James Comey
Credit: Rich Girard/Flickr

Few figures have been subject to more demonization over the last few months than FBI director James Comey. When Comey refused to indict Clinton over her emails, outraged conservatives treated it as a coverup. When he lashed Clinton verbally over them, liberals were incensed. When Comey released the letter to Congress last week informing them of the “new development” because of the emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, the left went ballistic over the unprecedented interference in the election over essentially nothing. And now that Comey has announced that the emails found on Weiner’s laptop made no difference in the case, both liberals and conservatives are furious once again.

Ultimately, it seems that Comey is less a villain in this case than a tragic Shakespearian anti-hero, more Hamlet than Iago. Comey’s actions are consistent with those of a man who tried to take the political middle ground at each point to appear non-partisan, but in so doing politicized the FBI far more than had he simply followed the appropriate guidelines.

It seems most obvious that Comey was intensely averse to being accused of covering up for Clinton. This is especially understandable as Comey is a Republican: being accused of greasing the wheels for his ideological opponents would doubtless upset him more than anything. But as a civil servant, he knew that it would be very inappropriate to indict Clinton when it was clear that others in her position had acted similarly, and that she had no intent to commit a crime. He also knew that Republicans would excoriate him for that decision, so he took the unprecedented step of lecturing Clinton on her behavior and promising to update Congress on new developments in order to seem evenhanded. Instead, it made him seem unprofessional and partisan.

Months later, anti-Clinton fanatics within the New York FBI threatened to leak developments regarding Anthony Weiner’s laptop to the press. Rather than play it cool and professional by keeping his agents in check, Comey decided to head them off at the pass and fulfill his foolhardy promise to update Congress on developments by releasing a terse, content-free letter that immediately became partisan fodder. It’s easy to see how Comey saw himself boxed in by the situation, but his best play was to follow protocol: stay silent, and if leaks emerged from his New York office, to handle them internally while noting the truth: that Weiner’s laptop had been taken and was being analyzed, but that so far there was nothing there to indicate any new developments in the Clinton probe. Instead he tried to split the difference, and in so doing made himself the target.

What followed was a week of leaks and counterleaks from within the FBI, which not only damaged the credibility of the organization as a protector of secrets, but made clear that not only could the head of the FBI not be trusted to stay out of politics, but that every local agency and agent was a potential leak-happy partisan Javert.

And now Comey has done it again. Where normally the FBI would have taken far longer to analyze the “new” emails they found, the director felt the need to make good on his past mistakes by announcing that the emails contained little of interest to the investigation just two days before the election. Which again is a political move intended to make him and the Bureau seem reasonable and non-partisan, but does just the opposite. Given his past missteps it was the right thing to do, but it only demonstrates further his feckless misunderstanding of how to run a professional, non-partisan agency.

Future agency heads should learn from Comey’s mistakes by simply following protocol. If that means that conservative crusaders insult you and all your credibility into question, that’s their problem. All you do by trying to appease them is damage one’s own credibility, and that of the institution you serve.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.