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Comey: A Horrible Choice

[ 51 ] July 10, 2013 |

Perlstein is right: I’ve been distracted by the end of the Supreme Court term and failed to note that James Comey is a terrible choice to head the the FBI.  The bill of particulars against him:

(a) in charge, and proudly so, of a “terrorism” case that began with a detention without charges, continued with made-up and spurious charges, and ended with a conviction won against an American whose treatment during confinement (on the American mainland) turned his brain to jello;

(b) general counsel for a defense contractor while it was busy hushing up a whistleblower who exposed $24 billion contract that they were building vessels for the Coast Guard, on a $24 billion contract, that buckled and leaked on the high seas;

(c) as of three months ago on the board of a bank, in charge of cleaning up their reputation after it paid a $1.92 billion fine for laundering drug money from Mexico; and

(d) the man who, as former FBI agent Colleen Rowley pointed out this morning in The New York Times, “sign[ed] off on most of the worst of the Bush administration’s legal abuses and questionable interpretations of federal and international law. He ultimately approved the C.I.A.’s list of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including waterboarding, which experts on international law consider a form of torture.

I assume that demonstrating his unacceptability does not require more elaborate argument.

I’m not so naive as to think that the Obama administration was going to prosecute Dick Cheney or something.  But the Obama administration’s complete failure to pursue even the strongest torture cases is a disgrace. And, in general, the failure to make people who were part of the Bush administration’s torture state pariahs is a serious problem going forward.

Moreover, the nomination of Comey is yet another example of the “Republican Daddies” syndrome, in which certain executive branch jobs seem to be reserved for Republicans no matter which administration is in charge (a courtesy which is not reciprocated, needless to say.)   Hagel, I will grant, is only a marginal example given that on defense issues he’s a Republican in the same sense as John Paul Stevens, but Comey is a classic example.  No Republican president would consider for a second making the Democratic equivalent of Comey the head of the FBI — and score one for the Republican ethos on that one.

Comments (51)

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  1. Another Anonymous says:

    (B) and (c) seem a bit lame, but I’m with ya besides that. I don’t generally buy the “X is bad because X was a lawyer for someone bad” line of argument, whether trotted out by wingnuts opposing judicial nominations or by our own side.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Fair. a) and d) are the far more important charges.

    • TribalistMeathead says:

      (b) seems unbelievably lame, actually. That’s the general counsel’s (and outside counsel’s) job.

      • dollared says:

        Should I just agree with you and point out that by your logic the chief counsel for the SS was just doing his job and was still qualified to head the FBI?

        Or should I point out that a lawyer (I am a former GC of a public company) should absolutely be judged by the company he or she keeps, and the choices s/he counsels his/her company to take?

        Or should I just say “Archibald Cox and Robert Bork,” and leave it at that?

        • Another Anonymous says:

          Now I really want to know who the SS’s head lawyer was.

          Dk yet, but this guy is an interesting, disturbing fellow.

          Though he discovered early on that the Final Solution of the Jewish problem through physical extermination was beyond his jurisdiction, and advanced no legal objections to large-scale, centrally-authorized anti-Jewish operations like Harvest Festival, Morgen went on to prosecute so many Nazi officers for individual violations that by April 1944, Himmler personally ordered him to restrain his cases.

        • TribalistMeathead says:

          Should I just agree with you and point out that by your logic the chief counsel for the SS was just doing his job and was still qualified to head the FBI?

          Can I really take you seriously after you say something like this?

      • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn says:

        Perhaps the point is that maybe he should have gotten another job, instead of doing odious things for a very large paycheck. I honestly don’t get how “but that’s the general counsel’s JOB) is supposed to mitigate that the particular job he was engaged in was immoral, but one he was happy to do for a big enough payoff.

        • Mr. Ekko says:

          As long as you’re judging based on what the lawyer actually does and not who he/she represents alone. Representing, eg, John Gotti or Haliburton does not make you per se immoral (but you probably are going to do some questionable things).

