Comey and Brennan are Right but Should STFU

For intelligence and law enforcement to function, their leaders must remain outside the partisan fray---even in recent retirement.

Mark Penn, who served as a top strategist for both Bill and Hillary Clinton, has a rather unhinged op-ed at The Hill titled “Comey’s last stand for the deep state.”

They were among the most powerful men of the last decade. They commanded armies of armed agents, had the ability to bug and wiretap almost anyone, and had virtually unlimited budgets. They were the leadership of the FBI, the CIA and the director of national intelligence under President Obama. Each day, it becomes clearer that they are the real abusers of power in this drama.

The book by former FBI Director James Comey and the daily hyperbolic John Brennan sound bites are perhaps the final reveal of just how much hubris and vitriol they had. Comey’s book, according to reports, contains nothing new of legal consequence to Trump (while suggesting that former Attorney General Loretta Lynch has something to worry about), but it unmasks the hatred that Comey had for Donald Trump from the beginning. It impeaches Comey’s fitness to have ever held high, nonpartisan office.

Those are wildly provocative charges not backed up in the slightest by the remainder of the article.

Amidst some bizarre ax-grinding, though, he hits on a feeling that I’ve had for some time about both Brennan and Comey: that while I agree with virtually everything they’ve said since being freed from the constraints of their former lofty positions, the very fact they held those posts so recently makes me wish they would follow the immortal (and repeated) advice of Bob Gates  and just shut the fuck up.

While they’re often quite valuable to me as a policy analyst who has never actually made policy, the various tell-all books coming out of administrations have long bothered me. Gates’ Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, for example, is a fine read but it was, at very least, weird to have a Secretary of Defense recounting private conversations with a still-sitting president that he served. (There was a surreal passage in the book where Gate recounted with apoplectic fury President Obama having remarked in a top-level meeting that he hoped he wouldn’t see a conversation in a book, with Gates noting that it was outrageous to insinuate that anyone would do such a thing in his book which recounted the conversation.) Presidents ought to be able to have conversations with their cabinet secretaries without having to worry about them being repeated.

That’s tenfold more true of fundamentally apolitical posts like the directorships of the CIA and FBI. As Penn rightly notes, we give these men (and, thus far, they’ve always been men) enormous power and trust. While both Comey and Brennan were controversial figures while in office, I believe both served honorably, balancing competing interests in the way they thought best for their country and the agencies they led.

But by entering the political fray so soon out of office, as both have in full-throated fashion, they absolutely feed the suspicions of those, like Penn, who believe the “deep state” is out to serve its own agenda.

Brennan has gone into full honey badger mode from almost the second his retirement became effective. His Twitter account has been used sparingly, with a mere 28 tweets. Almost all of them, though, have been viral attacks on the President.

His most recent put the word “kakistocracy” into the public lexicon:

The previous tweet, mocking Trump for “self-adoration,” might be a tad bit lacking in self-awareness:

His reaction to the McCabe firing got 103k retweets:

While I applaud Brennan’s instincts and think they’re motivated by love of country and the institutions of its government he served for decades, they feed into the notion that the intelligence community has an agenda of its own. While Brennan may well not speak for the current leadership of the CIA, much less its officers and analysts, they carry so much weight precisely because of his recent post.

Comey has been more cautious until this weekend’s launch of his book. His Twitter account has been a mix of banal observations about daily life, remembrances of the service of law enforcement officers, and the occasional soft jab at Trump. Some examples of the political:

Again, rather veiled in comparison to Brennan’s contemptuous language. But, even they feed into the bipartisan—and largely incorrect, in my view—charged that the FBI has a partisan agenda.

The book is more problematic. While I haven’t (and likely won’t) read it in its entirety, there’s both very little new knowledge about the Russia investigation and too much revelation of private conversations he had as FBI Director with President-Elect/President Trump. To the extent the latter have legal implications, he ought very much have shared them with the Justice Department and/or Robert Mueller. Putting them into a tell-all book to line his pockets and/or save his reputation undermines trust in the institution he claims to value so much.

Even beyond violating presidential trust, which can arguably be dismissed given Trump’s continued attempts to humiliate Comey publicly, what possible purpose does this serve?

“[Kelly] said he was sick about my firing and that he intended to quit in protest. He said he didn’t want to work for dishonorable people who would treat someone like me in such a manner. I urged Kelly not to do that, arguing that the country needed principled people around this president. Especially this president.”

While this nugget might slightly enhance Comey’s reputation, it makes it harder for Kelly going forward to be one of those “principled people” that the country needs.

FILED UNDER: Government, Intelligence, Law and the Courts
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    James, you are trying to apply normally good advice to radically abnormal times. In Comey’s case at least, there is no way he could stay above the fray. Trump, many Republican Reps and even some Senators, as well as the Republican house press have been attacking Comey for months. THEY dragged him into the fray. What you call “staying above the fray” would be more accurately described as rolling into a ball and hoping they stop kicking him.

  2. KM says:

    It’s rather like the “religious freedom” trend. Instead of remain professional, non-partisan and impartial, individuals with a strong sense of “deeply held beliefs” now want to interject them into a realm that previously and deliberately said “no thank you.” We want like professionals like doctors, gov officals and law enforcement to keep their opinions to themselves and do their jobs. It makes us all breath easier, this fiction that these people won’t allow their opinion to influence their work and we’ll all get a “fair” shot. However, you now see a push that people have the right to “express” themselves whenever they see fit, regardless of the potential harm it can do. Free speech, religious freedom, call it what you want but it’s the demise of a commonly held conceit: professional people don’t bring their personal baggage into it. Private you and professional you are two separate people and it should stay that way.

