BI director James Comey set off a torrent of criticism late last week when he directly inserted himself into the presidential campaign with a vague letter to Congress about the reopening of Clinton email case. His conduct has shocked many observers across the political spectrum, but the only thing truly surprising about this episode is that people are only now realizing how power-hungry and dangerous Comey actually is.
During his stints in the Bush and Obama administration Comey has continually taken authoritarian and factually dubious public stances both at odds with responsible public policy and sometimes the law. The Clinton case is not an aberration, it’s part of a clear pattern.
Liberals were once enthralled when Obama appointed the Republican as FBI chief in 2013. They talked about Comey as if he was above reproach because of his role as acting attorney general under George W Bush, when he threatened to resign over an aspect of the president’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program.
As Glenn Greenwald explained at the time of Comey’s confirmation in 2013, this story is incredibly misleading. Yes, Comey did curtail a small part of the NSA’s sprawling surveillance program in 2004, however, that occurred before the public ever knew of the existence of any NSA domestic program. The version of illegal warrantless wiretapping that the New York Times revealed in 2005, which sparked a firestorm of liberal criticism and widespread accusations of illegal conduct, was the program that Comey was totally fine with and signed off on.
Why he is celebrated as anything close to the hero is baffling. During the Bush administration, Comey also aggressively defended the arrest and due process-free imprisonment of a US citizen, Jose Padilla, on US soil. He was held as an “enemy combatant”, tortured, and refused a lawyer for three and half years – to this day, one of the most egregious violations of the constitution by the Bush administration. In addition, Comey also gave his legal sign-off on torture techniques during the Bush administration, despite harboring personal doubts.
Since taking over at the FBI, speaking up without all – or any – of the facts has become a Comey specialty. He has led a high-profile two-year fight to essentially outlaw end-to-end encryption, a vital tool that protects citizens’ privacy and security. He has done so freely admitting he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, while his demands fly in the face of the opinions of many prominent computer scientists, who have argued mandating backdoors in encryption is impossible to do safely and a recipe for disaster.
After having failed to convince the public – despite claiming it was vital the public debate the issue – he then went to a judge to try to force Apple to backdoor its own iPhone encryption using a law written in the 1700s. As Riley Roberts, previously a speechwriter for former attorney general Eric Holder, wrote in Politico in September, “Comey steamrolled his White House and Pentagon colleagues – even scuttling an administration-wide encryption policy that was under development – by insisting that Apple be forced to unlock the phone for the government.”
Then last year, wholly without evidence, Comey promoted the discredited “Ferguson Effect”, arguing that crime has increased because police were afraid to do their jobs now that there is a slightly higher chance that citizens might film them shooting an unarmed person. Not only do studies show this theory is false (and separately, that crime has not markedly increased), it’s an insult to police officers. “He ought to stick to what he knows,” James O Pasco Jr, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, told the New York Times, referring to Comey. “He’s basically saying that police officers are afraid to do their jobs with absolutely no proof.”
Similarly, as President Obama and many politicians in both parties have called for a reduction in harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences that have made the US by far the largest jailer in the world, Comey publicly spoke out against any such criminal justice reform. “I know from my experience … that the mandatory minimums are an important tool in developing cooperators,” he said. Again, evidence shows the opposite, mandatory minimums have never been shown to make anyone safer or increase “cooperation” (a euphemism for threatening defendants with decades in jail so they forgo their constitutional right to jury trial and take a plea deal). But facts have never gotten in the way of Comey and his beliefs.
Neither does the law, when it suits him. In 2008, the FBI was told by the Bush justice department (after Comey left) that it needed a warrant to gather email records and web browsing about Americans. But under Comey’s FBI, the agency has continued to disregard the justice department’s legal opinion, and to this day, demands tech companies hand it all sorts of data under due-process free National Security Letters.
Just two months ago, Riley wrote in Politico, “there is a growing consensus that Comey has wielded the powers of the directorship more aggressively than anyone since Hoover – to the consternation, and even anger, of some of his colleagues.”
The evidence against Comey has been available ever since President Obama nominated him. All that’s changed is that people are finally paying attention.