  2. Cody says:

    First time I had ever heard of the (a) one…

    Uhh. There is a psychologist testifying the US Gov’t tortured an inmate. You would think there would be some action on that.

    Also, why was he in jail for a 1,000 days BEFORE HIS TRIAL? How is that possible?

    • Bill Murray says:

      Speedy, the alka seltzer spokesthing, had some other business to take care of, so couldn’t make the trial before then

    • rea says:

      There is a very sserious argument that solatary confinement is so bad for prisoners’ mental health that it ought to be regarded as torture. Recognize, though, that unlike waterboarding, for example, solitary confinement is a common feature of our prison system and has not traditionally been regarded as torture.

  3. rea says:

    He ultimately approved the C.I.A.’s list of “enhanced interrogation” techniques

    I gather he attempted to explain this away in his Congressional testimony, by saying something like he actually opposed waterboarding and other torture, but lost the battle over it. Unfortunately, I have not been able to see a good account of his testimony online yet, other than Jennifer Rubin denouncing him for opposing torture.

    • Bill Murray says:

      I guess he didn’t oppose waterboarding et al. so much that he couldn’t approve it’s use. he was willing to quit over Gonzalez trying to get Ashcroft to reapprove NSA spying, but not over torture shows his priorities I guess

      • Cody says:

        was willing to quit over Gonzalez trying to get Ashcroft to reapprove NSA spying

        Well that seems good, right? Although maybe he just wanted the FBI to have the program instead… (or maybe they already do!?!?!)

        • Bill Murray says:

          well his stated reasoning (that I remember) was he thought they were trying to take advantage of Ashcroft’s state of health, not that he necessarily opposed the document

          • David Hunt says:

            My understanding of the incident is that he was the guy who was in the position to re-authorize the spying program when it came up for renewal because Ashcroft was in the hospital. He decided that it was illegal and said that he wasn’t going to do it. This is what prompted Gonzalez and a few others to go to Ashcroft’s hospital room in an attempt to go over Comey’s head. Ashcroft back Comey telling Gonzalez’s crew that the authority currently rested with Comey.

            However, here’s the part of the story I read that terrifies me: to the best of my knowledge, we still don’t know the details of the spying program that Comey wouldn’t renew. The spying program that the New York Times broke late in 2005 was a watered down version of what they were doing that Comey could get behind and authorize. So: all that spying stuff that you read about with the Bush Administration bypassing the FISA Court because they didn’t want to fill out paperwork? Comey was just fine with that.

  4. Anonymous says:

    ” But the Obama administration’s complete failure to pursue even the strongest torture cases is a disgrace.”

    Going after only the actual torturers would have led to unacceptable satires with “But I vas only givink orders.” punchlines.

  5. Bitter Scribe says:

    This guy seems to be trying to have it both ways…”I was against waterboarding but I signed off on it anyway because I’m a team player.” Horseshit.

    • rea says:

      What I thought I heard on NPR yesterday–and I’ve looked for but have not yet found the text of his testimony–was something on the order of he opposed waterboarding, and passed the memos endorsing it on to his superiors together with his objections. I’d like to know more about exactly what happened before passing judgment.

  6. What would the Democratic equivalent of Comey even look like?

  7. PeakVT says:

    I’d like to think Comey is another symptom of the abuse of the filibuster in the Senate, and that he was nominated because Obama believes that only a Repuke could get approved. But it may be the case Obama actually believes Comey is the best person for the job. That prospect worries me.

    • Ed K says:

      Look at every other decision Obama has made with respect to these and related matters. It’s pretty clear this dude is just fine with O.

      • Cody says:

        Sure, we’ll look at every decision Obama has made that can’t be filibustered…

        So his executive orders doing things like closing Gitmo and destroy the coal industry.

  8. [...] But Scott Lemieux argues that Comey is a terrible choice. [...]

