Following President Donald Trump’s surprise firing of FBI Director James Comey last week, major developments in the Russia investigation story have been unfolding almost too quickly to follow. Wednesday’s appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as the new Justice Department special counsel to investigate election interference allegations, however, provides an opportunity to reflect on some of what’s been going on.
Though the Washington Post has been at the forefront of the media campaign to prove allegations of Trump’s ties to the Russian government, the newspaper reported favorably on Mueller’s appointment, describing him as having “a proven willingness to take on a sitting president.”
Others quickly followed suit. The editorial board of the Boston Globe, for example, described Mueller’s appointment as “the right choice” (even though it also noted that Mueller’s role during the 1980s as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, coinciding with the reign of notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who was also protected as an FBI asset at the time, has not been explained in detail). USA Today, meanwhile, gushed that “Mueller is known for answering the call to public service” and that the former George W. Bush-appointed official “was widely praised as a transformative director of the FBI.”
“Mueller assumed leadership of the FBI just weeks before suicide hijackers slammed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks,” the paper points out. “During the difficult aftermath, he was widely credited with transforming the bureau from a purely law enforcement agency to a intelligence-driven organization to confront the looming terror threat. It was President George W. Bush’s terse, post-9/11 order – ‘Don’t ever let this happen again’ – that prompted Mueller’s make-over of the bureau to an agency designed to thwart, rather than respond to, terror threats.”
Indeed, as we have been reminded by other news reports this week, Mueller certainly transformed the FBI in the post-9/11 era. James Comey followed in his footsteps, continuing that transformation. While media reports praising Mueller following his new appointment in the Russia investigation have focused on his and Comey’s 2004 threat to resign from the Bush administration over the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program, though, the two former FBI directors also presided over highly questionable activities at the Bureau.
“While Comey is now positioned for history to remember him as the cop who took down Trump, or tried to at great professional expense, there should be wariness about lionizing Comey in the way the news media have in recent days,” writes Trevor Aaronson of The Intercept, who co-authored a separate report published this week exposing an FBI effort to bust renegade rancher Cliven Bundy and associates using a fake documentary crew. “Under Comey, the FBI pushed investigative and surveillance powers to new and controversial limits and employed tactics that were morally and ethically bankrupt,” Aaronson writes.
Aaronson also wrote an article detailing how the undercover FBI “documentary filmmaker” in the Bundy case was later arrested by local cops in a small town in Colorado for his involvement in a subsequent scheme, the purpose of which remains unclear. Yet as Aaronson also points out, dubious FBI policies initiated by Mueller and expanded by Comey are not limited to impersonating journalists (which the bureau has been doing since at least 2007, when it was under Mueller’s watch).
“In an effort to stop terrorist attacks before they happen, Comey expanded the practice instituted by his predecessor, Robert Mueller, to use undercover agents and informants to catch would-be attackers in sting operations,” Aaronson notes. “These stings never caught terrorists on the eve of their attack.”
In the years since Mueller first took over the FBI on the eve of 9/11, the counter-productive counter-terror tactics he approved and Comey expanded, (as we now know from The Intercept’s reporting on the Bundy operation) have become institutionalized and spread to other government agencies. The FBI’s authority to troll the internet impersonating journalists is now officially recognized, while agencies such as the Defense Department are getting in on the action, running their own absurdly terrible attempts to talk down ISIS sympathizers on the internet using translators and false personas (typically not those of journalists, but of moderate Sunni Muslims or disillusioned former Islamist radicals).
Since leaving the FBI, Mueller has managed to keep busy. In 2014, he was hired by the National Football League, following allegations that the NFL had known of a video showing former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee prior to its publication. Mueller released a report in early 2015 exonerating the NFL from blame for having allegedly known about the video. Booz Allen Hamilton, the defense contractor that once employed NSA leaker Edward Snowden, saw its stock price begin to tumble following last year’s arrest of Harold Thomas Martin III, a second Booz Allen employee accused of stealing classified information. After hiring Mueller, Booz Allen’s stock price recovered.
Given the rate of developments in the Trump-Russia story, it is impossible to predict where things will end up. Alternative media heavyweights including Matt Taibbi of Rollingstone and Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept have remained skeptical of the “#Russiagate” allegations — which at times seem like neo-McCarthyist witch hunt — throughout much of their evolution, and with good reason.
While his approval ratings are low among independents and pitiful among Democrats, Trump continues to enjoy ratings above 80 percent among Republicans. And even since Comey’s firing last week, major headlines about the Trump-Russia scandal and election hacking have been challenged.
The Washington Post‘s story on Monday, for example, claiming that Trump revealed information from a highly classified intelligence source (apparently Israel) was immediately disputed by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Meanwhile, reporting from Fox News and its local affiliate in Washington, D.C. that former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich — who was murdered in the U.S. capital last summer — was the actual source of the Wikileaks DNC release rather than Russian hackers, has also been challenged.
It is far from clear what outcome will eventually result from the official Trump-Russia investigations. But to the extent that Mueller’s new appointment to head the Justice Department investigation represents a continued reliance on political establishment and intelligence community insiders to unravel the convoluted outcome of a dramatic game of spy vs. spy — the full extent of which the public is surely not being made aware — it is probably safe to expect a few more surprises before it’s all over.