Reining In the Insurgent FBI

For the first time in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it becomes necessary for a President, a newly elected President, to fire the agency’s Director. It is politically painful. It is not an easy thing to cut short the 10 year appointment that was made by a previous President.

But newly elected President Clinton has to take action.

I called Director Sessions a few moments ago and informed him that I was dismissing him, effective immediately, as the Director of the FBI.

We cannot have a leadership vacuum at an agency as important to the United States as the FBI.

President Bill Clinton, July 19, 1993

William Sessions insisted he had done nothing wrong. A report from the ethics board of the Justice Department, the Office of Professional Responsibility, said otherwise.

Officially, the primary offense had been a series of private trips using public aircraft. The trips were to private events and visits to relatives, with little side trips to minor public functions to maintain a facade. The Director had taken along his wife.

But there had also been complaints about a lack of leadership. Director Sessions had a management style often described as disconnected. He seemed to enjoy the trappings of office more than the duties.

I think about those charges: the incidents of taxpayer funding for private trips, the pattern of listless management, when I consider the more recent, stunning involvement of the FBI in the just concluded election for President.

The shock of a reverse Trumanesque election may drown out what ought to be one of the most disturbing aspects of the campaign. We can hope not.

We have had horrible Presidents before.

I would not have thought it plausible that the tragedy that was President George W. Bush would be eclipsed by a more dangerous administration. As I see it, Mr. Bush could have been a capable President if he had shown the same interest in policy as he did in baseball.

I see a dim possibility of a more constructive variation. Donald Trump, like the last Republican President, has a notoriously limited span of attention. If a similar vacuum develops, it is within the realm of imagination that a responsible member of the new staff will achieve control. Reince Preibus has been mentioned as a possible Chief-of-Staff.

Sometimes the escapism of fictional entertainment gives me a break from the disturbing patterns of contemporary conservatism, especially as conservatives are about to take control of government. Sometimes the lessons of fiction can be applied to life.

One of my favorite television programs is “Blue Bloods” with Tom Selleck as Police Commissioner Frank Reagan. Selleck may be a bit of an ass in private life, demanding and paying for water for his plants during a California drought. But his introspective television persona is near perfect art.

Some of the scenes are kind of silly. Donnie Wahlberg plays one of the Commissioner’s two sons, Detective Danny Reagan. Danny seems to run through the city streets every other episode. “Stop! Police!” he yells. Then follows up with “Hey!” He chases a suspect on a sidewalk, dodging pedestrians. “Hey!” he hollers. He rounds a corner, on the heels of the perpetrator. “Hey!” He closes in “Hey!”

Perhaps there is some reason, beyond that initial self-identification as a police officer. To the uninitiated viewer, which is to say me, the only purpose would seem be saving the pursued criminal the trouble of glancing over his shoulder. Kind of like belling the cat. The person being chased knows exactly where Detective Reagan is at any given moment.

There is a more serious objection. One basic premise is a conservative’s pet delusion. Detective Danny is only too eager to break the rules, roughing up the occasional suspect to obtain a confession, threatening a witness with bodily harm to get a much needed clue. He is constantly reined in by more cautious superiors, who none-the-less appreciate his extreme success in solving cases that are beyond the reach of more orthodox investigators.

The Commissioner himself hosts a discussion at Sunday dinner with adult kids and grandchildren. He poses the cliché we have heard so many times. Suppose the only way you can find a hidden bomb is to beat information out of a suspect. Would you break the rules to save countless lives?

The easy response, the right response, is, well, yeah for sure. I would beat the guy until he gave it up. But we should also challenge the premise. The responsible answer has to be a little more complete.

If I could save my children from serious harm by cutting off my fingers, I would do that as well. But I don’t cut off my fingers as a first response if I hear a scream, because I am sure to a moral certainty that would not help. There are effective ways to save kids. Self-mutilation is almost never one of them.

It is not intuitive, but threats and beatings are not an effective way to get at the truth. Our fight against terrorism has taught us that physical pain is effective at getting false confessions. Torture does not get us the truth. Considerable police research is going into finding what is effective, and what simply wastes time. So far, we know that ticking bombs will more quickly be found by engagement than by brutality.

Television provides weekly morality plays, hypothetical fiction that occasionally makes us think. One episode struck me as especially thoughtful.

The Police Commissioner discovers that a behind-the-scenes investigation has uncovered something damaging about a political opponent of the city’s mayor. The mayor, the commissioner’s boss, demands the information. The Commissioner refuses, even when the mayor threatens his job. Unless an investigation results in court action, nothing goes to a politician. Not if a politician is a candidate. Not if a politician is already in office. Not even if a politician is the boss.

Well, good for that fictional enforcer of the law! Prosecutors and investigators alike have always been subject to a universal ethic. Information from official investigations are not to be shared outside of court, except in those extraordinary situations where lives are at stake. And no information is to be exposed when an election might be influenced.

That is a bedrock principle. The misuse and abuse of investigatory authority is not compatible with the essential functioning of a Republic. The use of the power of investigation by politicians can effectively end democracy. The use of the power of investigation by investigators to influence elections is just as dangerous.

In July, 2016, the Director of the FBI told Congress that an investigation into the private email server owned by Hillary Clinton had uncovered nothing that would merit criminal action. Then he launched into a public scolding, a severe public reprimand of Mrs. Clinton.

With eleven days to go before the Presidential election, he sent a dramatic letter updating Republicans about possible new evidence that might reveal some criminality. The weekend before the election, he sent a final letter confirming that there was nothing new after all.

Each turn of the vicious cycle was dangerous to the democratic process. The original report was ethically wrong. The public scolding was ethically wrong. The update to the original report was ethically wrong. The update to the update to the original report was too damn little, too damn late.

Reports indicate there were even vicious circles within those vicious circles.

A renegade right wing group inside the New York office of the FBI supposedly interviewed the author of one of those many highly creative conservative research books into the evil of all things Clinton. A small group of agents wanted to use it as the basis for an active investigation connecting a host of disparate points into a collection of connected stray dots. More mature superiors and attorneys in the Department of Justice gently explained rules of evidence and vetoed the idea.

The conservative cabal of aging, rebellious agents then conducted their own disinformation campaign. They told sympathetic representatives of right wing outlets that indictments of the Clintons were imminent.

The stunning upset election of Donald Trump can’t be credited to the FBI fiasco. In a sense that is unfortunate. It is a scandal that may pass unnoticed into precedent, unnoticed until the next time.

Some defenders of Director James Comey maintain that his violation of protocol was simply an attempt to head off the disinformation campaign by a few in some corner room of the New York office of the FBI. If Director Comey was guilty of anything, it was an absence of leadership.

It brings us to the final circle within this dangerous precedent, an arc going back to a public announcement 23 years ago.

We cannot have a leadership vacuum at an agency as important to the United States as the FBI.

If necessary, the new President should remove the Director. It is doubtful that Donald Trump will see that as a clear duty.

President Obama has enough time left in office to save President Trump from that decision. He can fire Director Comey himself.

Director Comey can save both Presidents from that damaging necessity. He can do the right thing.

Along the way, a private cell of rogue agents in New York should be escorted out of the agency and away from any investigatory authority.


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