The recent FBI leaks about the bureau’s investigations surrounding Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton are “dangerous” for democracy and “unprecedented,” according to FBI historians and former agents who tell Media Matters that the leaks harm the FBI’s reputation and unfairly influence the presidential election.
FBI Director James Comey has been widely criticized for his decision to send a vague letter last Friday to Congress announcing that the FBI had identified and planned to review additional emails “that appear to be pertinent” to its investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.
In the wake of Comey’s letter, numerous leaks have emerged from the FBI. The Guardian reported that the leaks have been designed to hurt Clinton’s campaign, due to factions within the bureau that are “pro-Trump.” According to one agent quoted by the paper, “The FBI is Trumpland.”
Several historians and former agents spoke with Media Matters and said the unusual leaking of information and subsequent media reports can do damage not only to the current presidential election but also to the FBI’s effectiveness and the nation’s democracy.
“It is a big negative to the country. It pollutes the image of democracy. It is completely incompatible with democracy,” said Kenneth O’Reilly, the author of three FBI books and a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. “In the good old days, [leakers] were either fired or sent to a field office and you didn’t have so much of that as an issue. You have renegade agents and they are a lot harder to control. You are having these factions and there is one faction in there and their whole life mission is to get the Clintons.”
Sanford J. Ungar, a scholar in residence at Georgetown University and the author of FBI: An Uncensored Look Behind the Walls, agreed.
“If the bureau is perceived as being partisan, it loses credibility. People are less willing to talk with them and it is a major setback. It is just a bizarre development in the past few days,” he said. “The bureau’s reputation is quick to be weakened and hard to recover.”
He later added, “Now I have to wonder if there is somebody in a very influential, well-placed position at the FBI who has some very particularly strong feelings about this election, who wants to leak as much as possible to affect this election.”
Douglas Charles, a Penn State Greater Allegheny associate professor of history who has written three books on the FBI, said this kind of activity is not the normal course of FBI business -- and for good reason.
“Most people understand leaks like this don’t happen very often for the FBI,” Charles said, later adding, “These leaks say to me there is some rift of some kind. In one way or another, it is influencing the election, for good or bad, which is something the FBI is not supposed to do or be involved in. There is a danger of the FBI becoming too involved in politics like the Hoover era. It was behind the scenes and quiet [back then], not so up front and blatant as this is. The worst that happens is the damage to its reputation, and its reputation is maybe one of its most important things because if it is damaged that affects it going forward.”
Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and FBI historian, echoed that view.
“Normally, [the Department of] Justice would not be bad-mouthing the director of the FBI and the director of the FBI would not be discussing an investigation that at the time had barely been hatched,” he said. “It’s the power of the information that is disclosed that makes readers spit out their coffee in the morning.”
Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, said not only are such leaks unacceptable among agents, but they are often wrong.
“That is pretty unprecedented,” Savage, who spent 35 years as an agent, said of the leaks. “Leaks are leaks -- they aren’t necessarily accurate and sometimes you can get people who have their personal ax to grind and their own view of it.”
James Wedick, a former FBI agent who served for over three decades, also offered concern about the accuracy.
“There are some leaks now and I am dubious exactly how good the leaks are,” he said. “You don’t know who is providing the information and you don’t know if it is good information and it may have some effect on the election. These agents take their oaths seriously. You are not going to find many agents willing to leak information, so I am suspect of it. If it does happen, it is dangerous, it is bad.”
Leaking “does damage to the reputation of the agency,” said Binny Miller, a former Justice Department attorney and a professor at American University Washington College of Law. “I haven’t seen this kind of thing in the press about any other things the FBI has investigated. The problem with leaks is the people who make the leaks, you cannot asses it. A government agency needs to speak with one voice. You could compromise an investigation.”
Athan Theoharis, a professor emeritus and FBI historian at Marquette University, said it’s simply “really dangerous.”
“The Clinton leaks are particularly egregious because they occur in the midst of a presidential campaign. You shouldn’t be doing anything that has political ramifications,” he said in an interview.