Devlin Barrett is a Washington Post reporter and author of October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election. We discuss how the FBI’s work culture and its transformation into a national security agency led to a series of monumental misjudgments, and examine how a similar future fate can be averted.
The term ‘October Surprise’ refers to a type of dirty trick that comes so late in the election cycle that a candidate does not have the time or space to respond, and voters don’t have the time to consider what it might mean. Comey’s letter to Congress a mere 11 days before Election Day 2016, announcing a renewed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, is one of the most significant October Surprises on record. Trump contracting COVID-19 in October does not fit the description because a political opponent or third party did not orchestrate it; it was merely a surprising event in October.
Restoring Trust in the FBI
In the aftermath of 9/11, the FBI pivoted from criminal justice to national security. National Security agents soon came to run the bureau, instead of agents whose focus was on law enforcement, including in high-profile political cases. Comey’s security-focused inner circle lacked the insight of agents with such expertise, who might have cautioned him against his investigations and actions in 2016. To regain America’s trust, the FBI must reinvest in their public corruption and public integrity offices, demonstrating they have the leadership to stay impartial in elections, political investigations, and high-profile cases of public importance.
Lessons from 2016
Though Comey’s ill-advised letter helped tip the scales in Trump’s favor, some of the onus falls on the voting public who were prone to believing in conspiracy theories and fake news stories. We need to bolster a healthy skepticism of our leaders, teach more civic engagement, and reemphasize the importance of critical thinking over blind devotion. Giving Americans the tools to rationally analyze news stories is vital to remedying our collective failure in 2016 and providing a better future for our democracy.
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Devlin Barrett writes about the FBI and the Justice Department for the Washington Post and is the author of October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election. He was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for National Reporting, for coverage of Russian interference in the U.S. election. In 2017 he was a co-finalist for both the Pulitzer for Feature Writing and the Pulitzer for International Reporting. He has covered federal law enforcement for more than 20 years, and has worked at The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, and the New York Post.
You can follow him on Twitter @DevlinBarrett.
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