FBI Director James Comey’s 9.0-magnitude political earthquake, announcing in a vague letter to Congress 11 days before the election that new evidence of unknown importance had surfaced in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server, has shined a bright light on the bureau’s unique role in Washington. Here are some myths about its culture and power.
One of J. Edgar Hoover’s first acts when he became director of the FBI in 1924 was to clean house of the bureau’s political appointees — and ever since, directors have proudly bragged that the FBI is completely nonpartisan. It’s simply a “fact-finding agency,” Hoover often promised. This summer, Comey himself assured that the Clinton server investigation had been conducted “in an entirely apolitical and professional way.”
But while the FBI may technically be nonpartisan, it has long been one of the most politically astute institutions in the government. Its files have regularly been deployed as political weapons, from the 1948 election — in which Hoover backed Thomas Dewey over Harry Truman — to Watergate, where leaks from then-Deputy Director Mark Felt helped bring down Richard Nixon. Moreover, the bureau spent much of the 20th century as something akin to America’s “morality police,” shifting resources decade by decade to combat perceived threats to the nation’s social fabric, from Harlem Renaissance authors in the 1930s to antiwar activists in the 1960s to “deadbeat dads” in the 1990s. During his 48-year tenure, Hoover used the power of the traditionally conservative bureau to cozy up to powerful politicians and to bludgeon, publicly and privately, civil rights leaders, political dissidents, gays and especially communists.
Comey has made a point to try to stand against that era: FBI recruits visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum to understand, Comey has said, “in a palpable, nauseating and gut-wrenching way, the consequences of the abuse of power on a massive scale.” He’s ordered new recruits to learn about the bureau’s history with the Rev. Martin Luther King, whom Hoover tried to blackmail into giving up his efforts. But the bureau (and particularly its director) retains a black belt in behind-the-scenes political judo: It skillfully navigated the politics of the 9/11 Commission, halting a move to break it apart following its failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. It uses its reputation for integrity, moral authority and justice to push presidents and lawmakers to back its programs and budget requests. Presidents know: You don’t want to be on your FBI director’s bad side.
While many national security roles, such as CIA director, typically turn over at the beginning of a presidential term, the FBI directorship over the past 40 years has been seen as an apolitical post. Ever since director-for-life Hoover died in May 1972, FBI chiefs have been appointed to a congressionally mandated, nonrenewable 10-year term. When Comey’s predecessor, Robert Mueller, reached the end of that term, President Obama asked him to stay an additional two years — a move that required a special act of Congress.
But that fixed term doesn’t limit how or why a president can remove an FBI director, and, according to U.S. law, a firing doesn’t have to be “for cause.” When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, Director William Sessions was already under siege for mismanagement. A scathing 161-page inspector general report said he misused government transportation and engaged in other abuses of his office. Clinton, with the recommendation of Attorney General Janet Reno, fired Sessions outright after the director refused to resign.
The FBI is part of the Justice Department, so technically the director reports up through the attorney general and to the White House itself — which is why this summer’s “social” meeting on the tarmac at a Phoenix airport between Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch raised alarms about whether they’d struck an “inside deal” not to prosecute Hillary Clinton. Similar questions were sparked by President Obama’s comments to “60 Minutes” that seemed to prejudge the investigation’s outcome, when he said that he didn’t think her server was a “national security problem.”
But the FBI, which runs public-corruption and espionage investigations, operates with nearly unprecedented independence within the executive branch, especially when it comes to political inquiries. Past attorneys general have almost always deferred to the bureau — a habit that repeatedly rankled Reno during the 1990s, when Director Louis Freeh called their frequent battles “the worst-kept secret in Washington.” Top Justice Department officials didn’t want Comey to inform Congress of the new Clinton inquest before the election, but he did it anyway.
An FBI director’s perceived mantle of integrity can be a powerful bureaucratic weapon. In 2004, when Comey was deputy attorney general and provoked a showdown with the George W. Bush White House over the legality of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program, he enlisted the help of Mueller. Comey has said he knew that if he alone threatened to resign, he might fail, but if Mueller threatened to join him, the White House would be forced to revise the program. The gambit worked.
After Comey announced in July that the FBI didn’t think the former secretary of state had committed any crime with her email server, critics blasted him for letting her off the hook, GOP congressmen summoned him to the Hill to explain himself, and Donald Trump said the FBI was corrupt.
In fact, the bureau is decidedly not Clinton territory; a Guardian article this past week quoted an agent as saying it’s “Trumpland.” Generally, in my reporting, I’ve found agents to be conservative, and there’s probably no political family in America with whom the bureau has had a worse relationship than the Clintons. The first best-selling anti-Clinton tell-all — a now-hefty publishing genre — came from an FBI agent, Gary Aldrich, posted to the White House in the 1990s, who trashed the family in “Unlimited Access .”
The relationship only went downhill from there. After firing Sessions, Bill Clinton appointed Freeh as his FBI director, calling him a “law enforcement legend,” only to see Freeh dedicate much of the rest of the 1990s to investigating him for scandals from Filegate to Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky. Freeh even gave back his White House visitor pass to ensure that no one thought he was too cozy with the president, and he told one reporter that he and Clinton didn’t speak for the final three years of the administration, a time when the threat of terrorism was rising around the world. The antipathy was mutual: According to Bob Woodward’s book “Shadow,” President Clinton used expletives to describe Freeh behind closed doors.
Numerous critics, including almost 100 former prosecutors, have argued that Comey — who announced that the bureau had begun looking into Clinton’s emails again less than two weeks before Election Day — should have tried harder not to affect the election. They pointed to Comey’s own argument that the United States shouldn’t accuse Russia of meddling in the election until officials were sure about what they’d found, and to Justice Department practices to keep mum about ongoing investigations.
According to his aides in multiple news reports this past week, Comey thought the news would probably have leaked anyway, making the bureau look even more like it was protecting Clinton. While most FBI offices are tight-lipped and unlikely to hint of an unfolding investigation, the New York field office — the bureau’s largest and most powerful, and home to the investigation of Anthony Weiner that uncovered the new laptop — is notoriously leaky and hard for an FBI director to control. Field offices in general operate with a great deal of independence, able to adjust resources to respond to local threats or problems. But every FBI director has struggled in particular to control the New York office, one of just three sites — along with the Washington and Los Angeles offices — led by an assistant director. Agents in cities across the country worry about their cases leaking out of New York, they tell me. The 2009 Najibullah Zazi terrorism investigation, for instance, was worked quietly for days by the FBI in Denver, only to leak almost the moment Zazi arrived in New York to execute his attack.