    Trump didn’t cause this but he’s certainly speeding the process up. These are people who’ve spent their lives dedicated to law enforcement and now they’re supposed to sit here and let that asshat talk smack about them? Sure, he’s got the title of POTUS but he certainly doesn’t act like one. A clear case of physician, heal thyself if there ever was one. We’re not going to have success reinstating this norm anytime soon….

  3. Lounsbury says:

    This reminds me of your sad church-lady posture on Mr Clinton.
    Pious vanities.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    They have retired, they are private individuals now. They are not LEOs or CIA personnel anymore, as such they have the right to speak as they see fit and to take whatever political positions are important to them. We don’t own them and they are not slaves to past service. I can see no justification for denying them the same rights that other Americans enjoy.

    While I would like to see people in such positions wait a decent interval of time (10 yrs?) before releasing their memoirs. I can see why they do not. This is America, a capitalist society where the great green god reigns supreme. As such they are obviously incentivized to write and release these tell all books as soon as possible.

  5. Joe says:

    I agree with James, almost entirely. What I have heard of Comey’s book makes me wonder whether he considered it a public service or a self service, other than my earlier-peddled theory that he wrote it just to goad Trump into even more self-compromising tweets. To @OzarkHillbilly‘s point, Comey is entirely within his rights to publish this book. Whether that is in the best interest of the public or Comey’s long-term reputation, time will tell.

  6. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    While I tend to sort of agree with you on this, James…in the absence of other leaders, someone has to step up and fill the vacuum. What is at stake here is too important for us to pick and choose the sources of resistance. At the time the Boston Tea Party was seen more of an act of a lawless mob…not so much as a principled protest. It’s not hyperbolic to say that the Republic is at risk; whatever it takes is what it takes.
    What strikes me most is that both of these guys are aware of much behind the scenes stuff we don’t know about. I assume their vitriol is, to a great extent, fueled by that un-shared knowledge.

  7. I get where this argument is coming from, and I’m sympathetic to it. As other commenters have already noted, though, these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary President. While I can agree that perhaps Comey should refrain from comments on some of the more sensationalistic issues that his book apparently deals with, I think the American people need to hear the assessment of this President from people like him and Brennan, How they evaluate it is up to them, but silence in the face of, well, what we’re facing strikes me as complacency.

  8. An Interested Party says:

    Comey and Brennan are Right but Should STFU

    Even better would be if the person they’re criticizing would STFU…

  9. michael reynolds says:

    Comey needed a better editor and a decent publicist. A line stolen from Twitter: It’s the Prig vs. the Pig.

    A smart editor would have told him to drop the personal stuff relating to Trump’s mini-penis and. . . Oh, right, sorry it was Trump’s mini-hands. And a smart publicist would’ve known not to let him get over-exposed.

  10. Kathy says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Even better would be if the person they’re criticizing would STFU…

    I think the world is overdue for Trump fatigue.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    From what I see Comey comes across as a self righteous ass, more concerned with his own and his institution’s reputations than with loyalty to the country, the law, or his own institution’s clear rules. But let’s not be too punctilious about our allies in a fight for our lives, or at least for our democracy.

    And I hope I spelled all this right, I seem to have lost the preview function (iPad).

  12. Charon says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I think the American people need to hear the assessment of this President from people like him and Brennan,

    He is a superior and righteous human being, so of course his opinion of less ethical and honorable people is valuable. (Though it would have been better to skip the irrelevant comments on hand size and skin tone). You can agree or disagree, for example, with his assessment of the President’s intelligence and mental health, which various other sources also comment on, but every bit of knowledge adds to understanding.

    It was good as well for him to take some ethically challenged old lady down a peg or two, with his useful information about her “extreme carelessness.” Mustn’t let a lesser being like that get away with anything.

    BTW, there is a piece up at the Daily Beast about some FBI people reacting pretty unfavorably to his ABC interview, revising their opinion of him downwards.

  13. Charon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    What really annoys me is that he will make much more money from this book because of his past misconduct than he ever could have by playing it straight. I have a sad.

  14. Charon says:

    Let me put this a bit differently. If Comey has factual information to relate, fine, I am interested. As for his opinions and judgment, I see them as flawed so I am pretty skeptical.

  15. wr says:

    First they came for the Jews, but I didn’t say anything because I was afraid they’d use that as evidence of the deep state…

  16. JKB says:

    Brennan and Comey have given every appearance of impropriety during their tenures since leaving their positions and trying to compete on the Twitter field where Trump is champion.

    The best was when Samantha Powers piped up on Brennan’s angry tweet over McCabe’s firing (as a result of the internal DOJ IG investigation that just keeps revealing worse things about McCabe). She doubled down on the impressions of impropriety: ‘Not a good idea to piss off John Brennan.’

    You could never get these people to reveal themselves if you came at them directly, but a strategic tweet and the firing of a compatriot who was found to have lied under oath at least three times by the IG and they reveal more than they think with their responses.