Jim Comey's damaging legacy at the FBI must be undone

Jim Comey's damaging legacy at the FBI must be undone
© Stefani Reynolds

Fired FBI director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyDemocrats fear Russia interference could spoil bid to retake Senate Book: FBI sex crimes investigator helped trigger October 2016 public probe of Clinton emails Trump jabs at FBI director over testimony on Russia, antifa MORE, the gift that keeps on spinning, went on TV yet again — this time following the two worst weeks in the FBI’s history — in an attempt to cover the mess he made.

His messaging now goes something like this: Those terrible mistakes that happened are simply the result of sloppiness by minions several layers below him. And he was a busy man and, therefore, not accountable for what happened several layers below him. Oh, and any attack on him is an attack on the fine men and women of the FBI.

Mr. Comey, who lectures on ethical leadership, has launched an imaginative strategy to run from his underlings while hiding behind them. In his world, the buck stops near, not here with him. Also — somehow — there is supposed vindication in two Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general’s reports that savaged him, but only he can squint to see it.

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There are two reasons for this. First, he has a business to protect. He has quite effectively monetized his misadventures in the FBI via a rapidly released book, paid gigs with cable news and newspapers, and lucrative lectures. He marveled in a recent New York Times interview about how much money he was making. “It’s a lot,” he gushed. “Seriously, it’s crazy.”

The second reason is found in the relentless posse of Attorney General William BarrBill BarrSunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates What Attorney General Barr really said about justice Pelosi: House will use 'every arrow in our quiver' to stop Trump Supreme Court nominee MORE and U.S. Attorney John DurhamJohn DurhamTop Democrats call for DOJ watchdog to probe Barr over possible 2020 election influence Durham aide resigns from Russia probe amid concerns over pressure from Barr: report Trump praises several Fox News shows at briefing for coverage of Russia probe MORE that is tracking behind him. They could present a significant threat to Comey personally. To what extent we will see, but it is serious and he knows it.

Barr rightly went on TV after Comey’s absurd commentary and calmly, lucidly exposed its nonsense. Barr knows the FBI is worth fighting for and that the inspector general’s latest findings are more a reflection on Comey and his handpicked team than on the FBI. 

This merits clarity and emphasis: When James Comey downplays the litany of sins articulated in the IG report as “sloppiness” at lower levels, he is misleading America. Moreover, he is insulting every dedicated FBI employee, present and past. 

As someone who ran a large counterintelligence squad in a city with a Russian consulate, and who oversaw significant counterintelligence and counterterrorism warrants with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, I can confidently assert that the breathtaking abuses cited in the IG report do not occur in the normal course of FBI conduct, apart from the Comey-led effort. There are too many institutional safeguards that would normally apply the brakes if these were mere mistakes. They couldn’t possibly happen on such a scale — unless the safeguards were disregarded on purpose.

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There is little room for alternative explanations. These extensive bad behaviors — the repeated withholding of exculpatory evidence, the purposeful altering of documents, the casual failure of confidential source validation — all were done with a precision of purpose. These weren’t mistakes or sloppiness; they weren’t one-offs. They were the execution of a plan, a plan led from the top to force a desired outcome and to disregard objective evidence.

As a result, the FISA court itself issued a chilling assertion that all FBI applications to the court are now suspect. Talk about a threat to national security: Perfectly legitimate and urgent FISA applications targeting hostile nations, determined terrorists and real spies among us will be slowed, perhaps discarded. This fundamental damage to the reputation of the FBI will be part of the Comey legacy — and it is urgently worth fighting to rectify.

The FBI historically has held a special place in the unique concept of justice developed in this country, one that seeks to provide even-handed protection for the powerful and the weak alike. This is reflected in the constant production of TV shows and movies about the bureau that continues to this day. We see it each spring in Washington when student field trips descend and hundreds buy FBI T-shirts from street vendors. Our country wants a noble FBI. 

The FBI is more than an institution, more than a “bureau.” It is an ideal of objectivity, of fact-based evidence, of apolitical bearing and unbiased motivations. Where other countries suffer from law enforcement that is controlled by political parties or corrupted through bribes and extortion, the FBI has fought hard the past 100 years to establish a reputation of ironclad impartiality, of healthy independence from the White House and even the Department of Justice. The FBI is often referred to as the “preeminent law enforcement agency in the world,” for this reason above all others.

It holds a deposit of goodwill with the American people, for many worthy reasons. But that deposit is not inexhaustible and, in the past two weeks, was possibly overdrawn. The IG report indicated that the Comey-led FBI committed the one sin that could not be allowed: It manipulated an investigation to achieve a desired outcome — an outcome that had massive political implications.

The first duty of an FBI director, above all others, is to protect the FBI’s traditional core values of objectivity, fairness and impartiality and to guard against even the perception of compromise in this regard. Yet, the IG report revealed a failure to fulfill this duty. Comey assembled a team around him that carried their own substantial baggage of bias, to run investigations unprecedented in political sensitivity. All of this was either spectacularly tone-deaf or purposefully manipulative and agenda-driven. Either way, the FBI lost out.

All of this has infected the FBI like a virus and made it sick for a time. But the FBI has a healthy reserve of antibodies, represented by a workforce that is dedicated to the “ideal” of the FBI and that knows its immeasurable value.  

Two things need to happen going forward. Accountability for the disgraceful abuses listed in the IG report must be achieved from the top on down, not just levied on those Comey is now throwing under the bus. Otherwise, the IG report is meaningless. Additionally, the current FBI director must enact — with a passion that is reassuring to the American people, and with a fierce independence in the face of imprudent political pressures — all appropriate reforms to ensure nothing like this happens again.  

Then we will have a chance to restore the nation’s trust in the FBI. And that is an objective, unbiased good worth fighting for.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.