Analysis

James Comey: FBI director a 'straight shooter' and 'publicly controversial'

FBI Director James Comey, whose recent actions regarding the Hillary Clinton email probe has sparked fierce political backlash, has not been afraid to wade into public controversies.

Comey has previously investigated both Hillary and Bill Clinton

FBI Director James Comey finds himself the target of bipartisan scorn for his role in the Hillary Clinton email server investigation. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

In 2007, testifying before a Senate committee hearing, James Comey recounted his dramatic standoff years earlier with two senior White House officials — a story that would propel him into the national spotlight.

He told senators of that night in March 2004 when he had raced up the hospital steps to rush to the side of John Ashcroft to prevent two senior aides of George W. Bush from pressuring the seriously ill attorney general about a warrantless wiretap program.

The program, Justice Department officials had determined, was illegal. Comey, as deputy attorney general, had threatened to resign unless changes were made to the program (they were), but he would describe that period as "probably the most difficult time in my entire professional life."

Which goes to say that the current FBI director may be able to withstand the political flak that has been, and continues to be, heaped on him from former colleagues, political observers and both Democrats and Republicans.

"He has a record of being very non-partisan and prizing the independence of the Justice Department," said Garrett Graff, author of The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror.

Bipartisan choice

Comey, the seventh director of the bureau, was appointed in 2013 by U.S. President Barack Obama as a bipartisan choice and someone "who knows what is right and what is wrong."

But he now finds himself the target of bipartisan scorn for his role in the Hillary Clinton email server investigation. He has sparked a political firestorm with his recent letter to Congress, making public that his FBI team is investigating a cache of emails that may be "pertinent" to the Clinton email investigation.

He had already drawn the ire of Republicans back in July, when he released a statement that cleared Clinton of any criminal wrongdoing in connection with classified emails and her private server. Now Democrats (as well as some Republicans) are decrying the timing of his disclosure to Congress.

His actions have also sparked condemnation from former Justice Department officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations, who say his disclosure to Congress, so close to an election, was unprecedented.  

President Barack Obama talks with FBI Director James Comey during Comey's installation as FBI director. The president said he chose Comey because he 'knows what is right and what is wrong.' (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Others, however, have defended his move, arguing he was in a difficult spot, that his review of these emails would undoubtedly have leaked out and that it would have left him open to accusations that he was covering for Clinton.

That he has managed to anger both sides of the political aisle might go some way in staving off criticisms that his actions had a partisan bent.

"He's certainly somebody who both prides himself as a straight shooter and takes enormous pride by being affiliated with institutions that are known for that also," said Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman, who has known Comey for 30 years.

Investigated Clintons before

That "straight shooter" reputation may account for his habit of wading into controversial issues. Earlier this year, he enteredthe debate of privacy vs. security by tangling with Apple (and, by extension, Silicon Valley), demanding that it help the agency hack into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters.

He upset some top police union brass when he  offered some frank words regarding the issue of police and race. In a 2015 speech to Georgetown University, Comey suggested police officers carry an unconscious bias and are tempted to take "lazy mental shortcuts" in dealing with suspicious situations. And in May, he stirred up more controversy when he said police, now fearful of ending up on a viral video, were more hesitant to act, which was leading to a spike in violent crime. 

He has been publicly controversial on policy issues in a way that FBI directors typically do not do.- Garrett Graff

"He has been publicly controversial on policy issues in a way that FBI directors typically do not do," Graff said. "He's much more publicly thoughtful and provocative than directors traditionally are."

The current controversy with the Democratic presidential candidate is not the first time he has dealt with the Clintons. In 1996,he was deputy special counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee looking into the then-first lady's involvement in a failed real estate venture.

Years later, he was assigned to investigate some of the last-minute pardons issued by Bill Clinton, including commodities trader Marc Rich, who Comey, ironically, had prosecuted. No charges were laid against the Clintons.

Comey's career began with a coveted posting at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, where many go on to become powerful figures in U.S. law enforcement and the Department of Justice. He also served as assistant U.S. attorney at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia.

As deputy attorney general, Comey stood up to Bush officials who wanted to re-authorize the warrantless wiretap program. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

His high-profile cases were varied, with prosecutions ranging from the Mob to Martha Stewart. He also handled the Khobar Towers bombing case that killed 19 American service members in Saudi Arabia.

He was later chosen by Bush to be the deputy attorney general. While his confrontation with the White House over the wiretap program may have endeared him to some Democrats, civil rights advocates were not so enamoured with his reputation. The American Civil Liberties Union said that during his time as deputy attorney general, Comey "approved or defended some of the worst abuses of the Bush administration," which included torture and the indefinite detention of an American citizen.

His future as FBI director is certainly unclear. He has, so far, spent just three years of his appointed 10-year term. Meaning, in theory, he could oversee the next two White House administrations -—  run by the very person he is investigating.

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About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers a wide range of topics, including Canadian and U.S. politics.

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