Taibbi: James Comey, the Would-Be J. Edgar Hoover

The former FBI Director's memoir obsesses about lies, sincerity and conscience – and offers few tangible answers

FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Michael Rogers testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in Washington D.C. on March 20, 2017. Credit: Mark Peterson/Redux

The most damning passage in former FBI Director James Comey’s new book, A Higher Loyalty, regards his decision to make public the re-opening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation:

"It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the re-started investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in the polls."

Comey portrays the Clinton decision as a binary choice: either speak a truth that may result in Trump’s victory, or conceal key facts from the public thus making her, as he tabs the ostensible shoo-in Clinton, an "illegitimate president."

These meanderings might carry more weight if Comey did not have a lengthy record of "concealing" far more important issues from the American public.

Comey, for instance, comes across as an opponent of torture, and in the book writes about how his wife Patrice's exhortation – "Don't be the torture guy" – disturbed his sleep "for many nights." But a close look at Comey's Bush-era record indicates he signed off on policies that essentially re-sanctified most forms of "enhanced interrogation."

In the book, Comey says he was held back from doing more because the CIA didn’t tell him everything about its interrogations, leaving him with nothing to do but silently hope the torture program would "crater" under Justice Department guidelines:

"Although our internal voices screamed this was terrible stuff and was based on inflated claims of success, those voices had to stay trapped inside us," Comey writes.

So he was able to stay quiet about torture – keeping it "trapped inside" – but couldn’t keep secret the details of an email investigation he himself doubted would lead anywhere important?

Comey is equally two-faced on the question of surveillance. He describes himself forcefully opposing the NSA’s "Stellar Wind" program, which he says went "beyond even the legally dubious."

This is how Comey became famous the first time, trying to head off the program’s re-authorization by racing to a convalescing John Ashcroft in the much-publicized "hospital showdown."

But we later learned, through Edward Snowden’s revelations, that Stellar Wind was just a mild appetizer, and that the NSA massively expanded its surveillance program during Bush’s second term and under President Barack Obama.

Then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper – described by Comey in the book as "the leader I most admire in government" – appeared to lie about the existence of such programs in testimony before Congress, saying the NSA did "not wittingly" collect data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.

Comey didn’t have a problem with that, it seems. And though he professed otherwise in his confirmation hearings, the reality is that Comey mostly just climbed the ladder through the wholesale dismantling of civil liberties that took place during the Bush and Obama years.

Which brings us back to the Clinton investigation.

Comey, at times ostentatiously precise in his recollections, is cagey about how and when he learned of the new Clinton emails uncovered as part of the Anthony Weiner dick-pic investigation:

"At some point in early October, someone at FBI headquarters (I think it was Deputy Director Andrew McCabe) mentioned to me that former Congressman Anthony Weiner had a laptop that might have some connection to the Clinton email case."

Comey here plunges into a Hamlet-esque dilemma over whether to go public about the re-opened investigation. He professes to be very concerned about having told Congress the investigation was closed, but again, Comey had no problem keeping his mouth shut or even outright obfuscating on demand in other cases.

For instance, he describes how he acceded to the clearly politicized request by Attorney General Loretta Lynch that he refer to the Clinton probe as a "matter" and not an "investigation."

"The FBI doesn't do 'matters,'" Comey writes. "The term means nothing in our language … It was probably a mistake that I didn't challenge this harder. But in that moment, I decided that [Lynch's] request was too frivolous to take issue with."

Then there was another issue:

Comey writes that an investigation into a possible connection between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian "efforts" to interfere in the election had commenced in late July of 2016. This was when the Bureau received information about a Trump campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos, whom Comey says "had been discussing … obtaining from the Russian government emails damaging to Hillary Clinton."

It's not exactly an analogous situation, since Trump, himself, was not a target of the investigation (Comey even says so explicitly later in the book). But voters would have certainly found this story highly relevant. Why keep that secret in July but reveal the re-opening of the Clinton probe in October?

There are multiple ways to interpret these decisions. Few are kind to Comey. The most likely scenario seems to be that Comey did indeed expect Clinton to be elected president and was engaging in a tried-and-true FBI power play against his future boss.

Comey uses similar language in the book to describe concerns he had about holding Russia-related material over Donald Trump’s head. On page 216, he refers to this tactic as "pulling a J. Edgar Hoover," or dangling a politically damaging set of facts over a politician in an effort to "gain leverage."

That line of thinking seems to apply just as well to the incident involving Clinton.

He claims that part of his reasoning about outing the reopened Clinton probe had to do with another shocking development – a thing he learned of in "early 2016":

"At that time, we were alerted to some materials that had come into the possession of the United States government. They came from a classified source – the source and content remains classified as I write this," Comey notes.

"Had it become public, the unverified material would undoubtedly be used by political opponents to cast serious doubts on [Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s] independence in connection with the Clinton investigation."

Say what? Comey here seemingly throws Lynch under the bus, hinting at a blockbuster story about improper pre-election connections between the Clinton campaign and the then-attorney general.

