By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
FBI Director James Comey’s credibility is under heavy fire due to his headline-making public statements about the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton that have entangled the bureau in presidential politics.
Republicans howled in July when Comey publicly declared he wouldn’t recommend criminal charges against Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Over the weekend, Democrat Clinton reportedly told supporters she blames her surprising loss to President-elect Donald Trump on Comey’s announcement 11 days before the election that he had restarted the email probe, as well as his announcement two days before the election that an examination of newly discovered emails had not changed his July findings.
But those aren’t the first credibility issues to be raised about Republican Comey since he became FBI chief in 2013. Others, largely unreported, arose from his handling of a secretive blue-ribbon panel authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence.
Under Comey’s direction, the 9/11 Review Commission became a captive of the FBI. He chose its three commissioners, authorized they be paid undisclosed sums and arranged for FBI personnel to spoon-feed them information. As the panel’s final report makes clear, the commissioners in turn were pliant to the very agency they were tasked to examine.
After the Review Commission was finished, Comey misled the public by promoting the fiction that it was an independent panel of experts.
“This is a moment of pride for the FBI,” Comey told reporters when the Review Commission’s final report was released, according to the New York Times. “An outside group of some of our most important leaders and thinkers has stared hard at us and said, ‘You have done a great job at transforming yourself.’ They’ve also said what I’ve said around the country: ‘It’s not good enough.’ ”
But the 9/11 Review Commission members – Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese, former congressman and ambassador Tim Roemer and Georgetown University securities studies professor Bruce Hoffman – were not outsiders. Each signed personal services contracts with the FBI at the outset that under federal regulations made them de facto FBI employees. The FBI has declined to say how much they were paid.
The Review Commission issued its final 127-page report, “The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century,” on March 25, 2015. It was largely supportive of the FBI, while repeatedly noting the bureau needed to speed up reforms to make it a more effective anti-terrorist force.
An embarrassing 2002 FBI report
The Review Commission’s most controversial finding: a section that curiously sought to discredit an April 16, 2002 FBI report that had become an embarrassment to the bureau.
The 2002 report discussed the findings of the FBI’s investigation of a Saudi family who it said had “fled” their Sarasota area home shortly before the 9/11 attacks and were later determined to have had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” Florida Bulldog obtained a heavily censored copy of the document during ongoing Freedom of Information litigation.
The FBI report corroborated earlier source-based reporting by Bulldog and Irish journalist Anthony Summers that in 2011 disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation. Among other things, the story reported how law-enforcement agents had obtained community security records – including photos of license tags – showing that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 figures had visited the home in the gated Prestancia neighborhood.
The FBI did not inform Congress or the subsequent 9/11 Commission about its Sarasota investigation, according to former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks. The FBI has said Congress and the 9/11 Commission were told.
The 2002 report, however, conflicted with the FBI’s prior public statements that said it had found no connection to terrorism during its once-secret investigation into the apparently hasty departure from Sarasota of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family. The couple moved out of their home about two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other belongings.
The Review Commission, while silent about whether the FBI informed Congress and the 9/11 Commission of its Sarasota probe, cited unidentified FBI officials who called the April 2002 FBI report “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated.”
“When questioned later by others in the FBI, the special agent who wrote the [report] was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did,” said the report, which does not identify the allegedly inept agent or provide further explanation.
Embracing the FBI
The Review Commission’s report, however, recounted the FBI’s assertions without challenge or reservation, adopting them as its own findings. Its recommendation: that the bureau “continue its thorough investigation into the 9/11 attacks.”
As originally conceived in legislation proposed in 2012, the 9/11 Review Commission was to be much tougher: an independent national commission with subpoena power that would take testimony and receive evidence in public. Its chairman and vice chairman would be appointed by the leaders of the House and Senate, staff would be hired without outside interference, and the General Services Administration would provide support services.
That proposal failed, but the idea of a 9/11 Review Commission was repurposed. Instead of being under congressional control, it was to be put under the administration and control of the FBI. All mention of public hearings, subpoena power and legislative control was stripped out.
The proposed FBI 9/11 Review Commission was inserted into a large appropriations bill that President Obama signed into law in March 2013.
Following delays attributed to sequestration, the Review Commission was established in January 2014. It relied heavily on the FBI for information, and sought little input from sources outside the U.S. intelligence community. About 30 individuals were interviewed, including CIA Director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI Director Robert Mueller and four other ex-FBI officials. The commission also met with Comey several times, the report said.
Commissioners got more than “60 extensive briefings” on topics like the “Evolution of the National Security Branch” to PENTTBOM, the code name for its 9/11 investigation.
Commissioners also traveled to eight FBI field offices and six legal attaché posts in Ottawa, Beijing, Manila, Singapore, London and Madrid, according to the report.
The FBI declined to release any transcripts, memorandums or other back-up records generated by the Review Commission. In June 2016, Florida Bulldog sued the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act for access to those records. Trial is set for March in U.S. District Court in Miami.