What Happens When the FBI Chooses Sides

October 16, 2019

We ask FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley to compare the Russiagate investigation with the treatment of Hillary Clinton's emails, and ask whether the current polarized political landscape makes it more likely for the agency to make partisan choices.

We ask FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley to compare the Russiagate investigation with the treatment of Hillary Clinton's emails, and ask whether the current polarized political landscape makes it more likely for the agency to make partisan choices.


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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia.

A just-released book by New York Times Reporter James B. Stewart titled Deep State: Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law, compares the FBI’s investigations into both Hillary Clinton and into Donald Trump in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential campaign. We rarely take a look at these two investigations side by side, because even though they took place more or less at the same time, the information about them was made public at different times. That is, the investigation into Clinton’s use of her email while she was Secretary of State become public knowledge when then-FBI Director James Comey made announcements about the investigation, first saying it was closed in mid-2016, and then a mere 11 days before the November election, announced that it was re-opened.

The other investigation into Russia’s suspected interference in the 2016 election was kept mostly secret during the campaign but became public knowledge afterwards when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017. The difference between the way the FBI handled these two investigations raises the question of just how impartial the FBI is and whether there is such a thing as a deep state, as the title of Stewart’s book suggests.

Joining me now to explore this question is Coleen Rowley. She’s a former FBI Special Agent and Division Counsel. In 2002, she was named one of Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year for having exposed some of the FBI’s pre-9/11 failures. Thanks for joining us again, Coleen.

COLEEN ROWLEY: Yes, thanks.

GREG WILPERT: So let’s start with a comparison of how the FBI handled the two investigations. As I mentioned, the main difference, at least on the surface, was that the investigation into the Clinton emails became public knowledge when there were leaks about it and Comey made announcements about the on-again, off-again nature of the investigation. And the one in the Trump campaign and its connection to Russia didn’t become public knowledge until much later. So how would you compare these two investigations? Did the FBI treat them impartially? What do you think?

COLEEN ROWLEY: I’m not a big fan of James Comey. And I’ve even written opinion pieces critical of both him and Mueller for a lot of reasons. The FBI has a long history of flawed investigations. You should read Mike German’s new book, Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide, it’s the whole history of Waco and Ruby Ridge and etc. There’s just a whole bunch of things, anthrax case. However, in this case, I actually can sympathize with James Comey to some extent, because investigating both presidential candidates essentially at the same time–although the Hillary Clinton investigation of her use of a private server started before any information came in about collusion with Russia, that all started a bit before. And I think though, because… We talk now about, is the president above the law? And you think about both presidential candidates now being investigated by an FBI director, the big cases always tend to be micromanaged. So they’re not normal. They’re going to be managed from the top, at the very least by assistant directors and that type of thing, and usually even the director himself.

So there are similarities and there are differences in these two investigations. The main similarity, I would say, is the political polarization. And you see that there was talk by some agents of trying to go after Hillary Clinton, their chance to finally find some information about her that she had done something wrong. So that was a little polarized. But then you see that the later investigation of Trump’s collusion, which Robert Mueller did not find sufficient evidence of, you find that the agents were even talking more so between each other about trying to go after Trump. So the similarity here is that there was political polarization. And if you think about how the FBI is supposed to be the least political agency, they were, under the Hatch Act, you weren’t even supposed to wear a political button or anything. So this is very unprecedented, at least from the time I was in the FBI.

The differences, I think a main difference between the Hillary Clinton and the investigation of Trump and Russia is the aggressiveness. In the Hillary Clinton investigation, it did start early, but it was long criticized that the FBI did not use the grand jury. They did not even use the grand jury process in order to subpoena records. And they seemed to go lightly on Hillary Clinton in interviewing her. James Comey now admits that they made the decision very early on that they would not be able to prove malicious intent that … He said, “Well, she was very careless and reckless in using the private server, but we couldn’t actually prove a bad, malicious intent on her part.” And he admits now that decision was made very early on. Well, what that did then was that the aggressiveness in the investigation did not seem to be normal.

Now, in the investigation of Russia, if you think about a foreign country allegedly taking emails from the DNC server, and the FBI does not even do the forensic work itself in examining that server, but allows the Democrats’ own private company to do all the forensic work, that of course is less than aggressive as well. And there were calls also that came from the DNC that seemed to have been treated lightly or ignored early on. Now, when the investigation of Russia gets started, they actually then go to using the FISA courts. And you know what, FISA is quite a… Anytime you’re going to use electronic surveillance, that would mean that that’s very aggressive. You have to have probable cause that it’s a foreign power. And in this case, they went after one of the Trump associates very early on, but then, thinking that it would lead to other people being trapped up, and they signed onto it for four times. So I think that that … And they even used interviews where, the interview of Flynn where they didn’t tell him that they were investigating him, they didn’t give him Miranda rights, etc.

