Last week, FBI director James Comey released a vague letter saying the FBI was investigating more emails that had something to do with Hillary Clinton's personal server. The media largely ran with the GOP characterization of this as reopened investigation into Clinton herself, but things soon got muddy and even conservative commentators found the situation deeply unsettling.
For starters, the emails were on disgraced politician Anthony Weiner's computer, impounded in his teen sext case, meaning Clinton's authorship or receipt of the emails is anyone's guess. Worse, it soon became clear the FBI had failed to get a warrant to read the emails before Comey's announcement, giving the impression of an attempt to tip the election, or of appeasement to political pressures. Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General until last year, writes that Comey's made a "serious mistake."
That is why I am deeply concerned about FBI Director James B. Comey’s decision to write a vague letter to Congress about emails potentially connected to a matter of public, and political, interest. That decision was incorrect. It violated long-standing Justice Department policies and tradition. And it ran counter to guidance that I put in place four years ago laying out the proper way to conduct investigations during an election season. That guidance, which reinforced established policy, is still in effect and applies to the entire Justice Department — including the FBI.
The department has a practice of not commenting on ongoing investigations. Indeed, except in exceptional circumstances, the department will not even acknowledge the existence of an investigation. The department also has a policy of not taking unnecessary action close in time to Election Day that might influence an election’s outcome. These rules have been followed during Republican and Democratic administrations. They aren’t designed to help any particular individual or to serve any political interest. Instead, they are intended to ensure that every investigation proceeds fairly and judiciously; to maintain the public trust in the department’s ability to do its job free of political influence; and to prevent investigations from unfairly or unintentionally casting public suspicion on public officials who have done nothing wrong.
Director Comey broke with these fundamental principles.
Holder's op-ed is written in a "measured" register optimized for media deference. Between the lines, though, I get an impression of Comey as a clueless narcissist, inappropriately using the FBI to place himself at the public center of a political process. Given the bureau's long history as, in the words of President Truman, one man's "private secret police force," it's a powerful image.
It is incumbent upon him — or the leadership of the department — to dispel the uncertainty he has created before Election Day.