In Defense of the FBI – and Comey – from One of their Own

| Frank Montoya Jr.
Frank Montoya Jr.
Retired FBI Special Agent

Like some of you, perhaps, I have spent an inordinate amount of time consumed with the revelations about the latest tweet, or twist in the Russia investigation, or tempestuous rant coming from an outraged politician or pundit. The release of former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir is just one more peak in what seems like a never-ending roller coaster ride.

Frankly, it’s hard to look away from the porn stars, Playboy bunnies and Russian spies, capped most recently by a raid of the president’s own personal lawyer’s office – and it’s hard not to agree with some of Comey’s conclusions about our commander in chief, especially when President Donald Trump lashes out at my former colleagues simply for doing their jobs.

I’d like to take a step back and offer my own personal history on this as an FBI agent who worked for Comey, to provide a counterpoint to the president’s continuing attacks on the FBI, and its leaders – many of whom I know well.

The men and women of the FBI I know are neither “pathetic,” “corrupt,” nor “weak,” all words critics have used in an attempt to assassinate their characters. They do not act with “bias” and “politics” do not play a role in their decision making, particularly not in cases like the Hillary Clinton e-mail server and Russian interference investigations, that were viewed as inherently political.

I was “in the room” many times when tough decisions concerning sensitive investigations were discussed. And while I didn’t always agree with the outcome of some decisions, the decision-making process was always sound. Nothing in the conduct of any participant suggested their interest and intent was anything other than upholding the rule of law, and protecting the institution’s independence to do so, even in the face of withering criticisms to the contrary.

Indeed, I remember distinctly when then-Director Comey announced to senior leadership not only that the Clinton email investigation was ending, but also how it would end. He specifically detailed why she couldn’t be charged. It wasn’t an emotional moment. There was a clear legal basis for not doing so. Use of the Espionage Act, even against real spies, is a difficult proposition at best. The issues concerning intent are real. Those of us who have worked these kinds of cases immediately understood why “no reasonable prosecutor” would attempt to bring a case, as Comey stated publicly. There simply wasn’t “sufficient evidence.”

As an investigator, it is always difficult to accept when a prosecutor refuses a case, but it happens. It typically isn’t because the prosecutor is weak or fearful, regardless of what we might think, but usually has something to do with an inability to prove a case. Wishing something might be true, or even a strongly held opinion, are never enough to make a case. It takes sufficient evidence. Particularly so in matters like the Clinton e-mail investigation.

In his announcement, Comey was also clear-eyed in his knowledge that he was going to catch major heat for announcing the end of the investigation the way he did. But he was also adamant in his belief that it was an essential act to reinforce the notion the FBI is an independent investigative agency.

Call it self-righteous from a distance, but those of us who were in the room knew he was right about sustaining that independence. We saw the “coming storm” of the Russia investigation and knew the FBI’s independence as the investigative agency responsible for conducting that investigation would be vital to assuring the American public of a fair and just outcome.

All these months later, how prescient an act it was. Despite all the awful noise coming from the White House, Congress and certain media, public confidence is still high in the investigation. Some of that is certainly attributable to the integrity of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but it is also a tribute to Jim Comey and his courage to do the right thing in the face of withering criticism from all quarters.

It is as much an outrage to me that he has been accused of costing Clinton the election (there would have been no investigation, if she had not used a private server) as the accusations from Trump that Jim is a “grandstander,” or a “showboat,” or the instigator of a “witch hunt” in an effort to delegitimize a presidency.

Utter nonsense.

I served under many different kinds of leaders in 30 years of government service, including four in the U.S. Army, and I knew few who exhibited Jim’s sense of honor and integrity. You may disagree with his decision-making, but he was not corrupt. Nor did he lack courage. Nor was he unprincipled.

Some have said he should have “resigned” if Trump’s behavior towards him was so outrageous that it was offensive, or seemed inappropriate. But that wasn’t Jim’s style at all. He might have come across as a gentle giant, but he was not the kind to run from a fight.

Indeed, that’s why Comey wrote the memos. He knew if he didn’t stand as a firewall between FBI and Trump, the alleged malfeasance of an ill-mannered and possibly corrupt president might go unaddressed. That wasn’t a political calculation, but a determination to uphold the rule of law. I know that because that’s how we in the FBI, regardless of our political persuasions, think. Indubitably, our oath means more to us than who might be the next president; more to us than any politician will ever understand.

