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How does the FBI insulate itself from political pressure?

April 5, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
The FBI's investigation into Russian meddling in the election, yet another politically sensitive case, has drawn scrutiny for the bureau. Last year Director James Comey was criticized for his handling of an investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server. William Brangham talks to former FBI official Stephanie Douglas and former Justice Department official John Carlin.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn next to the American investigations into Russia, its meddling in the 2016 election, and whether Trump associates were involved in at all.

The congressional probes have been the focus of late. But the federal bureau of investigation is looking into the matter as well, putting that bureau under scrutiny again for its handling of yet another politically sensitive case.

William Brangham begins there.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: He leads the country’s most prominent law enforcement agency, the FBI, making Director James Comey the very public face of a bureau suddenly in the spotlight.

JAMES COMEY, FBI Director: And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s not standard procedure to reveal, let alone publicly discuss, an ongoing FBI investigation, but last July, Comey also came forward to discuss a politically sensitive probe that he said was wrapping up. It was the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices when she was secretary of state.

JAMES COMEY: I want to tell you what we did, I want to tell you what we found, and I want to tell you what we’re recommending to the Department of Justice.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That recommendation? Not to bring criminal charges, a decision panned by some top Republicans, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said the recommendation defied explanation.

Then, there was also his revelation about a week-and-a-half before the election, this letter from Comey to Congress saying the bureau had subsequently learned about e-mails that may have been pertinent to the Clinton probe.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder criticized this revelation. So did other former Justice Department officials from both parties. And even today, a Justice Department watchdog is reviewing whether Comey’s public statements on the Clinton case flouted FBI or DOJ policy.

For his part, Comey is defending his, and the bureau’s, handling of these politically sensitive matters, as he did last week.

JAMES COMEY: I know that, when I make a hard decision, a storm is going to follow. But, honestly, I don’t care. If we ever start to think about who will be affected in what way by our decisions in a political sense, we’re done.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As for the ongoing probe into what role the Russians played in our election, and whether members of the Trump campaign participated in that meddling, Comey told Congress he had no sense how much longer that may take.

For a deeper dive into just how the FBI handles these kinds of investigations, I’m joined now by Stephanie Douglas. She’s a 23-year veteran of the FBI, where she specialized in national security and counterintelligence. And John Carlin, he ran the National Security Division of the Department of Justice under President Obama.

Welcome to you both.

Stephanie Douglas, I would like to start with you first.

I wonder if you would just take on — before we get to the investigation, take on this criticism of Comey. There are a lot of Democrats who are very upset with how the FBI handled the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation. What would you say to those critics?

STEPHANIE DOUGLAS, Former FBI Official: Well, I think — you know, I have never worked with Director Comey personally, but I have a great deal of respect for him.

And I think, at the end of the day, the director felt like he was making the best decision he could, given the circumstances. I think he considered it a very sensitive matter that he felt that the U.S. public had a right to know and understand. And I think, based on that, he made a decision to come forward with the disclosures.

I do think that, given that, it has put the FBI in the middle of a political firestorm, which is an uncomfortable place to be. But I think, at the end of the day, the director is very — he didn’t make this decision hastily, and I think he believes that he did the right thing.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: John Carlin, is there anything you would add to that?

JOHN CARLIN, Former Justice Department Official: Well, I think it’s important right now to take stock of where we are and what the national security threat is.

And I thought what was stunning, and has not been receiving the attention that it deserves, was the director of the FBI’s statement at a congressional hearing last week and the head of the National Security Agency, and what they said was, not only did Russia attempt to undermine confidence in the integrity of our election, in this election cycle, not only did they do that, but they’re going to do it again.

They said that it is their assessment that the Russians believe it’s a success, and they’re going to come back at us in 2020, perhaps as soon as 2018, and that they’re going to take similar efforts undermining democracy in Europe, European elections that are upcoming shortly.

So the problem is urgent. And I hope that we can start focusing on what we can do to prevent them from being successful in those attempts.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Stephanie Douglas, you heard what John is just saying there.

The current FBI investigation seems to be a two-pronged one, what meddling did the Russians do in our prior election and whether the Trump campaign had any collusion in that activity. What is the goal here? Is it disruption? Is it putting people in handcuffs? I mean, what’s the end goal here?

STEPHANIE DOUGLAS: Well, the FBI has been doing counterintelligence investigations for decades.

And it’s a part of their core mission and it’s part of one of their most significant priorities. So the purpose of counterintelligence investigations is to provide intelligence to policy-makers and to other intelligence community partners, so we are better educated to make decisions relative to policy.

As you said, there are two parts of this investigation. It will not be a surprise to Russia that there’s a counterintelligence investigation into their intelligence activities ongoing within the United States.

But there’s also, as part of that investigation, an attempt to understand the roles and the relationships of U.S. persons with the Russian intelligence service, and if there was anything inappropriate as part of those relationships.

So, the bureau has a big job ahead of itself to fully vet out and to put the pieces together in any logical investigation to make sure the facts are clear.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: John Carlin, how — investigating the president of the United States, who is ostensibly the boss of the FBI, has got to be an incredibly fraught political thing to do. How does the agency, how does the bureau insulate itself from that kind of pressure?

JOHN CARLIN: Well, I have had the privilege of working with some of the professionals, both at the FBI and the career prosecutors who are at the Department of Justice that handle this highly specialized type of investigation.

And one thing that assures me and that I can assure others, having worked with them, is these are people that they don’t care about politics. They often are not even tracking what’s going on in the political world.

But they’re trained investigators who believe — swear an oath to protect our Constitution, recognize the threats that they’re facing from abroad from people who fundamentally do not share our values, and work day in and day out to protect us from those threats.

They’re going to follow the facts and evidence where they lead under the law, and then make a decision if there were criminal charges to bring, that’s based on longstanding Justice precedent. Those are the prosecutors.

So, when — if the target of the investigation were to be the president, there are protocols — and I’m not saying that it is, but that there are protocols in place at the Department of Justice to ensure that, ultimately, the career prosecutors’ decisions, the investigative steps of the career agents are respected, and the investigation is allowed to proceed.

And one thing I have absolutely no doubt is that Director Comey will do what he needs to do to preserve the integrity of those investigations, and that the career officials at the National Security Division and in U.S. attorney’s offices will similarly not allow political interference with their investigation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Stephanie Douglas, we have seen a lot of controversy, a lot of attacks on the intelligence agencies recently. Are you confident that this investigation can get to the bottom of this issue and that those findings, when they’re presented, will be accepted by the public?

STEPHANIE DOUGLAS: Yes.

And I just want to echo what John was just saying. You know, the men and the women of the FBI do sensitive investigations every day. Not many of them come to light or are briefed as publicly as this one has been. But they have very strict protocols.

They understand the rule of law. They’re very process-oriented in how they go about a very methodical investigation. They gather evidence in conformance with the law. They do interviews. They take advantage of investigative tools that are made available to them.

And the only thing that will enhance this investigation is the fact that it will be even more highly scrutinized because of the potential impact of it. So, I have — I have very firm confidence that the FBI is up to this task.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Stephanie Douglas, John Carlin, thank you both very much.

STEPHANIE DOUGLAS: Thank you.

JOHN CARLIN: Thank you.

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