If Hillary Clinton becomes President of the United States, what will she do about the FBI chief she must loathe? Kim Sengupta looks at the role of the FBI director in US politics...
London - President Bill Clinton, ruminating with a group of journalists about appointing a director of the FBI in 1993, declared with a grin: “It’s going to be hard to fill J Edgar Hoover’s… pumps”.
Reports that Hoover was secretly gay and a cross-dresser had been around for a long time, but that did not lead to his demise, even in those times of deep homophobia. This was despite rumours that the Mafia had compromising photographs of him with his alleged lover, his assistant Clyde Tolson, and this was one of the reasons Hoover had been so reluctant to go after organised crime.
There were many occasions when successive presidents had considered getting rid of Hoover, but none dared to sack the man who kept the secrets. “You don’t fire God,” was John F Kennedy’s response when asked why he did not do it. Richard Nixon had backed down from an attempt to force the director’s retirement, saying: “We have on our hands here a man who will pull down the temple with him, including me.”
Some of what Hoover did - his reds under the beds witchhunts, his persecution of the civil rights movement - was gross abuse of power. But even J Edgar, in his 48 years in the office, did not do what James Comey, the present head of the FBI, has done - carried out a public intervention on the eve of a presidential election which may change the outcome.
Matthew Miller, who served under former US Attorney General Eric Holder, echoed the view of many law enforcement officials when he stressed: “Not even Hoover did anything publicly in the closing days of an election that could be seen as tipping the scales.”
Tim Weiner, the author of a history of the FBI, had supported the appointment of Comey as director, but now sees his actions as “a blind use of the prosecutorial sword… Somewhere, tearing wings off flies in a dark star chamber in the sky, J Edgar Hoover is smiling.”
Last week’s announcement about Hillary Clinton’s emails was not the first time that Comey has been called into question. The half dozen chiefs who followed Hoover at the FBI after his death in 1972 had deliberately kept a low profile to distance themselves from the founder’s autocratic ways. The seventh and current incumbent, say American security officials, is reversing that process.
Comey, who is a registered Republican who contributed to Mitt Romney and John McCain’s campaign funds, served as a deputy attorney general in George W Bush’s administration before Barack Obama appointed him to his FBI post.
The new chief was soon undermining presidential priorities on forming a federal policy on cyber-security and encryption. He publicly took the opposite stance to the White House on the repercussions of the Ferguson shooting. Then came his decision to hold a press conference into the email investigation in the summer, during which he officially cleared Hillary Clinton of illegal acts but then went on to scathingly criticise her about the matter.
This, in itself, was in breach of FBI protocol, ignoring a Justice Department warning that it would look like interference in the election and would be against established Bureau practice. At the same time, we have now learned, Comey had tried to stop revelations that Russians had hacked Democratic party emails, the contents of which had helped the Trump campaign. The director apparently argued that it was too close to the election for this to be made public.
The Democrats, of course, are furious with Comey. But there has been mounting criticism of his actions over the Clinton emails from Republicans as well.
Charles Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pointed out that the director’s letter “was unsolicitated and, quite honestly, surprising. Congress and the public deserves more context to properly assess what evidence the FBI has discovered and what it plans to do with it.”
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and a Trump supporter, said “Hillary is right” in demanding that the FBI should now come clean about what the fresh batch of emails actually say. “We should not be forced to vote with 10,000-plus emails still hidden by the FBI… [the] FBI should release all, Americans have a right to know.”
Trump himself, facing defeat at the polls until Comey’s intervention, has been exultant. “We have fantastic people at the Justice Department, fantastic people at the FBI,” he cried at a rally.
A senior security official’s bemused view was that for the Republican candidate it was “manna from the FBI. He must feel this has been a tremendous stroke of luck. Except it wasn’t luck, it was James Comey.”
Security officials point out the irony of Trump now lauding the FBI: he has been highly critical of the American security and intelligence agencies during his campaign. Such was the level of Trump’s suspicion that he has been taking a retired Lieutenant General, Michael Flynn, to classified briefings in case he was being hoodwinked. Flynn’s chief qualification as intelligence assessor it seems, for Trump, is that he is “a real fan of mine [who] feels like I do about illegal immigration, in particular”.
US security officials, in turn, have been worried about Trump’s statements on carrying out nuclear strikes, his public expressions of admiration for Vladimir Putin and acceptance of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, and his hiring of men with commercial ties to Russia.
There is, of course, the possibility that Hillary Clinton will still win the election and inherit Comey as FBI head.
She can sack him, but only one chief has ever been sacked - William Sessions, appointed by Ronald Reagan, and fired by Bill Clinton after numerous allegations of personal malpractice. Bill Clinton could not, however, fire the man he appointed to fill “Hoover’s pumps”. Shortly after becoming director Louis Freeh turned in his White House pass; he refused to go to the Oval Office and only spoke to Clinton half a dozen times, not once during the President’s second term.
The reason was that, under Freeh, the FBI was carrying out a series of investigations, professional and personal, into Bill Clinton, ranging from Whitewater to Lewinsky. The President could hardly sack the head of the Bureau when it was investigating him. Freeh eventually resigned after eight years in office, in 2001, after FBI agent Robert Hanssen was exposed as a Russian agent.
That may be the scenario facing Hillary Clinton at the White House: lumbered with a FBI chief she loathes, unable to sack him because he is investigating her, hoping that that something occurs on his watch that will force him to leave.The Independent