BY KEVIN R. BROCK, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR
Barr has made plain that he intends to examine carefully how and why Comey, as FBI director, decided that the bureau should investigate two presidential campaigns and if, in so doing, any rules or laws were broken.
In light of this, the fired former FBI director apparently has decided that photos of him on Twitter standing amid tall trees and in the middle of empty country roads, acting all metaphysical, is no longer a sufficient strategy.
No, Comey has realized, probably too late, that he has to try to counter, more directly, the narrative being set by the unsparing attorney general whose words in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week landed in the Trump-opposition world like holy water on Linda Blair. Shrieking heads haven’t stopped spinning since.
And so we’ve seen Comey get real busy lately. First he penned a curious op-ed in The New York Times. Then a Times reporter, with whom Comey has cooperated in the past, wrote a news article exposing an early, controversial investigative technique against the Trump campaign in an attempt to get out front and excuse it. Next, Comey is scheduled to be encouraged on a friendly cable news “town hall.”
In the op-ed, Comey trotted out his now-familiar St. James schtick, freely pronouncing on the morality of others. He sees himself as a kind of Pontiff-of-the-Potomac working his beads, but comes across more like an unraveling Captain Queeg working his ball bearings.
Comey adjudged the president as “amoral.” He declared the attorney general to be “formidable” but “lacking inner strength” unlike — the inference is clear — Comey himself. A strategy of insulting the executioner right before he swings his ax is an odd one but, then, Comey has a long record of odd decisions and questionable judgment.
“Amoral leaders [referring to the president] have a way of revealing the character of those around them,” wrote Comey without a hint of irony or self-awareness. Those whom the former FBI director assembled around him probably rue the day they ever met the man. Most are now fired or disgraced for appalling behaviors that Comey found easy to manipulate to advance his decisions.
Then, just to make sure his op-ed was odd-salted to the max, Comey mused that the president “eats your soul in small bites.” OK, let’s step back for a moment: James Comey appears to be in trouble. His strange, desperate statements and behaviors betray his nervousness and apprehension. In a way, it’s hard to watch.
Comey will claim that everything he did in the FBI was by the book. But after the investigations by Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz and U.S. Attorney John Huber, along with Barr’s promised examination, are completed, Comey’s mishandling of the FBI and legal processes likely will be fully exposed.
Ideally, Barr’s examination will aggregate information that addresses three primary streams.
The first will be whether the investigations into both presidential nominees and the Trump campaign were adequately, in Barr’s words, “predicated.” This means he will examine whether there was sufficient justification under existing guidelines for the FBI to have started an investigation in the first place.
The Mueller report’s conclusions make this a fair question for the counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign. Comey’s own pronouncement, that the Clinton email case was unprosecutable, makes it a fair question for that investigation.
The second will be whether Comey’s team obeyed long-established investigative guidelines while conducting the investigations and, specifically, if there was sufficient, truthful justification to lawfully conduct electronic surveillance of an American citizen.
The third will be an examination of whether Comey was unduly influenced by political agendas emanating from the previous White House and its director of national intelligence, CIA director and attorney general. This, above all, is what’s causing the 360-degree head spins.
There are early indicators that troubling behaviors may have occurred in all three scenarios. Barr will want to zero in on a particular area of concern: the use by the FBI of confidential human sources, whether its own or those offered up by the then-CIA director.
Without diving into the weeds, it’s important to understand that FBI counterintelligence investigations generally proceed sequentially from what is called a preliminary investigation or inquiry (PI) to a full investigation (FI). To move from a PI to an FI requires substantial information — predication — indicating investigative targets acted as agents of a foreign power.
This is problematic for Comey in light of Mueller’s findings. There are strict guidelines governing when the FBI can task a confidential source or a government undercover operative to collect against a U.S. citizen. Normally this is restricted to a full investigation, and normally restricted to the United States, not overseas.
There is a sense that Comey’s team was not checking the boxes, did not have adequate predication, and may have tasked sources before an investigation was even officially opened. Barr should pull case files and dig in on this.
In addition, the cast of characters leveraged by the FBI against the Trump campaign all appear to have their genesis as CIA sources (“assets,” in agency vernacular) shared at times with the FBI. From Stefan Halper and possibly Joseph Mifsud, to Christopher Steele, to Carter Page himself, and now a mysterious “government investigator” posing as Halper’s assistant and cited in The New York Times article, legitimate questions arise as to whether Comey was manipulated into furthering a CIA political operation more than an FBI counterintelligence case.
Some in the media have suggested that the Times article was an attempt by the FBI to justify its early confidential source actions. But current FBI Director Christopher Wray has shown that he would like to excise the cancerous tumor that grew during Comey’s time and not just keep smoking. It’s hard to imagine current FBI executives trying to justify past malfeasance.
James Comey is right to be apprehensive. He himself ate away at the soul of the FBI, not in small bites but in dangerously large ones. It was a dinner for one, though: His actions are not indicative of the real FBI. The attorney general’s comprehensive examination is welcome and, if done honestly and dispassionately, it will protect future presidential candidates of both parties and redeem the valuable soul of the FBI.
Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.