Look at it this way. Critics can quibble about Jim’s “leak” to the press via a friend, but I’ve come to terms with it. He was no longer at the FBI. The information wasn’t classified. And, it resulted in the appointment, on sound legal grounds, of the special counsel. No one inside the FBI who understands the Russian threat disputes the Russians interfered with our democracy. Truth be told, most Americans do not.

But, the appointment of a special counsel, especially after Jim was sidelined, became a necessity to prevent truly partisan politics—the kind we’ve seen in Congress for years now—from interfering with the integrity of the investigation. Nearly a year later, it is hard to argue with that logic. Two subjects convicted, two subjects indicted, perhaps more to come. That’s justice, not some political vendetta, being served. And to think, Jim would have kept his peace if the president hadn’t attacked him on Twitter.

As an American who loves this country and has faithfully served it all of my adult life, I’m grateful he did not. Even in the face of the continued attacks on my FBI and the great men and women who serve it.

Take, for instance, the criticisms highlighted in the infamous Nunes Memo. Frankly, I’ve been perplexed by the conclusion some have made that there was misconduct or political bias evident in the crafting of the FISA application to surveil former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page. Clearly, these critics don’t know a FISA order from a pizza order. Anyone who has participated in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process (and I’ve been involved in many) knows that infusing a FISA application with falsehoods or bias is a near impossibility given all of the oversight.

Indeed, anyone who has ever obtained any kind of court order knows the information a “source” provides is the key to getting the order. But what makes a source credible? His looks? Her livelihood?

No. It is the information he or she provides. Is it credible? In the Carter Page FISA, much has been made of the likelihood information from the so-called Steele dossier was included in the FBI’s application to obtain a FISA warrant on Page. The FBI has been accused of using tainted information; of not informing the FISA Court judge of the information’s origin.

A U.S. senator has even publicly said that Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who compiled the data in the dossier from Russian sub-sources, can’t be a political opposition researcher and an FBI source. Really? By that same logic, we couldn’t rely on the information from a Mafia capo to take down the Mafia. Or a drug cartel kingpin to take down a cartel. Or a terrorist to identify his or her network. Or a corrupt politician to identify his accomplices.

But that’s not how it works. Even in this case. Indeed, the House intelligence committee’s own “minority” response to the Nunes Memo noted the FISA Court judge was informed about the origin of the dossier. Page, himself, acknowledged in his testimony to Congress last November that, as the dossier alleged, he was in Russia to meet with Russian officials.

While the “salacious and unverified” parts of the dossier may never be more than that, the dossier itself has already proven to be an actionable source of information (a fact made clear in the Nunes Memo, interestingly enough) that pertains too much more than the possible personal proclivities of the man who currently occupies the White House.

Whatever is credible about it will be made a part of the investigation. That’s how investigations go, be they a drug conspiracy case, a public corruption matter, a counter-terror operation or Russian interference in our democracy that may have been enabled by U.S. persons.

But that’s simply a matter of fact. It is how the FBI does its work to protect and defend our nation from all enemies, foreign and domestic. It is how it always does its work, be it in the Omaha or Los Angeles or Houston or San Francisco Field Offices, or in Washington.

Particularly, in Washington.

I hope we are all concerned about what has transpired in the last two years, but before we condemn leaders like Jim Comey, Special Counsel Bob Mueller—whose work has built upon what Comey started— and now Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein, we, as a nation, should think about the vital role they are playing in the defense of our democracy. We should base our opinions about them on fact, not emotion. And void of political persuasion.

To do otherwise risks condemning these good men who have served our nation with distinction to a history they do not deserve.

The Author is Frank Montoya Jr.

Frank Montoya Jr. is a retired FBI special agent and senior executive with extensive experience in counterintelligence matters.  In addition to running FBI field offices in Honolulu and Seattle in the course of his career, from February 2012 to May 2014, he was detailed to the ODNI as the National Counterintelligence Executive (now NCSC).

