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Albany native looks back on FBI years, comments on current state of affairs

Albany native looks back on FBI years, comments on current state of affairs

Other observers agree, GOP eroding FBI's credibility
Albany native looks back on FBI years, comments on current state of affairs
Former FBI agent Bernard F. Conners sits in his office at his Latham business, British American.
Photographer: Bill Buell

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the surname of Bradley Hays.

ALBANY — It was nearly a half-century ago now when former FBI agent Bernard F. Conners wrote his first novel, "Don't Embarrass the Bureau." It was a catchy title then, and the message is one that still resonates with him now more than ever, especially as President Trump and some Republican members of Congress continued to question the FBI's credibility.

"We are so dependent on our intelligence agencies in the world today, there's no way we could exist without them," said Conners, an Albany native who, after spending nine years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, left the agency in 1960 and embarked on a highly successful writing and business career. "To have President Trump come out and demean them is not in his best interests or the best interests of the country."

Chris Mann, an assistant professor of Political Science at Skidmore College who has extensively researched the history of presidential campaigns and elections, echoed Conners' feelings.

"Politicians have generally been loath to critique the FBI because they realize that typically those individuals are good, strong professionals with lots of integrity," said Mann. "Sure, there are some who make mistakes and maybe a few bad apples, but on the whole, the credibility of that institution is very high. Politicians tend to steer clear of any kind of criticism, and to attack the entire institution on a wide range of cases like the president has done is unprecedented, and it doesn't serve anyone."

Conners owns British American, a multi-faceted business headquartered in Latham that along with all kinds of real estate interests also has publishing and entertainment components. He is not the political junkie Mann is, but he is well read. He gets The New York Times delivered to his doorstep every day in Loudonville, and he is keeping a close eye on the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, into alleged ties between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian officials. Last week, it was revealed that late last year Mueller's team interviewed James Comey, who was fired by Trump as FBI director on May 19, 2017.

Conners' interest in Washington politics was heightened by Comey's removal, and then in the first week of December, Trump tweeted that the FBI's "reputation is in tatters -- worst in history." He later suggested that the FBI showed a political bias for Hilary Clinton and against him during the presidential campaign, and referred to the Mueller investigation as "more fake news covering another Comey lie."

The attacks on the FBI, whose integrity was also questioned by a handful of Republican members of the House of Representatives last week, isn't the only issue that concerns Conners. He's also worried about the president's treatment of the press.

"Intelligence agencies and the press are two extremely important elements in a free society," said Conners, a 1945 Albany Academy graduate who, after spending some time in the U.S. Army, returned home and went to St. Lawrence University where he met his wife, Kate.

"We are so dependent on both of them, and for the president to take on both of them the way he has is not good for our country. Of course, we're all writers, and human beings make mistakes, but the free press is so essential to our democracy, it is troubling. Without investigative journalism, we're not going to have a democracy, and people need to realize that."

Nancy Roberts, director of the journalism program at the University at Albany, said Conners isn't overstating the issue.

"This is something that greatly concerns me, so I don't think we're making too much of it," she said. "The first amendment is the cornerstone of our democracy, and you can't have a democracy without a free press. This whole thing about fake news and saying that respected news media is just wrong is sad to see. The president tells more falsehoods than anyone. It's his administration that's spreading fake news."

Conners' business career and his work as a publisher of the Paris Review, a literary journal based in New York, has allowed him to rub elbows with some very prominent people. In the late 1990s, he even sat down for lunch with Trump and his then-wife Marla Maples. They had met earlier at the home of George Plimpton, a close friend of Conners' and owner and publisher of the Paris Review.

"I spent about two hours with him at the 21 Club, and I found him to be quite charming," Conners recalled. "I kind of liked him as a lunch date, and when Marla showed up, I thought she was great. But he did use some rough language. Usually when you first meet someone, you don't drop the F-bomb. I was in the Army; I was an athlete and an FBI agent. I know bad words. But when you sit down for lunch with someone for the first time, you usually clean up what you have to say."

Conners came away from the lunch impressed, but also a bit confused.

"Marla was there sitting next to me, and he says to her, 'I should watch my language in front of Bernie,'" said Conners. "It just made me wonder. I'm like, 'What does this guy think of me?' That he'd use that language with me with Marla sitting next to me? I wasn't sure what to think."

Conners has also met both Comey and Mueller. He and five other FBI agents got together with Comey for lunch in New York about six months ago.

"It was the first time I had met him and I was very impressed with him," Conners said of Comey. "He had a very becoming personality. I thought he was a nice guy. I think he's a very religious man, and all of this has to be very upsetting for him."

Conners also thinks highly of Mueller, who served as FBI director from 2001 to 2013.

"He's a venerable man in the Justice Department and highly regarded by everyone I know," said Conners, who before joining the FBI was an amateur boxer and for a brief time the third-string quarterback of the Chicago Bears. "He is human, so there's probably an element out there who don't like him for one reason or another. But everyone I know has complete confidence in him."

Some of Trump's Republican backers in the House of Representatives came out in support of the president's claims about the FBI late last week, referring to emails between two agents - confidential information - that they said suggested the bureau might have a "secret society."  Union College professor Bradley Hays said those kind of allegations are completely unfounded.

"We have a small 'd' democracy problem in that certain people have access to top secret information and are exploiting what they've seen to create these stories without any requirement to show what they have to the American people," said Hays. "The whole thing is strange. It feels like some Republicans have become extraordinarily disconnected to reality, and it is very disconcerting when we no longer have political parties that are grounded in the same facts."

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