In the Loop: James Comey, a tough cookie

Al Kamen
Columnist May 30, 2013

Former Bush II administration deputy attorney general James Comey’s expected nomination to be FBI director reminds us of a great scene in former colleague Barton Gellman’s book “Angler,” which shows just how formidable Comey can be.

The book about then-Vice President Dick Cheney — the title was taken from Cheney’s Secret Service code name — recounts a tense White House showdown between Comey — acting attorney general while John Ashcroft was hospitalized — and his Justice Department lawyers against Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and top intelligence officials over the legality of a domestic surveillance program.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

“The [legal] analysis” justifying the program “is flawed, in fact facially flawed,” Comey said. “No lawyer reading that could reasonably rely on it.”

David Addington , Cheney’s extremely formidable counsel, “stood by the window, over Cheney’s shoulder. He had heard a bellyful,” Gellman writes.

“Well, I’m a lawyer and I did,” Addington said, glaring at Comey.

“No good lawyer,” Comey said.

A three-Smith classic

Reporters prefer that government officials talk “on the record,” meaning you can quote them by name.

They are willing to let officials go “on background” — for example, a “senior Justice Department official” — in the hopes that important, maybe even a bit sensitive, information might be forthcoming.

But there’s nothing more frustrating — or more useless — than a background briefing when no news is committed.

Take, for example, a briefing last Friday (May 24) in Addis Ababa for reporters traveling with Secretary of State John F. Kerry on his trip this week to Ethi­o­pia for the African Union summit and to the Middle East.

After advising reporters to “drink a lot of water” and not to “eat raw vegetables,” a “senior State Department official” — an expert on the region — was asked whether “Ni­ger­ian security forces are committing gross human rights violations” in battling extremists in the north.

The official, according to a transcript, responded with a long discussion of why Nigeria is “extremely important,” even “very critical.” (Stop the presses!)

So the reporter tried again:

“Right, but do you still believe that gross human rights violations . . . are being perpetrated by government forces?”

“We continue to monitor,” the official said, and “we’re going to continue to monitor” and “continue to work with the Nigerians . . . to address the situation . . . and I think the concern is that because of our concern, it does continue.”

The reporter tried again.

“We will continue to monitor and work with the Ni­ger­ian government to address those concerns,” the official said.

After more sparring, the reporter said: “Wait. Can I just — it’s either continuing, or it’s not continuing. It’s a very simple question.”

At this point, an official identified as the “Moderator,” stepped in:

“It’s continuing. It’s continuing,” the Moderator said.

Ahh. So “human rights violations are continuing, correct?” the reporter asked.

“Human rights violations, yes,” the official said.

The briefing was so awful, we hear, that it has spawned a new verb, using the name of the official. (Since we can’t name him, we’ll call him Smith.)

Reporters are now using a rating scale of one “Smith” to three “Smiths” based on the sheer ridiculousness of the backgrounder.

New Justice spokesman

Brian Fallon might have stayed busy as a spokesman for the notoriously press-eager Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), but he could find that his new job, handling media for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., is even more intense.

The longtime Schumer aide is moving to the Justice Department just as it is in the center of a controversy over investigations of journalists as part of government probes of leaks. Not that that’s anything new for Holder, who has faced intense scrutiny on a number of fronts, particularly over his department’s “Fast and Furious” gunwalking program.

Fallon, whose new gig was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, replaces Tracy Schmaler, who left the agency earlier this year. Fallon’s successor wasn’t immediately named.

Saluting a record-holder

Congress is getting ready to party like it’s 1955.

That was the year Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) came to Washington as a 29-year-old lawmaker, succeeding his father, John D. Dingell Sr., a New Deal Democrat, who had died.

As of June 7, Dingell will have served his constituents for 57 years, five months and 26 days, exceeding the previous record held by the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.).

Naturally, Congress plans to celebrate.

Top House and Senate leaders announced Thursday that Congress will mark Dingell’s streak on June 13 in the National Statuary Hall. We’re still light on details, but it’s expected to be quite a fete, since Dingell and his wife, Debbie, remain staples of the Washington social scene.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

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