The former FBI director, James Comey, tweeted today:
Where are the voices of all the leaders who know an independent Department of Justice and FBI are essential to our liberty? "You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say." — Martin Luther
This seems to me to misunderstand, pretty fundamentally, our constitutional set-up. Whatever "an independent Department of Justice and FBI" may be, "essential to our liberty" is not it. The FBI did not even exist until 1908; liberty existed beforehand. The Justice Department didn't exist as a separate agency until 1870; again, liberty existed beforehand.
Furthermore, these agencies have never been truly "independent," and that's a good thing. If they were "independent," they'd be unaccountable to the people, and therefore a threat to liberty. Both agencies are reliant on funding from Congress, which can add or subtract money to various priorities depending on what it wants. And both agencies work for the president, who can broadly — or specifically — set priorities and policy, or even manage them, as part of the executive branch, in further detail, if he or she wants. Think of President Clinton and Janet Reno cracking down on domestic violent extremism after the Oklahoma City bombing, or President Reagan and Ed Meese trying to crack down on drugs or child pornography, or President Obama trying to go after Wall Street crime after the financial crisis while also discouraging the prosecution of George W. Bush administration officials for "crimes" related to their roles in the Iraq War or treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. Or, to cite what is in retrospect the Justice Department's finest hour, President Kennedy and his attorney general Robert Kennedy sending U.S. Marshals to protect students integrating Southern colleges and universities.
That doesn't mean a president should tell the Justice Department to leave his friends alone if those friends have committed serious crimes that would otherwise be pursued if they were not the president's friends. But, since Comey is invoking Martin Luther, recall that it was the "independent" FBI that was wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr. Maybe if the FBI had been a little less "independent" and a little more subject to political oversight, it would have been a little more responsible, and less abusive. These FBI guys have guns and can tap your phones, and the Justice Department guys can haul you in for questioning. It's safer for everyone's liberty if they are accountable to people who actually have to win election, rather than if they are totally "independent." Maybe I'm misunderstanding Comey, and he actually would agree with me. But his tweet certainly left itself open to misinterpretation, especially coming from someone who claims you are not only responsible for what you do say, but for what you don't say.