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The FBI’s double standard on investigations

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FBI Director James Comey.Alex Wong

Concern for the reputation of a potential terrorist, not for that of a potential president.

That's not exaggeration. That's operating principle in today's FBI.

Consider this: At a September meeting of security industry professionals in Orlando, FBI director James B. Comey was asked why his agency did not inform the company that employed Omar Mateen as an armed security guard that the shooter who massacred 49 people at the Pulse nightclub was on a terror watch list. Comey's response, according to the Orlando Sentinel, was that the FBI would not want to damage an innocent person's livelihood or alert someone who's a "bad guy." As the FBI director went on to explain, "We have a legal obligation to protect personal information about people we are investigating."


With Hillary Clinton, Comey had no problem alerting Congress about an investigation that can hugely affect her livelihood — and he did it after an FBI investigation and his conclusion that she had committed no crime. In his bombshell letter of Oct. 28, the FBI director told lawmakers the FBI "has learned of the existence of e-mails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation" of Clinton's personal e-mail server, and that he was agreeing to let the agency "take appropriate investigative steps" to review them. Federal investigators have now obtained a warrant to search e-mails belonging to Huma Abedin, a top aide to Clinton. The FBI learned of these e-mails in the course of investigating Anthony D. Weiner, the estranged husband of Abedin, for allegedly sexting a teenage girl.

Comey's defenders say that by sending the letter to Congress, the FBI director was trying to do the right thing, in the interests of transparency and the public's right to know all it needs to in the final days before a high-stakes presidential election. Media reports also suggest that Comey knew the information would leak out, so he decided to put it out himself. But if fear of leaks by Clinton-haters who work for the FBI motivates such drastic action by the director, that's troubling evidence of a dysfunctional and highly politicized agency.


Comey, who is said to be particularly sensitive to privacy and civil liberty concerns, keeps a copy on his desk of then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy's approval to wiretap the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Yet his letter to Congress reveals inconsistency when it comes to disclosing information that can change the outcome of a presidential election.

The perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Boston, Orlando, Garland, Texas, and New York City had all been previously investigated by the FBI. Yet in each case the FBI justified its inability to thwart those attacks by arguing it could not disclose those investigations because it "must follow extensive guidelines that are intended to protect privacy and civil liberties," as The New York Times put it in a recent explainer.

If the FBI doesn't talk about investigations involving suspected terrorists, why talk about the Clinton investigation?

At the same time, if there's truth to the assertion by outgoing Senate minority leader Harry Reid that the FBI is investigating ties between Trump and Russia, why isn't Comey informing Congress about that? Because, as former US attorney general Eric Holder writes in The Washington Post, the entire Justice Department, which includes the FBI, "has a practice of not commenting on ongoing investigations. Indeed, except in exceptional circumstances, the department will not even acknowledge the existence of such an investigation."


If the principle applies to would-be terrorists, there should be no exemption if you happen to be famous or running for high office — or if Republicans are breathing down your neck, as they were with Comey.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.