With the FBI back in the spotlight due to its suddenly urgent mission to reopen its background investigation into Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh after multiple allegations of sexual assault and perjury were lodged against him, former F.B.I. director James Comey published an Op-Ed in The New York Times today to weigh in on the agency’s ability to accomplish its last-minute assignment on such a short deadline and to chastise Republicans for the “deeply flawed” process that they initiated.
Comey starts his essay by comparing the Bureau’s latest politically fraught task with the assignment they were given back in 2015 when he was still in charge of the agency to investigate the charges against Hillary Clinton over the handling of her email server. He tells the story of the agency’s then deputy director telling him:
“’You know you are totally screwed, right?’ He meant that, in a viciously polarized political environment, one side was sure to be furious with the outcome. Sure enough, I saw a tweet declaring me ‘a political hack,’ although the author added, tongue in cheek: ‘I just can’t figure out which side.’”
Comey then jokingly refers to that dilemma as “the good old days” before enumerating a litany of the sins of the Trump administration and decrying that millions of Republicans and their elected representatives have accepted this situation as the new normal.
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The former F.B.I. head goes on to examine the task at hand that the bureau now faces: investigating “on a seven-day clock, sexual assaults that the president says never happened, that some senators have decried as a sham cooked up to derail a Supreme Court nominee, and that other senators believe beyond all doubt were committed by the nominee.”
While the description of the challenge makes it seem particularly daunting, Comey declares his confidence that his former colleagues are up to the task, perhaps more so than Trump and the Republicans in the Senate realize.
“If truth were the only goal, there would be no clock, and the investigation wouldn’t have been sought after the Senate Judiciary Committee already endorsed the nominee. Instead, it seems that the Republican goal is to be able to say there was an investigation and it didn’t change their view, while the Democrats hope for incriminating evidence to derail the nominee,” Comey writes.
“Although the process is deeply flawed, and apparently designed to thwart the fact-gathering process, the F.B.I. is up for this. It’s not as hard as Republicans hope it will be,” he reassures the public.
The former director, so famously fired by President Trump after his leadership of the investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia got too bothersome for the president to tolerate, then explains the F.B.I.’s capabilities and methods and describes how they will approach the hurried inquiry based on his long experience in the agency.
“F.B.I. agents are experts at interviewing people and quickly dispatching leads to their colleagues around the world to follow with additional interviews. Unless limited in some way by the Trump administration, they can speak to scores of people in a few days, if necessary,” Comey explains.
“They will confront people with testimony and other accounts, testing them and pushing them in a professional way. Agents have much better nonsense detectors than partisans, because they aren’t starting with a conclusion.”
“Yes, the alleged incident occurred 36 years ago. But F.B.I. agents know time has very little to do with memory. They know every married person remembers the weather on their wedding day, no matter how long ago. Significance drives memory. They also know that little lies point to bigger lies. They know that obvious lies by the nominee about the meaning of words in a yearbook are a flashing signal to dig deeper,” the former FBI director continued.
Comey’s reassurances about the F.B.I.’s expertise in its methodology extend to how witnesses typically respond:
“Once they start interviewing, every witness knows the consequences. It is one thing to have your lawyer submit a statement on your behalf. It is a very different thing to sit across from two F.B.I. special agents and answer their relentless questions. Of course, the bureau won’t have subpoena power, only the ability to knock on doors and ask questions. But most people will speak to them. Refusal to do so is its own kind of statement,” he warns.
Comey describes the formal process of summarizing every witness encounter into a detailed report, and then synthesizing all the interviews into an executive summary for the White House, noting that the F.B.I. doesn’t present any conclusions, just facts that highlight the areas of conflict and allow decision makers to make their own conclusions.
Comey concludes his Op-Ed by criticizing the limitations put upon the investigatory process but admitting that even a truncated inquiry is better than none at all. He knows the investigation will result with one side or the other unhappy with the F.B.I., or perhaps even both, but finds freedom in the simple act of fact finding. In the end he asks the American public to trust the integrity and truthfulness of the people who work at the bureau.
“It is idiotic to put a shot clock on the F.B.I. But it is better to give professionals seven days to find facts than have no professional investigation at all. When the week is up, one team (and maybe both) will be angry at the F.B.I. The president will condemn the bureau for being a corrupt nest of Clinton-lovers if they turn up bad facts. Maybe Democrats will similarly condemn agents as Trumpists if they don’t. As strange as it sounds, there is freedom in being totally screwed. Agents can just do their work. Find facts. Speak truth to power.”
“Despite all the lies and all the attacks, there really are people who just want to figure out what’s true. The F.B.I. is full of them,” Comey says in conclusion.
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