Tuesday, May 16, 2017

An Honorable Man






Testifying last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, James Comey recalled a moment that should have held more significance for him than it did. At the height of the presidential campaign, President Obama’s attorney general, Loretta Lynch, had chosen to meet with Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac. That, said the now-former FBI director, “was the capper for me.” Hillary Clinton’s emails were being probed, but Ms. Lynch was too conflicted to “credibly complete the investigation.” So Mr. Comey stepped in.

Donald Trump and senior Justice Department leaders might appreciate the impulse. According to Democrats and the media, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is too conflicted to recommend sacking Mr. Comey; the Trump administration is too conflicted to name a successor; the entire Justice Department and the Republican Congress are too conflicted to conduct true oversight.

Entirely missing from this narrative is the man who was perhaps the most conflicted of all: James Comey. The FBI head was so good at portraying himself as Washington’s last Boy Scout—the only person who ever did the right thing—that few noticed his repeated refusal to do the right thing. Mr. Comey might still have a job if, on any number of occasions, he’d acknowledged his own conflicts and stepped back.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo to Mr. Sessions expertly excoriated Mr. Comey’s decision to “usurp” Ms. Lynch’s authority and his “gratuitously” fulsome July press conference. But Mr. Comey’s dereliction of duty preceded that—by his own admission. Remember, he testified that the Lynch-Clinton meeting was but the “capper.” Before that, he told lawmakers, “a number of things had gone on which I can’t talk about yet that made me worry the department leadership could not credibly complete the investigation.”

We don’t know what these things were, but it seems the head of the FBI had lost confidence—even before TarmacGate—that the Justice Department was playing it anywhere near straight in the Clinton probe. So what should an honor-bound FBI director do in such a conflicted situation? Call it out. Demand that Ms. Lynch recuse herself and insist on an appropriate process to ensure public confidence. Resign, if need be. Instead Mr. Comey waited until the situation had become a crisis, and then he ignored all protocol to make himself investigator, attorney, judge and jury.

By the end of that 15-minute July press conference, Mr. Comey had infuriated both Republicans and Democrats, who were now universally convinced he was playing politics. He’d undermined his and his agency’s integrity. No matter his motives, an honor-bound director would have acknowledged that his decision jeopardized his ability to continue effectively leading the agency. He would have chosen in the following days—or at least after the election—to step down. Mr. Comey didn’t.

Which leads us to Mr. Comey’s most recent and obvious conflict of all—likely a primary reason he was fired: the leaks investigation (or rather non-investigation). So far the only crime that has come to light from this Russia probe is the rampant and felonious leaking of classified information to the press. Mr. Trump and the GOP rightly see this as a major risk to national security. While the National Security Agency has been cooperating with the House Intelligence Committee and allowing lawmakers to review documents that might show the source of the leaks, Mr. Comey’s FBI has resolutely refused to do the same.

Why? The press reports that the FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor Carter Page. It’s still unclear exactly under what circumstances the government was listening in on former Trump adviser Mike Flynn and the Russian ambassador, but the FBI was likely involved there, too. Meaning Mr. Comey’s agency is a prime possible source of the leaks.

In last week’s Senate hearing, Chairman Chuck Grassley pointed out the obvious: The entire top leadership of the FBI is suspect. “So how,” Mr. Grassley asked, “can the Justice Department guarantee the integrity of the investigations without designating an agency, other than the FBI, to gather the facts and eliminate senior FBI officials as suspects?” Mr. Comey didn’t provide much of an answer.

All this—the Russia probe, the unmasking, the leaks, the fraught question of whether the government was inappropriately monitoring campaigns, the allegations of interference in a presidential campaign—is wrapped together, with Mr. Comey at the center. The White House and House Republicans couldn’t have faith that the FBI would be an honest broker of the truth. Mr. Comey should have realized this, recused himself from ongoing probes, and set up a process to restore trust. He didn’t. So the White House did it for him.

Colleagues describe Mr. Comey as an honorable man. The problem seems to be that his sense of perfect virtue made him blind to his own conflicts and the mess he had made. New leadership at the FBI is a chance for a fresh start.

From The Wall Street Journal (May 11, 2017)

1 comment:

  1. The title of this post comes from the epigram, which is of course from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." In the play, the words were spoken by Marc Antony in his famous address to the Roman people after Caesar's assassination. Antony's praise of Brutus and the conspirators was meant to be ironic, even sarcastic:

    ANTONY
    Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
    I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
    The evil that men do lives after them;
    The good is oft interred with their bones;
    So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
    Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
    If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
    And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
    Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest--
    For Brutus is an honourable man;
    So are they all, all honourable men--
    Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
    He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
    But Brutus says he was ambitious;
    And Brutus is an honourable man.
    He hath brought many captives home to Rome
    Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
    Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
    When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
    Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
    Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
    And Brutus is an honourable man.
    You all did see that on the Lupercal
    I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
    Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
    Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
    And, sure, he is an honourable man.
    I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
    But here I am to speak what I do know.
    You all did love him once, not without cause:
    What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
    O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
    And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
    My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
    And I must pause till it come back to me.

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