Book review of October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election by Devlin Barrett

In his important and engrossing book, Barrett has laid out a damning portrait of the FBI in the run-up to the election. His fly-on-the-w...


In his important and engrossing book, Barrett has laid out a damning portrait of the FBI in the run-up to the election. His fly-on-the-wall account delves into the actions of the FBI leadership, particularly the agency figure most in the spotlight, then-Director James B. Comey.

Comey’s conduct through the 2016 campaign has aged less like a fine wine and more like the remnants of last week’s fish dinner — the further we get from the events, the more they stink. It’s an ironic verdict for a man who at every turn of the maelstrom of 2016 and his brief tenure under President Trump seemed confident that history would vindicate him. His own best-selling memoir touting his “higher loyalty” will hit the nation’s TV screens as a hagiographic miniseries this weekend. Despite Comey’s perspective of himself, history has only further sullied his reputation, and this book adds to the portrait.

Barrett, a reporter at The Washington Post, delivers an exquisitely sourced indictment of Comey and the bureau he once led. He probes the actions not only of the former director but a cast of characters, including Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, and former attorney general Loretta E. Lynch.

In Barrett’s telling, Comey foisted a double standard on the FBI and on the American public in the summer and fall of 2016. While the FBI publicly raised the issue of Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, it remained silent about evidence that the nation’s foremost global adversary, Russia, was boosting the campaign of Clinton’s opponent.

As Barrett outlines, Comey clearly understood the perils of the FBI’s political meddling but he ignored his Justice Department superiors and made his own rules about how to treat Clinton over her emails during the campaign. At the same time, he argued that Trump deserved the benefit of the doubt regarding Russia’s election interference in the final weeks before the vote. As Barrett reports, Comey refused to sign an intelligence community statement in early October accusing Russia of meddling in the campaign, arguing that it would unduly affect the race. “Comey had precisely articulated the potential danger of an October surprise by government decree, and yet within weeks he would fire off his own, far more consequential announcement [on Clinton and her emails], over the objections of his bosses,” Barrett writes.

Barrett, who was part of the Post team awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Russia’s election interference, links the FBI’s central role in the controversies of 2016 to a wide-ranging bureaucratic breakdown. He attributes the breakdown to a collapse of trust between the Justice Department and the FBI, Comey and McCabe, and the bureau’s headquarters and its New York field office.

One delicious revelation in the book centers on an email Trump’s assistant Rob Porter sent to Comey informing him that the president was firing him. At the time, Comey was in Los Angeles speaking to FBI employees. During his talk, he was alerted to breaking news reports on television that he had lost his job. He had received no phone call from the White House, no conversation, just the email, and a hand-delivered letter to his empty office in D.C. But Barrett reports, “Even if he’d been staring at his phone, Comey would not have received the president’s letter announcing his dismissal: the White House email to the director had been intercepted by the FBI’s spam filter.” After the immediate brouhaha over his firing, Comey finally found the message in his junk folder the next day. When he forwarded it to his chief of staff, he included a short note, saying, “History has a sense of humor.”

In mid-2018, more than year after Comey had been dismissed, the Justice Department inspector general issued a 500-page report titled, “A Review of Various Actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in Advance of the 2016 Election.” Barrett writes that among its findings, the report “faulted Comey for ‘a serious error of judgment’ in sending his October 28 letter to Congress announcing the reopening of the [Clinton] email investigation less than two weeks before the presidential election.” Comey largely accepted the report, although he disagreed with some particulars. “People of good faith can see an unprecedented situation differently,” he explained.

But one of the most surprising observations from Barrett’s book is just how little good faith Comey apparently showed others during the tumult of 2016. “By mid-2016,” Barrett writes, “Justice Department officials had come to suspect Comey viewed himself as the most moral, ethical actor in any room he was in. Much later, several of them came to believe his sense of moral superiority was driven in part by viewing even straightforward conversations with his superiors in a sinister light.”

The Comey who emerges in these pages seems to doubt his aides and his bosses and suspect everyone around him of ulterior motives.

Comey began his tenure as director by highlighting its darkest moment: J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal surveillance and blackmail of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during the civil rights movement. Comey kept a letter from Hoover to King in his office. He had new agent recruits tour the King memorial in D.C. to remind them of the dangers of corruption in law enforcement. By the time Trump was elected, at least one player in the drama found reason to put Hoover and Comey side by side. Just after the 2016 vote, Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, said that Comey’s decision to reopen the investigation of Clinton’s email server “will go down as probably the lowest moment in the history of the FBI, probably next to the decision of J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap Martin Luther King.”

October Surprise

How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election

PublicAffairs. 324 pp. $30

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Newsrust: Book review of October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election by Devlin Barrett
Book review of October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election by Devlin Barrett
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