Comey claims he was concerned that after stolen emails began appearing on the Internet that summer, some of this explosive-but-unverified material would come out. This in turn would "allow partisans to argue, powerfully, that the Clinton campaign, through Lynch, had been controlling the FBI’s investigation."

That seems like a big deal.

But Comey doesn’t elaborate on what the "unverified" material might have been. He also goes out of his way to describe how Lynch, with the exception of the "call it a matter" conversation, stayed out of the email probe. So who knows what it means? The only thing we know is that Comey claims he had something that would have looked politically damaging to both Hillary Clinton and Loretta Lynch.

As with so many things leaked from the intelligence community, it is impossible to evaluate the importance of this information without knowing more. Was it true? Untrue? Comey relates this tidbit ostensibly to explain why he sidestepped Lynch's Justice Department to offer unilateral, "unusual transparency" on the email case. This seems to indicate he gave weight to the "classified" story about Lynch. Or did he? It's draining, trying to parse Comey's moves.

As Comey goes on to explain his tortured interactions with Donald Trump, he wastes no time in comparing Trump to a mobster. Interestingly, he also compares his own FBI to "this thing of ours." The obligations of "made" members in secret societies seem to be another schoolboy fixation of his.

Comey writes in language loaded with leaden, half-clever hints and double-entendres, speaking out of the side of his mouth in the fashion of a fortune teller or Alan Greenspan. He tells stories about one thing that he clearly means for you to absorb as lessons that might apply in other arenas.

For instance, early in the book, he recounts the story of a Sicilian mobster who explains that made guys are only allowed to lie to each other when luring each other to death. "Men of honor," the mobster tells him, "may only lie about the most important things."

Instead of dismissing this as the dumb crooked bullshit that it is – a carve-out dreamed up by brainless thugs who need excuses to kill each other – Comey makes the mistake mafia investigators often make, romanticizing gangster codes:

"The Life of Lies. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. Loyalty oaths. An us-versus-them worldview. Lying about things, large and small, in service of some warped code of loyalty. These rules and standards were hallmarks of the mafia, but throughout my career I’d be surprised at how often I’d find them applied outside of it."

With Trump, Comey paints a portrait of an executive who is disconnected from reality, self-obsessed to the point of not letting others speak, childishly ignorant of the law and perhaps also guilty of actual crimes like obstruction of justice.

But the description of his initial "defensive briefing" with Trump about the existence of the Steele dossier feels as unconvincing and disingenuous as his explanation for publicizing the re-opening of the Clinton investigation.

The plan was for Comey to go in alone to tell Trump about the unverified "pee tape" dossier, only after a gang of outgoing Obama intelligence appointees left the room.

Part of his motivation in telling Trump about the potential blackmail material, Comey claims, was that the press was about to blow it open anyway. "CNN," he writes, "had informed the FBI press office that they were going to run with it as soon as the next day."

But this feels hollow. The press had been sitting on the Steele material for weeks, if not months. At least nine organizations (and possibly more than that, from what I hear) knew of the Steele material dating back to the fall of 2016, and had elected not to publish news of it, for the very good reason that it was unverifiable.

Comey is surely aware that the actual impetus for the publication of media stories about the Steele material began with the FBI’s decision to take possession of the dossier. (This gave Mother Jones an excuse to publish the first story about it on October 31, 2016.)

The first CNN story to break on the subject was sourced to "multiple U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the briefings," and led with the news that documents including potentially "compromising personal and financial information" had been relayed first to Obama and then to Trump by senior intelligence officials.

Leaks about these briefings were, for better or worse, what really opened the lid on the Steele report. The way Comey pretends otherwise about things like this in the book will make him a totally unreliable narrator for careful readers of all political persuasions.

Spies and secret police types rarely write good books, because lying is so central to what they do. There are exceptions – FBI agent and Nixon "plumber" G. Gordon Liddy was a madman of the highest order, but his memoir Will is an oddly outstanding autobiography – but political books as a rule are tiresome, because we want to read the straight dope, not tea leaves.

In that sense, following what Comey is really trying to say at any given moment is difficult and exhausting. He writes ad nauseum about his struggles with issues of truth and untruth – hell, the book’s subtitle is "Truth, Lies, and Leadership" – but that seems mostly to be for show, and his "admissions" seem absurdly meaningless.

For instance, he "confesses" to lying sometimes about having played college basketball, and admits to a vague bullying incident from his school years.

This is supposed to set the reader up to believe that Comey is an honest man, keenly interested in matters of conscience and sincerity, who as FBI Director was just trying to do the right thing while surrounded by scheming liars and opportunists.

But A Higher Loyalty, itself, feels like a deeply calculating book. We tend to forget that secret police, whether they want to or not, often end up wielding ultimate power over the careers of political figures. Since the death of J. Edgar Hoover, we’ve mostly just had to trust that our Spooks-in-Chief haven’t misused that power.

Looking back at the 2016 election, we can’t be sure James Comey didn’t violate that trust. Comey himself seems unsure, which might be why this oddly unpleasant book is so focused on adolescent ramblings about "trust" and "lies."

In denying that he was angling to be a modern Hoover, he more often than not seems to be confirming it. The possible resurgence of such figures gives us one more thing to worry about in an era already chock-full of political dangers.