James Comey’s Testimony and the Nonpartisan Role of the FBI

Dina Rosin (CMC ’20)

On March 20, 2017, James Comey, Director of the FBI, testified before the House Intelligence Committee. Comey reported that the FBI was investigating the tie between the Trump Campaign and Moscow in the 2016 election. He claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly favored Trump over his opponent Hillary Clinton and that it is unclear if any crimes were committed during the election. He also stated that the FBI has no reason to believe that Former President Barack Obama wiretapped Donald Trump during the campaign. This testimony is significant because a government agency is investigating a sitting president. Furthermore, this hearing raises concerns about the thin line the FBI can tread as an independent body when investigating political officials.

Independent government agencies are constitutionally part of the executive branch. However, they are not headed by either a cabinet secretary or the Executive Office. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States’ intelligence and security service and federal law enforcing agency, is an independent agency. Formed in 1908, the FBI oversees both domestic and international threats, and, one specific area the agency investigates is government corruption. Independent government agencies are purposefully located without substantive oversight from the executive branch, as they are nonpartisan organizations. Yet, the recent hearing is not the first time the nonpartisan integrity of the FBI has been called into question.

Following a break-in at the Democratic National Committee, Watergate became a major political scandal in the 1970s. President Richard Nixon and his administration attempted to cover-up his involvement in the break-in and used government agencies to Nixon’s benefit. Specifically, he ordered investigations of activist groups and political figures. Nixon also used his power as the executive to get assistance from the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Internal Revenue Service. This use of presidential power and the cooperation of the agencies called into question the independence and authenticity of these agencies and their claims. As these agencies were created to serve non-partisan interests, using them for partisan interests constitutes an abuse of presidential powers.

In the recent hearing, Comey ensured that the FBI would “follow facts wherever they lead.” Typically, on-going counterintelligence investigations are deemed classified information. However, due to the extensive public interest concerning Russia in the recent election, Comey was granted special permission to comment on the matter by the Justice Department. According to California Representative Adam Schiff (D), Russian interference in the recent election would “represent one of the most shocking betrayals of our democracy in history.” Given the gravity of this investigation, both sides of the aisle have questioned the FBI’s and Comey’s individual motivations. Comey, by asserting claims that directly harm the reputation and credibility of President Donald Trump, seems to suggest that the organization is acting independently of the White House. Unlike in the 1970s, the FBI seems to be acting as a check on the President, and not participating in political espionage. The FBI acting independently of the White House increases accountability for both entities.

While Comey does appear to be representing an independent agency, he still continues to walk a line of partisanship. Comey received great criticism by Democrats for probing into the Hillary Clinton private email server during the 2016 election, and he reopened the case mere days before the election. Now, as he investigates Donald Trump and his connection to Russia during the election, he is similarly receiving criticism from conservatives. The criticism from both Republicans and Democrats supports the need for independent government agencies to remain nonpolitical and nonpartisan. The investigation into the ties between Russia and the 2016 election is the first time in U.S. history that there is an official investigation into a presidential campaign’s hostile collusion with a foreign power. Now, the FBI is responsible for creating not only domestic but also, international accountability for government officials.

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