At the time Clinton was surging in the polls, and Trump’s campaign seemed to be imploding under the weight of poor debate performances and accusations of sexual assault. Some observers argue that Comey’s intervention stopped the decline and reduced Clinton’s national lead by up to three points. Although it is impossible to prove causation, the letter may have depressed turnout on her behalf. Late-deciding voters broke for Trump in large numbers.
Comey’s action led to anger from the Clinton campaign and calls for his resignation from the left and the right. But the underlying story is not just about Comey or the FBI. Instead, it is about the perverse consequences of government transparency, and the fraught relationship between national security and the demands of democracy.
Transparency and intelligence have a complicated relationship
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a growing push to make intelligence and law enforcement agencies more open. Intelligence officials have responded by providing extraordinary access to their sources and methods, and even by releasing sanitized versions of current intelligence estimates. Law enforcement leaders have increasingly tried to keep the public in the know. In the Comey case, this meant breaking the prohibition about not discussing ongoing investigations.
There are good reasons law enforcement officials aren’t supposed to talk about ongoing cases. Doing so may bias their investigation or otherwise compromise their work. Similarly, there are good reasons for intelligence officials to keep quiet. Going public about estimates raises the likelihood of politicization, because policymakers are likely to pressure intelligence officials if they know that intelligence will be a part of the debate about controversial policy decisions. This was a big reason for the fiasco surrounding the flawed estimates of Iraq’s weapons programs before the war in 2003.
Nonetheless, the trend toward transparency continues apace. CIA Director John Brennan, for instance, offered public support for the Iran nuclear agreement. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence also publicly blamed the Russian government for hacking the Democratic National Committee. Whatever one thinks about the Iran deal or Russian mischief, the fact that intelligence leaders are commenting on the record puts them in a difficult position. For example, if they go on the record, it means they may be unwilling to change their conclusions even if new and disconfirming information appears later.
This is why Comey’s efforts had such perverse consequences
The public may now expect to have access to current intelligence and ongoing legal assessments. The desire for openness from government officials is understandable, of course. Transparency is the only way we can hold executive agencies accountable. However, the Comey saga is a stark and troubling reminder that transparency has a price. The more law enforcement and intelligence officials reveal about their ongoing activities, the greater the risk of unintended consequences.
Trump has no experience in national security affairs. He should welcome the information and insight provided by intelligence agencies and the FBI — which staffs a large network of international offices and maintains contacts with foreign law enforcement and security agencies. Encouraging candid discussions with incoming policymakers requires a degree of mutual trust, and encouraging trust requires a belief in secrecy.
In daily life we rely on mechanisms such as doctor-patient confidentiality and attorney-client privilege. These safeguards allow for frank conversations about topics that are embarrassing or worse. The same is true in government, where the consequences of airing private conversations or classified information can have profound and lasting implications. As the new administration ponders its approach to national security and grand strategy, the urge on the part of officials to use the bureaucracy to score political points can lead to intelligence and law enforcement being politicized. Intelligence and law enforcement officials can damage their legitimacy, damage their relationship with political decision-makers, and make it harder to do their jobs if they start to crave the limelight.
Secrecy and democracy coexist uneasily. Too much secrecy can lead to inefficiency and government abuse. The events of the last month, however, highlight how transparency can lead to politicization and government dysfunction.
Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower distinguished chair in international politics and national security at Southern Methodist University, where he also serves as director of the Security and Strategy Program (SAS@SMU).