If you hoped for a scathing and yet inconclusive report that would satisfy absolutely none of the partisan players claiming the FBI played favorites in the 2016 presidential election, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz dropped exactly that last week. Basically, the IG found no evidence that the FBI intentionally acted to affect the outcome of the election, but that its staff and leadership behaved like rogue, politicized clowns.
And if that's all we can agree upon, perhaps it's enough to pull the plug on this excessively powerful internal security force that's been playing at politics since its founding.
For Republicans, among the more important tidbits in the report are exchanges of politically charged text messages between FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok and his romantic partner, FBI Special Counsel to the Deputy Director Lisa Page. As the report details, "In a text message on August 8, 2016, Page stated, '[Trump's] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!' Strzok responded, 'No. No he's not. We'll stop it.'"
"The report shows how the FBI became infected with politics and continuously disregarded rules and procedures to the detriment of Donald Trump and benefit of Hillary Clinton.," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) quickly snapped off in response to the report's publication.
Democrats are equally angry over then FBI Director James Comey's decision to announce just days before the election the reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's email practices.
"Much like with his July 5 announcement, we found that in making this decision, Comey engaged in ad hoc decisionmaking based on his personal views even if it meant rejecting longstanding Department policy or practice," noted the IG report.
"The stark conclusion we draw after reviewing this report is that the FBI's actions helped Donald Trump become President," responded Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) right on schedule.
Despite the inevitable reactions from the right and the left, the IG "did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative actions" of the investigating agents. And, after calling out the then FBI director for breaking from established procedures and flying by the seat of his pants for the greater glory of the bureau and his own cushy role therein, the IG "did not find that these decisions were the result of political bias on Comey's part." That leaves plenty of room for continued argument over unquestionably unprofessional behavior.
Worthy of attention is the degree to which some agents seemed to believe the email investigation was pointless, with a predetermined outcome. An agent identified as Agent 1 texted a colleague multiple times to complain about "work and bullshit for a political exercise" and "a case that doesnt matter and is predestined…"
Such concerns were obviously shared by the IG when it was discovered that Comey's July 5 statement about the outcome of the investigation into Clinton's email practices had first been drafted in May.
"We asked Comey about the date of this initial draft and whether it indicated that he had predecided the outcome of the investigation even before the interview of former Secretary Clinton," notes the report.
Comey responded, "[I]f you were in my position after nine months you're incompetent if you don't know where this is going."
Maybe so, but if word got out that the final take was being drawn up months before the main target was interviewed, you could see why some agents might feel like they were just going through the motions. And word was bound to get out. Comey's draft statement was shared with several top staffers, and the IG report details how much bureau decision-making was driven by the knowledge that the FBI leaked like a sieve. "[I]f we don't put out a letter, somebody is going to leak it," then FBI General Counsel James A. Baker told the IG.
Reactions to the report reveal little chance that Teams Red and Teams Blue will agree anytime soon on who was most screwed-over by James Comey and his G-Men. But there is a remarkably harmonious chorus of disdain about the conduct of the FBI.
"Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz's 500-page report covers plenty," writes Kimberley Strassel at the Wall Street Journal. "[B]ut it can be distilled to two words he uses to describe the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the 2016 election: insubordination and bias. Two terms that are chilling in connection with such a powerful agency."
"Mr. Comey receives a thrashing in the report," sniffs the New York Times editorial board. "Mr. Horowitz found that the former F.B.I. director repeatedly crossed the line from arrogance to insubordination."
As I've pointed out before, the FBI has a long and unpleasant history of entangling itself in politics.
The FBI "has placed more emphasis on domestic dissent than on organized crime and, according to some, let its efforts against foreign spies suffer because of the amount of time spent checking up on American protest groups," the U.S. Senate's Church Committee reported in 1976.
The FBI maintained and expanded its power through the decades by playing to whoever held office.
In former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's 1972 obituary, the New York Times reported, "Roosevelt liked him; he slapped the F.B.I. director's back and laughed when Mr. Hoover confessed that an agent had been caught in the act of illegal wiretapping, and he was amused at the bureau's temerity in putting a spy on Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's counselor, in London. Roosevelt's assignment of counter-espionage duties to the F.B.I. as war loomed in 1936 expanded the bureau's size and heightened Mr. Hoover's prestige.
But, when the Republicans won the White House again in 1952, Mr. Hoover's loyalty swung immediately to the new team."
But now the FBI has managed to anger both major political parties and much of the country. It's demonstrated its capacity for political meddling and misuse of power—even if people disagree on who was on the receiving end.
That offers a rare opportunity to pull the plug on a dangerously powerful agency at a moment when its potential for bias, arrogance, insubordination, and plain incompetence are on public display. Let's kill the FBI while we can.