Thursday May 11, 2017

Comey firing will have 'chilling effect' on FBI's Russia probe, says former agent

The White House says James Comey had lost the confidence of rank-and-file FBI agents.

The White House says James Comey had lost the confidence of rank-and-file FBI agents. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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While the White House justifies James Comey's sudden ouster as FBI director by saying he'd lost the confidence of the rank-and-file, current and former agents are speaking out against the firing.

Acting director Andrew McCabe told the Senate intelligence committee Comey "enjoyed broad support within the FBI," FBI Agents Association president Thomas O'Connor told Politico members see it as "gut punch to the organization," and one anonymous agent told the Washington Post the president has "declared war on a lot of people at the FBI."

But Michael Tabman, a retired FBI agent-turned-author, says that whether or not agents like Comey, his firing will likely have a "chilling effect" on the bureau's investigation into Russia's election meddling and possible ties to the Trump campaign. 

Tabman spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off on Thursday. Here is part of their conversation.

Carol Off: What message do you think the firing of James Comey sends to the FBI?

Michael Tabman: I think it was a warning shot to not get too close to this Russia investigation in any way that may implicate the president. 

CO: And what did you think when you heard of the firing?

MT: It was chilling and it was troubling.

Michael Tabman

Retired FBI agent Michael Tabman says there are subtle ways a Trump-appointed FBI director could impede the Russia investigation. (michealtabman.com)

CO: Do you want to elaborate on that?

MT: First is the manner in which it was given. One does not send a letter to an office that they know is empty. The director's itinerary is not a secret. They delivered this letter to him when he's out of the office. He finds out about it while he is in a field office talking to agents, finds out through the media. This is done in the most humiliating and disrespectful way. That shows a personal animus behind this dismissal. 

And then, it comes at a time when the Russian investigation supposedly — of course, I don't have inside information — is heating up. ... It looks like an abuse of power, and it's certainly reasonably perceived that way.

CO: There were so many comments made by people unhappy with how Mr. Comey handled the file of Hillary Clinton and the emails, and comments he made publicly and things of that nature that must have shaken the faith that the FBI people had for Mr. Comey?

MT: I was one of those people who was critical of the way Director Comey handled the Clinton emails. He did mishandle it in my opinion. However, the decision to address that has long gone.

Candidate Trump applauded many things Comey did that, you know, hurt Hillary Clinton. He had adequate time as president-elect Trump to meet with his team and decide if this director should stay on. That was his prerogative coming in the administration. He made a public statement that he was retaining Comey as the director.

To say now, almost a year after it's happened, that he's dismissing the director because of that incident lacks credibility.

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About 300 people rallied to protest U.S. President Donald Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey outside the White House on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

CO: We've heard from the acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, that the inquiry will go on ... and that it doesn't affect the actual investigation of the connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. What do you think of that?

MT: I believe he's speaking from the heart and I think that's certainly true in the sense that the FBI agents and even up to the deputy director are career agents in the civil service, not appointed by the president. They cannot be summarily dismissed by the president.

However, there is a chilling when this takes place, and especially in this administration. If the new director is perceived to be a minion of the president and everything flows downhill from the president to the attorney general to a director who doesn't have the will to see this thing through, it can be derailed, not overtly. Resources could be retracted. Information can be filtered.

And also, agents are not oblivious to the internal politics of the FBI, and you have a director in there who's perceived as not fully on board, maybe wants to carry out the agency of the president more than the FBI, agents will worry about their own careers. We gotta be honest about that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our full discussion with Michael Tabman.