Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
Something very dangerous is happening in the Federal Bureau of Investigation: The nation’s foremost law enforcement agency appears to be at war both within itself and with the Department of Justice, to which it belongs. The disagreements all involve our national politics and the FBI’s appropriate role in them, leaving the American people with yet another major institution on their do-not-trust list. The government is coming ever more undone, so much so that a recent Twitter post from an FBI account is raising questions about who’s behind it—the director of the FBI, or agents seemingly beyond his control.
The chaos burst into public view on Friday, October 28, 11 days before the 2016 presidential election is scheduled to take place. That’s when FBI director James Comey issued—against the wishes of DOJ officials and counter to department guidelines—his infamous letter informing the chairmen of eight congressional committees that agents investigating a possible sex crime by former congressman Anthony Weiner had found correspondence on his computer, involving his estranged wife Huma Abedin, that may be pertinent to the bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state. (Abedin is a longtime Clinton aide.) Comey hadn’t seen the emails, he said, and didn’t know what was in them, leaving a lot of people scratching their heads and wondering if he just wasn’t trying to sway the election.
In the meantime, as noted in a letter to Comey from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the FBI was investigating links between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and the government of Russia. There again, it may well be that the FBI hasn’t uncovered any actionable information, but its director has not seen fit to write a letter to Congress in order to inform committee chairs that it has discovered a server used by the Trump Organization, possibly to conduct traffic between itself and the Alfa Bank of Russia.
According to news reports, the Bureau has also investigated the Trump Organization’s use of the server, but doesn’t know what’s been transmitted on it. Kind of like Anthony Weiner’s laptop, except that it involves a foreign government that is also believed by leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies to be behind the hacks of the emails of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the chairman of the Hillary Clinton for President campaign. (The Intercept published an article Tuesday claiming to debunk the theory of the “Trump server” communicating with Alfa Bank.)
So it seems that from a law enforcement perspective, the FBI behaved properly in not sending word to Congress about the server, or any as-of-yet unproven links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. But that same standard was not applied in the case of the Weiner laptop.
It’s been reported that Comey was feeling pressure, not just from Republicans who are furious with him for not indicting Clinton for her use of her private server for the conduct of government business, but from his own agents. And it would seem that Comey feels stung by the criticism he’s taking from Democrats regarding the letter he sent to Congress on Friday.
Now comes word, via Devlin Barrett of the Wall Street Journal, that agents who were investigating allegations of influence-peddling involving the Clinton Foundation were incensed when higher-ups at the Justice Department urged them to tread carefully so as to adhere to department guidelines against taking action that could influence an election, and that members of the Department’s anti-corruption unit didn’t think the FBI had a strong case.
It seems as if whoever controls a Bureau Twitter account called @FBIRecordsVault has struck back against all those Clinton surrogates who are calling foul on Comey. The account, whose purpose is the posting of documents released through Freedom of Information Act requests, appears to have been dead for a year—no postings since Oct. 7, 2015. Suddenly, on Tuesday, it sprang to life with a handful of posts, one a nothing-burger on Fred Trump, father of the Republican standard-bearer; and another on an old investigation of the Clinton Foundation and President Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, then a fugitive hedge-fund manager whose wife had donated to the DNC and the Clinton Foundation. It was Comey who brought the criminal case against Rich, Bloomberg News reports, and is said to have been “stunned” by Clinton’s pardon of the financier. The documents linked in the tweet don’t say much of anything (they’re heavily redacted), but the tweet itself does reinforce in the public mind the controversies advanced by Clinton’s enemies about the foundation. It’s not the fact of the tweet that’s at issue—the material was released via FOIA—but the timing of it from an account that was only reactivated Sunday.
Over the years, leaders and members of the FBI have given the American people many reasons to draw the conclusion that, in matters involving the American political landscape and the people who inhabit it, the Bureau cannot be trusted. Among them are the FBI’s attempts to undermine Rev. Martin Luther King at the height of the civil rights movement, and the bureau’s infiltration of civil rights and anti-war groups in the 1960s through its COINTELPRO operation and a similar operation that targeted the American Indian Movement.
In subsequent years, the Bureau was seen as more or less chastened and rehabilitated, thanks to the 1976 Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, popularly known as the Church Committee (named for its chairman, Sen. Frank Church of Idaho).
Now we have entered a new era, in which the director of the FBI, with his letter to Congress, is acting so recklessly as to harm the very process of democracy. It seems that he’s either signed off on an election-week records dump, via Twitter, from an old investigation of the Clinton Foundation, or has lost control of the agents who staff the FBI’s Twitter account. Either way, he’s made a choice to let chaos reign in the closing days of a presidential campaign.
Adele M. Stan is AlterNet’s senior Washington editor, and a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.
IMAGE: FBI Director James Comey walks during a break in testimony during a House Judiciary hearing on “The Encryption Tightrope: Balancing Americans’ Security and Privacy” on Capitol Hill in Washington March 1, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts