What Barr Should Declassify

The story you won’t hear on most news outlets..

WSJ  7/3/2019

Finally America has its George Smiley, the fictional master spy from the John le Carré novels. Smiley knew the importance of a spy agency being willing to get to the bottom of its own major cock-ups.

Attorney General William Barr has been given power by Donald Trump to declassify classified material. He told CBS that stories offered by the FBI about its investigation of the Trump campaign don’t “hang together.” The same could be said for a more consequential enigma of the 2016 election, concerning the alleged Russian intelligence that lay behind the FBI’s intervention in the Hillary Clinton email case.

Remind yourself what happened: James Comey, on his sole initiative, held a press conference to announce that, though Mrs. Clinton had behaved improperly, she did not merit prosecution. Except it wasn’t his decision to make: It was the Justice Department’s We know that Mr. Comey secretly explained his action by invoking still-classified Russian intelligence. In his memoir, he refers to a development “unknown to the American public to this day.” In fact, we know from news leaks that a Russian intercept of some kind cited a Democratic Party email that referred to an alleged conversation in which Attorney General Loretta Lynch promised to bury the Hillary Clinton investigation.

On the surface, the Russian intelligence indicated political corruption at the Justice Department and yet Mr. Comey rejected this self-advertised significance. He didn’t investigate. He didn’t tell the Justice Department. He used his possession of the classified intercept as his classified justification for intervening to free Mrs. Clinton from the email matter in time for the Democratic Convention.

The questions about this episode are many. Mr. Barr could start by releasing the classified appendix of the Justice Department’s own inspector general’s review (whose existence the media uniformly ignores). Even this would probably not tell us the back story of the Russian intercept, which likely came to the FBI from the CIA. In what sense was it authentic “intelligence”? Was it a Russian plant? What advice did Obama intelligence chiefs John Brennan and James Clapper give Mr. Comey about its provenance and significance? Most dubiously of all, how did it actually justify Mr. Comey’s intervention?

He has said he worried the information would leak and discredit the Justice Department but it still could have leaked. How did he improve matters in a way that benefited his country? In fact, by his actions, didn’t he guarantee that the information would eventually become public (though perhaps not before the election)?

Let me be plain: It seems possible the CIA and FBI concocted, based on questionable (at best) Russian “intelligence,” a pretext to do what they wanted to do anyway and finesse the Hillary email problem. The gallumphingly anomalous factor should only deepen your suspicion. Mr. Comey reopened the Hillary case shortly before Election Day, a step he says he took believing Mrs. Clinton would still win. Why do this except to dilute a post hoc impression that your original intervention had been designed to help Mrs. Clinton and keep Donald Trump out of the White House?

Similar questions arise from the FBI’s use of the Steele dossier and its peddling to a U.S. court what it knew was a false and implausible story about Carter Page. Here as well the FBI seems quite possibly to have been abusing its intelligence role for domestic political ends.

People of high ethical character don’t prate about their high ethical character. Mr. Comey prates. He would not be the first neurotic to publicly idealize those qualities he lacks. He would not be the first to dress up his shallow, devious, impulsive and expedient decision-making—the only kind he’s capable of—in high moral purpose. He likes to quote Reinhold Niebuhr. It was Niebuhr who said public men like Mr. Comey become experts in “unconscious and conscious identification of their special interests with general interests and universal values.”

And yet the colossal dumbness of it all is what sticks in mind now: To attach the FBI’s reputation to the partisan and juvenile Steele dossier; to meddle so clumsily in a presidential election as to end up producing the opposite of your desired result.

Here’s betting the pieces of the 2016 story won’t fall into place until the FBI and CIA intervention in the Hillary email case is recognized as one of those pieces. Will Mr. Barr pursue these matters as energetically as he has intelligence-agency actions directed at the Trump campaign? He hasn’t said. Mr. Trump may be unenthusiastic about an inquiry that would incidentally highlight Mr. Comey’s bumbling contribution to his victory. And yet the full story might support his claim that his victory was partly a triumph over a hostile, incompetent and corrupt establishment. The way to start clearing the air is by releasing the classified portion of the inspector general’s report on Mr. Comey’s actions in the Hillary Clinton email case.

BUSINESS WORLD

By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.

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