have leaked -- as it did.   The resulting media and political storm was not assuaged on Nov. 6th (two days before the election), when Comey announced that they had been able to examine enough of the emails to say there was nothing new in them.

So, in effect, he dropped a bomb, and then said 'never mind' -- causing great furor among Clinton supporters who blamed him, at least in part, for causing her narrow and unexpected defeat.  In his testimony Tuesday, Comay said:  "Look, this was terrible.   It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election, but honestly, it wouldn't change the decision."

He said he had been asked by one of his junior lawyers in the department whether he should consider that what he was about to do might help elect Donald Trump.  Comey, always self-righteous and confident in his judgment, said he answered, "Not for a moment.  Because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent institution in America.   I can't consider for a second whose political fortunes will be impacted in what way."

Feinstein said, in her opinion, "everyone knew that the letter would have a massive impact, and that the election was 'lost' as a result."  The Justice Department's Inspector General is currently investigating Comey's decision.

Nate Silver posted a series of articles called "The Real Story of 2016," the latest one titled, "The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton the Election."  It can be found at:

I once admired Comey as an attorney of great principle, when he stood up to Dick Cheney's stooges in Attorney General Ashcroft's hospital room and, as Acting AG, refused to renew the authorization of torture that they were pressuring the gravely ill Ashcroft to sign.

But in that instance, he knew what he was dealing with;  and he knew it was wrong.   He even knew his boss (Ashcroft) opposed it;  and he knew torture was a violation of international law and the U.S. Military Code.   So he was on safe legal ground, even if under intense political pressure from the president.

In the Clinton case, he was not weighing whether to conceal known incriminating evidence.   He was weighing only a possibility -- maybe even only a slight possibility.  He simply didn't know what he had and whether there was time to find out before the election.  And he didn't want the responsibility of not informing the Justice Committee and being blamed for that if it turned out to be incriminating for Clinton.

Thus Comey weighed the outside chance that he would wind up having to answer for having kept quiet, let Clinton be elected, and then be accused of having failed to reveal the possibility of damaging information.   Instead, he did the opposite:  he spoke without knowing there was nothing to it, and thus at least added to Clinton's defeat -- with all the negative consequences in this disaster that we are living out.

Comey sought to preserve his reputation for courage and legalistic purity -- and he is right to an extent.   But it would have taken more courage, I would argue, to have accepted the responsibility of that small risk to his reputation rather than the result that we did get.   I believe he has hurt his reputation even more by what he did, because he seems almost pathologically inflexible, given that he was not concealing known wrong-doing, only the possibility -- which was going to have grave consequences for the nation.


PS:  Comey tried to explain why he spoke about the Clinton investigation but did not reveal that the FBI was also investigating the Trump/Russia connection.  He said that, when he first spoke about the Clinton investigation, it had already been ongoing for three months.   Well, he began the Trump/Russia investigation in July 2016;  the election was not until November -- a little over three months.

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