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Guess why James Comey isn’t worried about mandatory minimum reforms

Huffington Post political reporter Ryan Reilly has published a highly illuminating story about public divisions in the Obama administration on the question of mandatory minimum sentencing reform. The Holder Justice Department supports reform, but Obama’s DEA chief Michele Leonhart reportedly told congress last week that she supports the Draconian status quo.

"Having been in law enforcement as an agent for 33 years, [and] a Baltimore City police officer before that, I can tell you that for me and for the agents that work for DEA, mandatory minimums have been very important to our investigations," she said. "We depend on those as a way to ensure that the right sentences are going to the…level of violator we are going after."

That has got to be awkward for Holder and President Obama. But it gets even stranger.

Reilly followed up on the DEA administrator's comments by asking FBI director James Comey what he thinks about mandatory minimum reforms, and how they might affect the FBI’s operations. Comey’s answer is extremely revealing.

"Wherever I go, I ask my folks, 'Do you see our work being impacted, potentially impacted?' And the answer I hear is no," he told reporters. "Given the nature of the work we tend to do, it's in the main not impacted by that change in policy."

But then Comey said:

"I know from my experience…that the mandatory minimums are an important tool in developing cooperators."

Ah, yes. Mandatory minimums are an important tool in the FBI’s arsenal, used to force people to become informants. That is, when the targets of FBI operations are actually criminals.

As former FBI agent and Brennan Center for Justice policy analyst Mike German told Mother Jones, part of the problem with the FBI’s informant operations today is that they are directed at people who don’t have dirt on them.

"The problem for many American Muslims who have been approached by the FBI to become informants is that they aren't involved in criminal conspiracies and don't have relationships with criminals,” German said. “Instead, they are being asked to spy broadly against their religious community. That creates a conundrum because the person may be perfectly willing to help the FBI fight terrorism but simply has no information to provide."

In that case, the FBI has other methods to coerce cooperation.

While at first blush they seem contradictory, Comey’s comments to the Huffington Post accurately reflect the reality at the FBI today. Mandatory minimum sentencing reform really wouldn’t impact the FBI’s work, "given the nature of the work [they] tend to do," as Comey says, because the work the FBI does in 2014 primarily has to do with harassing and monitoring Muslims—not solving crimes or leaning on actual criminals. When the bulk of an agency’s work revolves around so-called "national security" investigations instead of criminal justice, that agency doesn’t need harsh drug penalties as a hammer with which to coerce people into becoming informants.

Where Muslims are concerned, the FBI has a lot of other tools at its disposal for that.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.