Security agencies get $321 million budget boost; Just the start for Macron; Jakarta governor jailed for two years. By Hamish McDonald.

FBI probe lands its director in firing line

Sacked FBI director James Comey in Washington last week.
Sacked FBI director James Comey in Washington last week.
Credit: Reuters / KEVIN LAMARQUE

In early March, the new United States attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from supervising investigations into Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential election, after a newspaper revealed Sessions himself had met Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice during the campaign.

But that hasn’t stopped him and his deputy Rod Rosenstein urging the sacking of the official leading those investigations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation chief James Comey, just as they seem to be zeroing in on some embarrassing and potentially criminal Russian links to the circle of their master, President Donald Trump. Comey had just asked Rosenstein for more funds and personnel for the job.

And so on Tuesday, as Comey was addressing FBI officers in Los Angeles, banners flashed up on TV screens in the background that Comey was fired, with immediate effect. A letter went round from the White House to the FBI’s brutalist headquarters later.

Russia? Nothing to see here, the White House would have it. Trump claimed it was because of Comey’s handling of inquiries into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state. That’s strange because during the election campaign Trump had called Comey “gutsy”, and immediately after taking office on January 20 had asked him to stay on. Clinton herself has blamed Comey’s revelation of an investigation of a new trove of emails, 11 days before the vote, as a critical factor in her election loss.

Although Barack Obama appointed him FBI director more than three-and-a-half years ago, Comey had risen under Republican mentors, as a prosecutor under Rudy Giuliani in New York and later as deputy attorney-general to George W. Bush. He’d also worked on investigations into the Clintons’ Whitewater scandal, and Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich hours before leaving office. Although Comey found no illegality in Rich’s pardon, he chose to bring the case back into the public mind by releasing the file on November 1, eight days before the vote.

But Trump has been mightily peeved with Comey in recent weeks, first for contradicting his claim Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, then for pursuing the Trump–Russia connection. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser told Politico. On Monday, the former acting attorney-general Sally Yates told a congressional committee she’d warned the White House that Trump’s new national security adviser Mike Flynn was open to Russian blackmail by lying about his contacts with Ambassador Kislyak. Trump did not dismiss Flynn until 18 days later, after this leaked to The Washington Post. “The Russia–Trump collusion story is a total hoax,” Trump tweeted later on Monday. “When will this taxpayer-funded charade end?”

Now Democrats and some Republicans in congress such as Senator John McCain are calling for an independent inquiry. The Trump administration staggers from scandal to scandal. Son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family real estate firm is flogging apartments to Chinese buyers with a US passport incentive. Alt-right eminence Steve Bannon is trying to subvert Flynn’s replacement, H. R. McMaster. What a great thing Malcolm Turnbull rushed off for a pat on the head from the president, with Fox media magnate Rupert Murdoch as MC, and invited him to visit.

Security reach

Back here our own G-men, the Australian Federal Police, have just got a big budget boost, $321.4 million largely stolen from the foreign aid budget, to step up their counterterrorism capabilities. The intelligence agencies ASIO and ASIS also got significant extra funding.

It goes down well with the punters, but as the Australian National University expert Clive Williams points out, Australia’s security agencies are already very well funded compared with counterparts in the Western world with a much higher threat of terrorism. He suggests an outside inquiry.

“One of the significant growth areas in the Commonwealth sector over the years since 9/11 has been the disproportionate increase in the number of highly paid senior managers,” Williams wrote in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter blog. “There is an optimum number of senior managers and when you get too many – as is currently the case – they tend to get in the way of operational efficiency.” To help pay the management salaries, a well-regarded bomb research centre was shut down in 2015 and activities designed to join the dots between agencies curtailed.

Having appreciated their company in the dark days of Dili, August 1999, your world editor has high regard for AFP agents. Yet their top leadership has shown questionable judgement under political pressure, such as in the Haneef case, the Balibo inquiry, and just recently the illegal search of a journalist’s metadata in the hunt for leakers, excused by AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin as “human error”.

Voter ennui shows

Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping win in the final round of the French presidential election on Sunday was greeted with relief across the European Union, as the alternative of a Marine Le Pen victory would have signalled the end of the EU.

Yet Macron is hardly the candidate of any political continuity. Voters turned away from the traditional left and right mainstream parties. Abstentions and blank votes were high, and Le Pen’s 34 per cent vote was far above any achieved before by her far-right National Front. For all the strong executive powers of the presidency, Macron still needs a co-operative majority to emerge from the two-stage National Assembly elections on June 11 and 18. Either Macron’s new En Marche! party has to carry out another miracle of formation and campaigning, or he’ll need help from surviving Socialists and Republicans.

Once installed, his government then has to sway the Germans towards his idea of issuing common debt in the form of eurobonds, undertaking joint projects, and building a common fiscal mechanism run by an EU finance minister. German conservatives tend to think hot-headed Latins like the French should concentrate on reforming themselves. On the other hand, they don’t want Macron to fail.

Ahok decision

Indonesia’s judges are not widely known for their readiness to withstand pressure, so the conviction and two-year jail sentence awarded this week to Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy is not entirely surprising.

The five judges would have been dead men had they not put him in clink, given the fanatical mobs whipped up by fundamentalist Islamic groups against the ethnic Chinese and Christian “Ahok” (as he’s known) for having the temerity to quote the Koran back at his detractors during his recent re-election campaign, which he lost.

Ahok will be appealing, and the judgement has many obvious flaws, but it was a sad day for the religious moderation that Indonesia claims. It comes after the recent visit by King Salman led to Saudi funds flowing to three new campuses (in Medan, Surabaya and Makassar) of the Islamic and Arabic language institutes known as LIPIA, in addition to one in Jakarta that has long been inculcating young Indonesians in Wahhabism and Saudi social mores.

Prabowo Subianto, the former general whom President Joko Widodo narrowly defeated in 2014, now sees the pathway to claiming the crown in 2019. He’s aligning his authoritarian Gerindra (Greater Indonesia) party with Islamist street power. No wonder he’s emerged from his seclusion with a round of sweet-talk interviews, such as the one this week with Fairfax Media. Renowned for his brutal counterinsurgency approach in his army days, he now proclaims his love of living things, even taking ants out of harm’s way. In politics, however, Ahok was one ant that had to be sacrificed.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "FBI probe lands its director in firing line ".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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