Tuesday, November 1, 2016

James Comey's ethical dilemma: a no-win situation

 When FBI Director James Comey chucked protocol out the window and took it upon himself to hold a press conference to announce that no charges would be recommended against Hillary Clinton in the private email server case, rather than passing his recommendation to the Justice Department as is usually done, he put himself, the FBI, the Justice Department, and the American electoral process in a difficult situation.
Apparently unaware of the old dictum, ‘when you’re in a hole, stop digging,’ Comey on Friday, Oct. 28, publicly announced that in the investigation of former congressman Anthony Weiner for possible criminal violations, there might (my emphasis) be emails on a computer shared by him and his wife, Hama Abedin (a Clinton aide) related to the investigation of Clinton’s use of a private server when she served as secretary of state. According to news reports, this announcement was made over the objections of the Justice Department and some senior FBI officials, because, coming as it did just days before the election, it could be seen as impacting the outcome of the election (intended or not).
Now, while many have excoriated Comey for his actions, others have sprung to his defense. The Republicans who damned him for not recommending Clinton be prosecuted, are now hailing him as a hero. Even some of his critics are saying that he is an honorable man who has done the wrong thing for the right reasons.
I’m not going to get into the argument of Comey’s honor or lack thereof, but there are some things about this situation that bother me, and I do believe they should be considered.
One: during the first press conference in which he said he would not recommend prosecution, he went on to make some snarky comments about Clinton’s judgment, which had no bearing on whether or not a crime was committed. During the second, however, he said these new emails might be related to the email server case (which means that they also might not), but he gave no details, nor did he make any editorial comments. The fact that the FBI didn’t even get a warrant to search the computer in question until Sunday, two days after the announcement, leads me to believe he hadn’t even seen them, so was, therefore, only speculating on their relationship to the previous investigation, which then causes me to wonder why he couldn’t have waited until carrying out the search and knowing whether or not they bear on the case.
Oh sure, there was the fact that his fellow Republicans had savaged him before, and if he didn’t come forward now, and the emails later turned out to be the smoking gun they’ve been looking for, he’d be accused of withholding evidence. That, of course, nicely ignores the fact that coming out with incomplete information before the election, which fed the GOP rumor mill for an entire weekend, could affect the outcome of the election, and if it turns out that there is no there there in this situation, what a shame that would be. This is one of those ethical dilemmas people in government sometimes face, and in this case, I believe Mr. Comey failed the test. In worrying more about his reputation than the integrity of the electoral system, he has set a bad precedent, and has put himself and his agency in a no-win situation. Will the FBI now ignore Justice Department rules and make public announcements in sensitive cases based on the personal feelings of the director? Will partisan pressure be what determines what is made public and what is not?
Maybe James Comey felt pressured and took the actions he did to relieve some of that pressure. Maybe it was not his intent to influence the outcome of the upcoming election (a blatant violation of the Hatch Act if he did). Whatever his intent, his actions have set a dangerous precedent in an era when hyperpartisanship is the rule rather than the exception, and will have a long term effect on the conduct of elections in this country.

Maybe he should have given a bit more thought to that before opening his mouth.