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7 Replies to “In Defense of the FBI – and Comey – from One of their Own”
  1. I agree with much of what Mr. Montoya writes, but….would like to use some of his own words to point out what rubs many the wrong way. Much like Mr. Montoya I have worked as a Special Agent in the federal government and spent time as an officer in the U.S. Army. I understand how investigations work and how law enforcement interfaces with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. So here are some of the issues I see.
    The first is, “We saw the “coming storm” of the Russia investigation and knew the FBI’s independence as the investigative agency responsible for conducting that investigation would be vital to assuring the American public of a fair and just outcome.” Note the words “the FBI’s independence as an investigative agency.” The FBI is one of America’s premier investigative agencies with the skills and reach to do many good things. They are a “investigative agency” not the Federal Bureau of Prosecution.
    The second is, “Indeed, I remember distinctly when then-Director Comey announced to senior leadership not only that the Clinton email investigation was ending, but also how it would end. He specifically detailed why she couldn’t be charged. It wasn’t an emotional moment. There was a clear legal basis for not doing so. Use of the Espionage Act, even against real spies, is a difficult proposition at best. The issues concerning intent are real. Those of us who have worked these kinds of cases immediately understood why “no reasonable prosecutor” would attempt to bring a case, as Comey stated publicly. There simply wasn’t “sufficient evidence.” What the FBI should have done is present the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and let them review the evidence and make the call. Once again Mr. Comey made and sealed the decision for the prosecutor, usurping the role of the U.S, Attorney’s Office/U. S. Department of Justice. Yes Mr. Comey has a law degree, yes he was a U.S. Attorney at one time himself, but the call was not his to make.
    Unfortunately when agencies and people in them step out of their prescribed roles we run into significant controversies. This is what is happening here.

    1. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at the time that because of the possible appearance of influence (Former President Bill Clinton’s visit on her plane), she would defer judgment on Clinton email investigation to FBI.

  2. What people don’t seem to remember (or conveniently forget) is that a team of experienced prosecutors from outside the FBI (and backed by DOJ) were part of the decision making process. I made a reference to this fact in this piece, and have explained it in more detail in other pieces that pertained specifically to the email investigation. What’s more, Jim has said so himself. Further, it was a consensus decision that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge. So the accusation that we saw ourselves as the Federal Bureau of Prosecution is plain false.

    What critics consistently confuse is the decision not to charge Clinton (at the culmination of legal process that included a year-long investigation, assessment of information collected in that investigation, and considerable debate with said prosecutors) with Comey’s decision to make a public announcement about the results of that process. Those were two separate and distinct issues.

    — Frank Montoya

  3. Respectfully, I reject this perspective as being the essence of partisan law enforcement at its worst. I believe that the new of Comey’s actions in the past 3 days, since this piece was posted, should change this opinion!

    Assertions that any decision that this was a “unanimous” decision not to charge? Balderdash.

    Further, it’s DISTINCTLY NOT the FBI’s place to make this charging decision, on this or any other case! There undeniable WAS/IS piles of evidence requiring this to have had a proper charging decision. A sworn US Attorney is required by statute to make this decision. We all know this basic procedure and fact.

    I’ve been involved in many sensitive investigations as well, and I’m sorry-this absolutely reeks of partisan bias. Comey ADMITS violating his Non-Disclosure Agreements, and leaking those memos. He should’ve been stood up from the table before the House Committee & taken into custody immediately. You & I would’ve been! I’ve signed an NDA countless times, and that information will die within me. Period. It’s dosheartening that hacks who’ve taken the oath can support anyone, and Imean anyone, who violates that oath, and trust.

    Shame on anyone who defends the snake whose last name is Comey. He’s a disgrace to all of us. Let’s return to the days when ACTUAL field agents lead our agencies, not Ivy League academics who’ve never faced ANY danger, and lack that perspective…..How’s that for today’s words of wisdom? Make a REAL agent lead the law enforcement agencies.

  4. Since you were there, Mr. Montoya, could you please answer the questions raised by Kim Strassel in her 4/20/18 Wall Street Journal article?

    1. As Secretary of State I presume Mrs Clinton was read into the requirements for correct handling of classified materials as specified in the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM). She should have also signed a form confirming she had been briefed and understood those requirements. One the strictures is that transporting or causing the transmission of classified material outside of secured and designated areas is cause for serious punishment up to and including separation and/or federal charges. Just walking out of the building with a document in one pocket or purse by mistake.
      There is NO need for ‘intention’. Only the fact.
      When Mr Comey gave her a pass because he could not find any ‘intention’ on her part to do damage to the United States by wholesale storage of and transmission of classified material, he was cutting a very fine margin by looking very carefully at only one federal statute in and applying to it the need for ‘intention’.
      Has anyone seen her FAM form?