- - Wednesday, July 6, 2016

James B. Comey obviously had little taste for a head-on collision with Hillary Clinton, despite the remarkable bill of particulars he presented with his announcement that there will be no prosecution of the lady who is expected to be the Democratic nominee for president. Even more remarkable, he acknowledged that Mrs. Clinton may be too big to jail.

“To be clear,” he said, “this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity [like Mrs. Clinton’s] would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now.”

He so far offers no explanation for how he came to this conclusion, leaving it to the public to decide whether it’s Hillary position, her prominence, or her candidacy that puts her beyond the reach of the law. It’s a sad day for the republic, for Mr. Comey and his seriously damaged reputation, and for the credibility of the FBI.

For almost 150 years, the United States avoided establishing a national police force. When the Founders adopted the Bill of Rights as the first amendments to the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson and the Virginians pushed for the adoption of the 10th, to reserve all rights and prerogatives not specifically named as federal functions, to the states.

More than a century later, President Theodore Roosevelt established the first federal “investigative service,” reporting to the attorney general. Gen. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, a Baltimore descendant of the Little Corporal, organized it after Congress had denied the president the authority to combine other federal policing agencies for fear of creating a secret police.

The new agency’s first major assignment was to pursue enforcement of the 1910 Mann Act against involuntary prostitution, popularly called white slavery. The FBI took on vigorous life with enforcement of Prohibition two decades later, and its name was officially changed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. J. Edgar Hoover, an astute veteran of Washington political infighting, built its reputation and directed the agency for a remarkable 48 years. Mr. Hoover’s FBI made its bones with the pursuit of urban criminal syndicates of the 1930s. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, the agency took on a new role in investigating lapses in national security, continuing after the terrorist threat arrived with 9/11 and the Patriot Act.

The FBI’s modern mandate derives from Title 28 of the United States Code, Section 533, which authorizes the attorney general to “appoint officials to detect and prosecute crimes against the United States.” Other federal statutes give the FBI responsibility to investigate specific crimes. The director’s 10-year appointment, unlike any other federal appointee, has encouraged the effort to make it an independent agency, even if quartered in the executive branch under the president and his attorney general.

James B. Comey Jr. became director in 2013 for a full 10-year term after a distinguished career as a federal prosecutor and deputy U.S. attorney general. Mr. Comey’s greatest test was the investigation of Hillary and her freelance emails. There’s another Clinton episode coming — such episodes seem never to end — about the issue of the Clintons’ family foundation, repository of millions of dollars worth of “charitable” contributions, some of them from foreign donors. They’re all fast friends now, and it’s not yet clear what all the donors bought with their dollars.

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