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Former FBI director James Comey has been criticized once again for violating FBI guidelines in handling official matters. He was pilloried for his handling of Hillary Clinton’s violations of security practices as secretary of state, and now for revealing Donald Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice. Although Comey believed he was acting in the best interests of the nation on both occasions, there is no argument that Comey did violate the FBI’s internal regulations. On both occasions, he was calling attention to illegal and possibly criminal behavior by Clinton and Trump.
Former DoJ spokesman Matthew Miller noted that the charges against Comey would be similar to issuing a speeding ticket to a fire truck for rushing to a fire. As a former whistleblower, I can testify to the fact that it becomes necessary to go public with charges of malfeasance when there are no political institutions willing to take up the cudgel in the name of oversight.
Comey is no stranger to controversy. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed a secret presidential finding to allow the National Security Agency to create a surveillance program that violated the constitutional rights of American citizens. NSA’s actions exceeded the authorization from the White House, and it was Comey who challenged President Bush and NSA director Michael Hayden to prevent reauthorization of the program without congressional approval. Comey told the president that the Department of Justice “can’t certify the legality” of the program. Comey then threatened to resign and convinced the president that he had “been badly misled by your staff.”
Comey told Vice President Dick Cheney that the surveillance memorandum was “so bad as to be invalid” and that “no lawyer could rely upon it.” Cheney’s villainous lawyer, David Addington, interjected “I’m a lawyer” and “I relied upon it.” Comey responded “No good lawyer.”
A year later, Comey formally withdrew the DoJ legal opinions that permitted the Central Intelligence Agency to conduct its unconscionable and sadistic program of torture and abuse. Comey knew that the DoJ had made serious legal mistakes in advising the president about the interrogation practices, which sanctioned unconstitutional behavior. Just as the NSA exceeded what the DoJ had sanctioned regarding surveillance, the CIA exceeded DoJ authorities in conducting sadistic torture and abuse. Comey forced the DoJ to fix its errors.
Comey was also lambasted for his leadership of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Comey broke with tradition in his handling of the matter, but Clinton had been arrogant and deceitful in her efforts to skirt rules for the handling of sensitive classified information as well as rules for the safekeeping of government records. A double standard allowed the secretary of state to get away with behavior that could have sent a lesser official to jail.
Nevertheless, so-called liberals in the mainstream media maligned Comey and his important book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.” Leading oped writers in the New York Times such as Charles Blow and Frank Bruni were particularly scathing. Blow charged that neither Comey nor Trump should be held in high esteem and that both men have “raging egos and questionable motives.” Bruni concluded that watching Comey promote his book is “to see him descend” and that Comey has “joined Trump almost as much as he’s defying him.” Of course, Blow and Bruni never faced the kind of challenges and threats to U.S. governance that Comey faced over a fifteen-year period as an official at the DoJ and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In my 42 years of federal service, I never encountered anyone more willing to challenge both presidents and cabinet officers than James Comey. He was a public servant in the best sense of that term, challenging the unconscionable decision making of Presidents Bush and Trump and filling the void created by two inept attorneys general, Alberto Gonzales and Loretta Lynch. There is no better example of genuine ethical leadership than Comey’s in his role as whistleblower.
Over the past two decades, the administrations of Bush, Obama, and Trump have pushed back against the influence and powers of the statutory Inspector General at the CIA as well as the Offices of the Inspector General at key national security agencies. Senior officials at the CIA have been particularly critical of IG reports that were critical of the agency’s role in the 9/11 intelligence failure, the conduct of torture and abuse, and the coverup of the 2000 downing of a missionary plane that killed innocent civilians in Peru. The Senate intelligence committee could not have issued its authoritative report on the CIA’s torture program without the research and analysis conducted by the Office of the Inspector General over a five-year period.
The mainstream media, moreover, can’t fulfill its important role of investigative journalism without the key role played by whistleblowers. The overuse of government secrecy has already limited debate on national security policy, depriving citizens of information needed to participate effectively in much needed political debate. If Comey could have delivered his memoranda to aggressive congressional oversight committees or to an independent Department of Justice, then perhaps he would not have found it necessary to keep government documents at home or to engineer the release of some of their contents to the news media. As a result of Comey’s willingness to take risks to tell truth to power, we are all in his debt.