Addressing Email Controversy and Other Challenges, FBI Director Still Stands By Decisions

PHOTO:FBI Director James Comey answers questions from the media during a press conference, July 23, 2015 at the FBI Denver Field Office in Denver. PlayDenver Post/Getty Images
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In what is the public's first glimpse of the FBI director's thinking since Donald Trump was elected president, agency chief James Comey said he stood by his controversial decisions in the midst of what he called a “contentious election cycle.”

“I would be lying if I said the external criticism doesn’t bother me at all, but the truth is, it doesn’t bother me much because of the way we made the decision,” Comey said in a private New Year's message to FBI personnel this week. “At every turn last year, we were faced with choosing among bad options and making decisions we knew would bring a torrent of criticism.”

Comey's lengthy message -- not intended for public release -- sought to telegraph the agency's mission and "vision" for the coming year, noting the FBI’s vast cyber-related work, its extensive criminal efforts fighting corruption and violence, and its unending counterterrorism operations, particularly related to what he called “the collapsing ‘Islamic State.’” The message also described advances in hiring and technology, and the hardships facing FBI personnel.

“2016 was, to put it mildly, a challenging year,” Comey wrote, alluding to the deadly shooting of a militia member who helped take over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon; the deadly terrorist attack inside a nightclub in Orlando, which was carried out by someone previously on the FBI’s radar; and the heavily-scrutinized investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

“As it always is, our work was subject to a fair amount of second-guessing ... [but] I am very proud of the way we approached the work," Comey said in his message, echoing sentiments in previous notes to his workforce.

While Comey did not specifically cite his decision to publicly detail the FBI’s conclusions in the Clinton email probe, or his decision to disclose new steps in the investigation just days before the election, he likely had those moves in mind when writing the message this week.

“People often ask me what we should do to respond to those who have questions or concerns about the FBI in the wake of a contentious election cycle. ‘Do great work’ is my answer,” Comey told FBI personnel this week. “Actions speak so much louder than words ... Just stay at it and be your honest, competent, and independent selves.”

“When you know you have made decisions thoughtfully and consistent with your values, it is freeing, in a way,” Comey added.

Many Trump critics have accused Comey of throwing the election to Republicans. And just days after the election, Hillary Clinton said Comey’s letter to Congress disclosing new steps and newly-discovered messages in the email investigation blunted her presidential campaign’s growing momentum.

Even before the letter became public, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other senior Justice Department officials implored Comey not to send the letter, telling FBI counterparts that doing so would violate long-standing tradition and could potentially influence the outcome of the election, sources familiar with the matter told ABC News at the time.

Comey later said he felt compelled to notify Congress because he had previously assured lawmakers and the public that the FBI investigation was "completed." Nevertheless, a review of the newly-discovered emails found most of them to be duplicates, and no charges were filed.

Because Comey has not spoken or communicated publicly since Election Day, this week's private memo to FBI personnel offers the public its first post-election insight into Comey's latest thinking.

While "the media focused" on such matters as the Clinton email investigation, FBI agents worked "in so many other places and in so many other ways to protect America," Comey wrote in his message.

“[It’s] hard to capture all the good we have done, both for innocent people and to make ourselves better as an organization,” he added.

He also noted the tough environment facing law enforcement officers across the country.

"As we look back at our work, we should always remember our people are in harm’s way," he said, noting that 19 FBI agents were "shot or severely injured in line of duty in 2016."

"We also lost far too many of our state and local partners in the line of duty," and "each incident serves as a reminder that our agent colleagues do very dangerous work," according to Comey.

In his message, Comey did not mention FBI work on election-related hacks that the FBI and others in the U.S. intelligence community have attributed to the Russian government.

Trump has questioned that conclusion, and Comey is expected to participate in a briefing tomorrow in New York laying out classified details of the U.S. government’s findings pointing to Russia.

Comey ended his New Year’s message with this: “Whatever challenges 2017 brings, we will be ready, protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution of this extraordinary country.”