We noted this towards the end of our post on how the FBI is leaking like a sieve in revealing details about the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails — that Comey seemed to be handing reporters a perfect comeback to the bullshit response the FBI normally gives that it “won’t comment on ongoing investigations.” As the Intercept is now noting, Comey seems to be saying that there’s a “public interest” exception to that rule, though as of right now only he gets to decide what’s in the public interest:
Comey’s actions have raised lasting questions about when the public interest outweighs the current policy, and whether there should be a “public interest” exception to the Justice Department’s secrecy rules.
In his July announcement, Comey said that “given the importance of the matter, I think unusual transparency is in order.” Part of his goal was clearly to reassert the FBI’s independence from political pressure. “No outside influence of any kind was brought to bear,” he said.
If there were a public interest exception, there are many other high-profile investigations that the Justice Department could be encouraged to discuss.
Of course, the partisan folks out there have made this whole thing hilarious. Back in July, the partisan supporters of Clinton argued that such a public interest exception made perfect sense — while the Trump supporters argued that this was an abomination and that Comey was “playing politics” in revealing information that he shouldn’t have been revealing. In the last week, however, it’s the Trump supporters who are suddenly big fans of the “public interest” exception to revealing details of an investigation, while the Clinton supporters are up in arms about “playing politics.” Anyone who argued that one was good and the other is bad is a hypocrite. The truth is that Comey was abusing his power both times as he’s done for years and years.
From a reporting standpoint, of course, journalists love that Comey is willing to reveal details (and others are willing to leak more after the fact). It provides lots of news to report on — and we, like others, are happy to report on that information. But from a general public policy standpoint, it’s a serious disaster. As Alex Emmons at the Intercept points out, there’s a good reason why we don’t want the FBI to comment about ongoing investigations:
There’s a reason that the Justice Department has nondisclosure rules about ongoing or closed investigations. Lots of things emerge in investigations that are not true, or do not amount to crimes. Disclosing those things can ruin reputations. So it is typically left to prosecutors to decide what accusations to make public, in the form of an indictment.
A public interest exception sounds like a good thing, but the reality is that it’ll be used selectively by law enforcement, and that just creates a huge mess (as seen from the partisan outcry during both moves by Comey).