National Security

Washington's Never Seen Anything Like the Comey Crisis. Or Has It?

Tim Weiner, chronicler of U.S. intel agencies, points out that in showdowns with a president, the FBI is 4-0.

He knew a thing or two.

Source: Keystone/Getty Images

Journalists are warned to never use the word "unprecedented" in their articles, and for good reason: There is very little that is new under the sun. That said, plenty of commentators have used that adjective to describe the Great James Comey Roadshow in recent weeks, be it about his firing as FBI director by Donald Trump, his seven-page advance statement to Congress on Wednesday or his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.  

So, is this a legitimate exception to the "unprecedented" rule? To answer that question, I decided to talk to someone who knows a thing or two about the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation: Tim Weiner, author of "Enemies: A History of the FBI." Weiner, a former colleague of mine at the New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his reporting on a secret Pentagon "black budget" and a 2007 National Book Award for a history of the Central Intelligence Agency. Here is an edited version of our interview:

Tobin Harshaw: Tim, before we get into the Comey scandal, let's talk about the bureau's roots. Why was it created, back in 1908?

Tim Weiner: President Teddy Roosevelt and his attorney general, Charles Bonaparte -- a great nephew of the French emperor -- had two reasons for creating what was then called the Bureau of Investigation. Roosevelt stated them clearly: one was to create a federal police force that could investigate "malefactors of great wealth." The second was to investigate corruption in the Senate and the House. They slipped the bill appropriating money for the bureau into legislation passed by Congress, which was loath at the time to create such a force.

TH: What happened to change the FBI's focus away from that original intent?

TW: J. Edgar Hoover. He first rose to great power at the age of 25 when he held the post of chief of the "radical division" at the Justice Department. He orchestrated what are now known as the Palmer Raids -- A. Mitchell Palmer was the attorney general at the time -- in which he coordinated the arrests of thousands of actual and suspected communists and socialists in a dragnet that began on his 25th birthday: Jan. 1, 1920. Those raids have gone down in history as one of the great abuses of power by the federal government in the name of national security. Four years later, he became head of the bureau.

TH: Hoover ran the FBI until 1972. Was that the reason today's directors are given a 10-year term?

TW: Yes, more than four decades of unbridled power seemed to go against the grain of American democracy -- particularly in the Watergate era. Let it be noted that the Watergate break-in took place six weeks after Hoover died.

The 10-year term was part of the effort to make the post apolitical. It was adopted by Congress by statute so the director would not be hired or fired willy-nilly depending on whether a Republican or Democrat was in office.

TH: And yet here we are. In my opinion, the Comey firing shows that there is no way to make this posting apolitical. Is it fair to say that, in some ways, the tension between a supposedly independent FBI head working for the politically appointed attorney general is a recipe for dysfunction?

TW: It is now. Statutorily, the FBI is part of DoJ. But there is a reason its DC headquarters is located equidistant between the White House and the Capitol. The director has to answer to both the executive and legislative branches. At the time of Hoover's death, the FBI was inside the Justice Department building. A few years later they cut the ribbon on the Hoover building, which looks like a Brutalist parking garage. It is apart from, but also a part of, Justice.

TH: So, on to today. A lot of Hillary Clinton supporters feel that Comey's public statement a few days before the election in November cost her the election. Is that a legitimate gripe?

TW: It’s a false assumption. I know Hillary disagrees, but I think the Comey effect, knowing what we now know about Russian meddling in the election, is farther down the Top 10 list of why she lost.

TH: Still, you cannot deny it was a bombshell and on voters' minds. Have there been other examples of the bureau having such an effect on presidential politics?

TW: Five times in the last 45 years the bureau has gone up against the White House. With all due respect to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it was the FBI that brought down Richard Nixon.

Twelve years later it was the FBI that served search warrants and subpoenas on members of Ronald Reagan's National Security Council after the Iran-Contra imbroglio. Agents recovered 5,000 documents from their computers -- a forensic feat unprecedented in technological virtuosity. That led to the indictments of a dozen of Reagan's national security aids.

A decade later, it was the FBI, in the form of a subpoena to the White House physician who drew blood from the arm of President Bill Clinton for DNA evidence to match the famous blue dress of Monica Lewinsky, that proved he committed perjury and led to his impeachment in the House.

In 2004, then-director Robert Mueller, along with Comey, who was acting attorney general, directly confronted the George W. Bush administration over the unconstitutional and illegal effects of the eavesdropping program Stellar Wind. Bush later wrote in his memoirs that the two men threatened to resign, and that visions of the Saturday Night Massacre 1 flashed before his eyes. The president backed down.

And now, clearly, we have a situation in which evidence trail is leading up to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It’s not like we have the yellow police table around the Ellipse, but we are clearly headed there. And the people taking us there -- Comey and Mueller, now the special counsel in the Russia investigation -- represent between them nearly 16 years in the directorship.

TH: Last, I understand that the FBI director occupies a tenuous middle ground. But many of President Donald Trump's supporters are asking why it's not OK for the president to fire someone who is technically one of his employees. Do they have a point?

TW: Yes, Trump has the power to fire the FBI director. But to fire him at a time when the bureau is investigating the White House and members of the Trump team is a staggeringly blunt instrument to wield. And this seeming insistence that the bureau drop the case against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, along with Trump's statement that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation, are potentially smoking guns that could be construed by Mueller's investigation as obstruction of justice.

Let's not forget what the smoking gun tape of Nixon was: an attempt to get the FBI to stop the Watergate investigation dead in its tracks. Once it was revealed by order of the Supreme Court, Nixon was finished. He resigned two days later.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Oct. 20, 1973, when Nixon tried to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, leading to the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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