FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday defended his decision to announce the reopening of the Hillary Clinton investigation less than two weeks before the U.S. presidential election—though the thought that he might impact the results, he said, made him “mildly nauseous.”
Comey testified during an annual oversight hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he believed concealing the emails found by his agents on the computers of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, and that of her estranged husband, Anthony Weiner, would have been “disastrous” for him. Concealing any developments in a case he’d previously described as closed, he said, “would have been catastrophic.”
“I sat there that morning and I could not see a door labeled no action here,” Comey told the committee. “I could see two doors and they were both actions—one was labeled speak, the other was labeled conceal.”
The FBI’s investigation into Clinton was again dropped days before the election.
Often described as the most high-profile FBI director since John Edgar Hoover, Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation is likely to be one of the most defining moments of his career. Since the 1970s, when government surveillance was frequently turned toward political ends, the FBI has striven to define itself as utterly apolitical—not only in the interest of American democracy, but to secure the agency’s own survival as well.
In many ways, Comey’s decision has had the opposite effect, as evidenced by Wednesday’s hearing. Clinton has indicated that she believes Comey’s decision may have changed her odds on November 8th. And many Clinton supporters continue to blame him personally for her loss.
While Clinton was said to have mishandled classified information, the matter was dropped because it was difficult to prove any wrongdoing was intentional; “That was our burden and we were unable to meet it,’’ Comey said Wednesday.
Comey’s actions are made harder to justify because the FBI was simultaneously investigating several of Donald Trump’s advisors, one of whom the FBI had placed under surveillance after obtaining a secret warrant by demonstrating probable cause that the advisor, Carter Page, was acting as agent of the Russian Federation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, chided the director for handling the cases so different (an assertion Comey strongly disagreed with). “We never, ever want anything like this to happen again,” she said.
Asked by Sen. Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, whether or not WikiLeaks, which is believed to have served as an unwitting medium for the Kremlin-backed leaks, qualified as a journalistic organization, Comey said that founder Julian Assange had not acted a journalist, but was instead trafficking in “information porn” with no regard for the “values that normally underlie press reporting.”
WikiLeaks, he said, was little more than “a conduit for the Russian intelligence services and adversaries to push out information to damage the United States.”