So I think that you see a difference in the aggressiveness in both investigations, ultimately. This week or next week, very soon probably, there will be an IG, Inspector General, report. Inspector General Horowitz is going to release his report of how he thinks the FBI and the DOJ did in investigating the Russia collusion. And we already have his report of the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. He found no real problem. I mean, he criticized a little bit. He had more or less exonerated the FBI in investigating Hillary Clinton. And it remains to be seen if he will exonerate everyone now in the investigation of Donald Trump and the allegations of Russia.

GREG WILPERT: Now, when we compare these two investigations, as you just did, would you say that they give us reason to believe that there is something such as a deep state that is trying to manipulate presidents and presidential elections, as Stewart’s book seems to suggest? And if there is some kind of manipulation going on, what interests do they seem to be pursuing?

COLEEN ROWLEY: There’s always been… “Deep state” has kind of a bad connotation, so we can choose the term “permanent state.” And certainly, presidents come and go, but people like CIA career officials, State Department career officials, FBI career officials stay. And so I think, obviously, you can’t argue there’s a permanent state. The question is this power dynamic. And in other times, I think that the president clearly would have been able to order intelligence agencies to pretty much do what they want, even illegal orders, as in Iran-Contra and all these different times when presidents actually gave illegal orders to their agencies. Look at Bush ordering torture, and Rumsfeld ordering torture. And most of the agencies went along with that. And so I think, in most cases, you don’t have agency officials second-guessing the president. And I would say they should at some times, especially when the orders are illegal.

However, I think what has changed, and again, this is some evidence for how powerful the permanent state has now become, is that the polarization is so different now than ever before, extremely unprecedented. And we have these different camps fighting for power, almost in a life and death, War of the Roses struggle right now. On the one side, you have the Dem leadership, you have the war hawk think tanks, you have corporate media, you also have, I’m trying to think on the one side, but that’s a very powerful … the intelligence, you have some of the permanent state, not all of them, but you definitely have some of those former intelligence directors on that side. And on the other side, you have Trump, some of his remaining loyalists, I would say probably his base, his Christian fundamentalists, and very little of the media.

So you’ve got them locked in this struggle. And if you were really trying to do your job as an FBI agent right now, it would be very, very difficult. And I would say again, this is really unprecedented because of the polarization and this power struggle. It actually, I think goes way beyond even Watergate. I think that we’re almost in a constitutional crisis right now. A lot of people are saying, “No one knows how it’s going to turn out,” but it’s very, very different. And the permanent … If you go back to Schumer, who told Rachel Maddow, he said, “Trump’s being very stupid because by criticizing his intelligence community, they have six ways to Sunday to get back at you,” and there’s precedent for that. There is precedent for intelligence agencies going after the executive branch. Some of those, to this day, remain unknown. And people call them conspiracies and everything, but there is precedent because they do have a certain amount of power. And especially when you have these two different camps right now.

GREG WILPERT: Now, of course this is going to be of major concern were somebody such as Bernie Sanders elected as president, if that were to happen. And so I guess then, my next question is, well, what is there that could be done to reform these institutions so that they don’t undermine an elected president? Now, I’m not saying that this actually happened necessarily, but we could imagine that that could happen if, let’s say somebody such as Sanders were elected.

COLEEN ROWLEY: Yeah, exactly. The precedent now has been set. And anytime you’re setting a precedent for… Just the leaking is a good example. Directors are not supposed to leak. They have in the past; they’ve tried to control narratives and they’ve leaked. But we’ve also now set a terrible precedent of leaking information which, in some cases, could actually be dangerous, and certainly is wrong, this notion of controlling the media.  So I think that the way it could be fixed, you know, the old notion of draining the swamp might be pie in the sky. It’s just really, at a certain point right now, it’s maybe gone past that idea that you can fix it. We have systemic issues right now. And one is that it’s not a question of merely undermining the president, I would say. Like I said, if the president is doing something illegal, those directors have to say, “No, we aren’t going to torture. That’s illegal. We can’t do that, Dick Cheney. We can’t do that.”

So there are points where directors have to be very powerful. But there’s also times when–in conducting foreign policy, et cetera–a president cannot be second-guessed on every single telephone conversation that they engage in either. I think perhaps the one answer is to start going after this endemic corruption. I’m going to suggest one good way that would probably go a long ways to fixing things and you wouldn’t have this polarization, which is public officials–Congress–should pass a law; this should not be legal for public officials to have these second careers as lobbyists for foreign countries, as lobbyists for special interests, generals going and generals and directors now becoming talking heads on media. We need to have some restraints on this, what they call “normalized corruption.” And it causes conflicts of interests.

There are easy ways to remedy that. We’re not supposed to have emoluments. You’re not supposed to make a lot of money off of public service. And I think if we could fix that problem, trying to reduce the amount of profiteering off of public service, and I think it could be fixed, we just have to get much stricter ethics laws and enforce the current Office of Government Ethics laws that we already have, that would probably go a long ways. It wouldn’t be the complete solution, but it would help.

GREG WILPERT: Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Coleen Rowley, FBI whistleblower and former Special Agent. Thanks again, Coleen, for having joined us today.

COLEEN ROWLEY: Yes, thanks Greg.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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