Did James Comey Blink?

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A.J. Caschetta Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow, Middle East Forum
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Watching James Comey’s speech on the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified material, live as it happened, I thought it was odd that an honorable man like James Comey would decide to let another Clinton get away with crimes that no other American would. But after reading the transcript and watching Comey’s performance a couple times I couldn’t help but think of Jeremiah Denton, the Navy pilot who spent over 7 years as a POW in North Vietnam after his A6 Intruder was shot down in 1965.

On May 17, 1966 during one of the propaganda television interviews that the Hanoi regime required POWs to participate in, Denton stated for the cameras: “I get adequate food and adequate clothing and medical care when I require it” while blinking the word “TORTURE” in Morse code. Denton did what his captors expected of him, but he communicated the truth to those who could read the code.

Yesterday Comey announced that the FBI would not recommend charges be brought against Clinton, but he blinked “GUILTY” to those who could read the code.

Clinton’s supporters in the press will focus on Comey’s statement that the FBI “did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws,” but they will ignore the blinking code of the same sentence: “they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, classified information.”

Clinton’s defenders will focus on the FBI’s “judgment … that no reasonable prosecutor would bring” a case against Clinton, but they will ignore the blinking code of “any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position … should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.”

After Barack Obama endorsed Clinton for president and then Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that she would accept the FBI’s decision in the investigation, the weight of the world fell onto the shoulders of the FBI Director. As the nation awaited the outcome of his prolonged investigation (to which a reported 150 Federal agents may have been assigned), Comey promised that it would be conducted “well and promptly.” No one doubted him.

Everyone agrees that Comey is an honorable man, a “straight shooter” and “a man of tremendous integrity.” According to The Hill, he is “untouchable.” This reputation derives largely from his role in opposing what George W. Bush called his administration’s “Terrorist Surveillance Program” and the press called “unwarranted wire taps.”

What Comey objected to was an NSA program code-named “Stellarwind,” launched in October 2001 to intercept Al-Qaeda communications. USAF Gen. Michael Hayden (Ret.) was Director of the NSA in those early, heady post-9/11 years. In his memoir, Playing to the Edge, Hayden asserts that the program had extensive safeguards to protect U.S. Persons, the ultimate one being the unprecedented reauthorization process required every 45 days. That process continued uninterrupted for over two years.

In 2004 Comey almost brought a full-scale revolution to the Department of Justice. The dramatic scene occurred in a hospital room on March 10 of that year with a seriously ill John Ashcroft either unable or unwilling to sign off on Stellarwind as he had done approximately twenty times in the past.

Many versions of the standoff have been told, but all concur that White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez and Chief of Staff Andrew Card were turned away from Ashcroft’s bedside by Comey in the role of acting Attorney General with FBI Director Robert A. Mueller III at his side. The Department of Justice had effectively done a 180 on Stellarwind, and James Comey was behind it.

Hayden’s memoir provides new details about Comey’s role, describing a conversation in which Mueller told CIA Director Tenet of Comey’s objections: “He’s a serious guy. He shows up and his lead lawyers say they can’t do it.” When Mueller and Comey both threatened to quit, the administration made changes to what Hayden estimates as 20 percent of the program.

A fortuitous coincidence of need and ability made for what everyone involved agrees was a very effective program. But Comey’s decision that the collection process violated the law was universally heralded as the single-minded dedication to principle of an honorable man.

Prior to yesterday’s announcement, Comey had already shown some impatience with Clinton, as when he refuted her characterization of his investigation as a “security review” (“the FBI does  not do ‘security reviews”), and he would never have accepted from her what the State Department told the American people – that it will take her aides 75 years to sort through and produce all of her emails.

Since the beginning of the FBI investigation, many observers have insisted that Comey would ensure that Clinton faced the same kind of letter-of-the-law justice meted out to General David Petraeus. Petraeus, however, was not a Democrat, to whom a different standard applies. Even Sandy Berger avoided serious charges for stealing classified 9/11 documents from the National Archive. He, at least, had the decency to disappear afterwards, however –  Mrs. Clinton wants to be president.

In 2004, James Comey was moved to the point of nearly quitting when he claimed, according to Hayden, that the Bush administration’s efforts to intercept Al-Qaeda’s communications “the most aggressive assertion of presidential power in history.” As difficult as it is to reconcile that claim with Comey’s silence over Obama’s many questionable assertions of presidential power, his decision to effectively clear Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing is even more troubling – unless one reads the blinking code.

Comey looked yesterday like a man trapped in the moment, unable to do the right thing, but also unwilling to let the opportunity pass without sending signals. He was not giving Hillary Clinton a free pass to the White House because his hand was being forced by his controllers.

Or at least that’s how I choose to see it. It cannot be otherwise, for James Comey is an honorable man.

A.J. Caschetta is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology.