Comey breaks department protocol by commenting on investigation

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We have all heard it before: a Department of Justice or Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesperson recites, “We cannot confirm the existence of nor can we comment on any potential or ongoing investigation.”

Although constantly refusing to comment on investigations might cause federal law enforcement officials to sound like a broken record, their doing so is both prudent and it underscores the importance of following protocol regardless of circumstance. DOJ and FBI employees and spokespeople are expected to exhibit even greater restraint during the waning days of an election, consistent with department protocol, because failing to do so might be seen as politically interfering in the electoral process, leading the public to question the independence and credibility of federal law enforcement agencies, or worse, weakening one of the most important principles of our democracy.

{mosads}Yet, FBI Director James Comey ran afoul of department protocol and injected himself and his agency into the electoral process with voters going to the ballots in just over a week. And, as you likely remember, this is not Comey’s first time crossing a boundary: in July he held an unusual press conference in which he lashed Secretary Clinton and offered his personal opinions to supplement his professional recommendation. In the end, he ultimately declared that no “reasonable prosecutor” would choose to indict her. Many found it odd that he would so publicly lambast Secretary Clinton in an extended press conference instead of simply and succinctly announcing his reasoning and determination that the FBI lacked grounds to prosecute Secretary Clinton.

In contrast to the lengthy fifteen-minute press conference Comey gave in July, the letter Comey sent Friday had only three paragraphs consisting of one hundred and sixty-two words, thereby inviting speculation and providing fodder for campaigning partisans. In the letter, Comey himself acknowledged the new material, stumbled upon in an unrelated investigation, may or may not have any significance to the concluded investigation into Secretary Clinton’s emails, whatsoever. Still, from the Trump campaign perspective it is a convenient redirect away from the truths of their deeply flawed candidate who is sexist, bigoted, and wholly unfit for the office in which he seeks. Sure, it makes for a sexy headline and one hell of an attack ad when taken out of context; but the damage done to a federal institution that is supposedly impartial might be long lasting.

To be fair, FBI Director James Comey has a reputation of honesty and integrity. His record and reputation notwithstanding, he just threw a fourth-quarter Hail Mary to team Trump, thus further blemishing his long and respectable career in public service and calling into question the credibility of our nation’s federal law enforcement agencies.

As a former Assistant District Attorney, I know first-hand the prudence of following guidance for conducting an impartial investigation. When one fails to follow that guidance, it is not only unfair but it sets a destructive precedent for others to follow and potentially abuse. Most importantly, it undermines public trust. Should the FBI send letters to Congress upon discovery of new and unanalyzed material for elected officials to share—when politically expedient—even if the Director himself acknowledges that the material may or may not be significant at all?

I agree with both presidential campaigns that the FBI must immediately release as much information as possible regarding the new material. I hope we can all agree on that much, and Mr. Comey can understand the gravity of his mistake and begin to remedy it expeditiously. Already in the eleventh hour, we have little time to waste if we are to fully inform the American citizenry before they head to the ballot box and exercise their sacred right to vote on Nov. 8. The strength of our democracy should never be a partisan debate.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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