  9. gcwall says:

    The FBI was once considered a special breed of law enforcement. College educated, weapons experts, but more importantly experts in the law and strict adherence to it. The base requirements would seem to prevent an agent from committing crimes, such as torture, (whether or not they are given false legitimacy with BS legal arguments. A panel of judges said of John Yoo, that his work was amateurish, he began with the conclusion he wanted and worked backwards to justify torture and that his conclusions were not supported in precedent or logic. Many nations continue to view US hypocrisy in this matter indicative of weakness and corruption.

    WWII interrogators and FBI interrogators have stated that torture is unnecessary, it degrades intelligence and destroys comradeship among them. Prosecution of torturers and those who authorized torture would not expose weakness of American leaders, but would reveal strength and reason, if not a sense of humanity that preside over decision making in America’s dedicated professionals. While the principles may have been ignored for some time it is new that government agency’s have been openly arrogant about their cynicism.

  10. LosGatosCA says:

    Yup.

    The key jobs in any administration:

    Fed chair – Republican
    SoD – Republican
    DNI – Republican
    FBI – Republican

    Weak, very weak.

    In fact, given the admin stances of non-prosecution of Wall Street and torturing felons, criminally weak sisters.

    No doubt why Democrats are viewed as weak during elections. They are, it’s their brand. Even their own administrations give the tough jobs to Republicans.

  11. jake the snake says:

    IMHO, the equivalent of the “Republican Daddies” in the FBI and DOD would be Republicans nominating Sherrod Brown for Labor Secretary or Al Franken for HUD.

  12. Joe says:

    He didn’t resign in protest during the Bush Administration is basically what he would have had to do regarding (D). Since the government up to Congress and the President, let such things go on, in effect the opposition expects someone not representative to be chosen. Not going to happen. He has said he changed his mind on waterboarding et. al. following the current administration’s line.

    Given the likely possibilities, someone who actually showed some independence while people on both sides say he is not just “competent” but very competent, Comey is likely the best choice realistically available.

    Padilla in the article is now simply a “silly, stupid gang kid.” Again, it seems basically he would have had to resign if he wasn’t going to go along with his boss’ targeting of Padilla. The abuse of Padilla is enough so that I need not decide he simply is some “silly, stupid gang kid.” And, yes, at the time, it was believed he was an enemy combatant. That is not a “criminal case.” We can disagree on the legality of the classification but it is not “Orwellian” to see the difference between one and the other.

    Basically, again, the game is bigger. The whole system is seen as broken. It might make us feel better if someone else is picked, but if they agree with the system, what difference would it make? Comey actually showed some independence and a member of a past administration would if anything be more likely to serve as a check for a Democratic Administration in certain cases.

    In the real world, Comey is probably the best choice available.

  13. Joe says:

    The complaints regarding the middle two, already put aside by Scott as less important, reminds me a bit of the complaints about Sen. Gillibrand when she was a lawyer regarding tobacco companies or something. Yes, focus on something else. If you want to not support him on principle, fine, but who should be appointed instead? Taking into consideration the political realities, including various Republican efforts to target the Administration. Someone aboveboard in their lights would do something there. We might hate the reality, w/i it, not a “horrible choice.”

  14. Nathanael says:

    Don’t be surprised that people aren’t reacting much to the appointment of a totalitarian criminal who belongs in Soviet Russia to head the FBI.

    People are used to this sort of NKVD/KGB-style government by now.

    Don’t mistake the public mood for popular acquiescence. This is in fact part of the general process of delegitimization of the entire federal government. People didn’t protest appointments like this in Brezhnev’s Russia, either.

    The USSR collapsed overnight because it had rotted out from the inside. The US seems to be headed along the same path at breakneck speed.

  15. [...] a bit on this subject. I’m seeing things less in terms of what Lemieux terms the “Republican Daddies” syndrome, and more as a situation in which Obama seems interested in putting realists in top [...]

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