The Corner

Law & the Courts

James Comey, Hoisted upon His Own Self-Regard

Former FBI Director James Comey departs after giving a private deposition to the House Judiciary and House Government and Oversight committees, December 7, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

There will be a lot of damning sections in the new Department of Justice Inspector General report on former FBI director James Comey, but this section in the conclusion is perhaps the most important:

[FBI] employees may disagree with decisions by prosecutors, judges, or higher-ranking FBI and Department officials about the actions to take or not take in criminal and counterintelligence matters. They may even, in some situations, distrust the legitimacy of those supervisory, prosecutorial, or judicial decisions. But even when these employees believe that their most strongly-held personal convictions might be served by an unauthorized disclosure, the FBI depends on them not to disclose sensitive information.

Even when these employees believe that their most strongly-held personal convictions might be served by an unauthorized disclosure, the FBI depends on them not to disclose sensitive information. Former Director Comey failed to live up to this responsibility. By not safeguarding sensitive information obtained during the course of his FBI employment, and by using it to create public pressure for official action, Comey set a dangerous example for the over 35,000 current FBI employees—and the many thousands more former FBI employees—who similarly have access to or knowledge of non-public information. Comey said he was compelled to take these actions “if I love this country…and I love the Department of Justice, and I love the FBI.”

However, were current or former FBI employees to follow the former Director’s example and disclose sensitive information in service of their own strongly held personal convictions, the FBI would be unable to dispatch its law enforcement duties properly, as Comey himself noted in his March 20, 2017 congressional testimony… This is no doubt part of the reason why Comey’s closest advisors used the words “surprised,” “stunned,” “shocked,” and “disappointment” to describe their reactions to learning what Comey had done.

Comey knew the rules, knew the regulations, knew the law, and swore an oath to uphold them. But when push came to shove, Comey felt that he could break those rules, because he convinced himself that his own particular violation of the regulations served the greater good. Of course, this is what almost every leaker believes. Edward Snowden no doubt believes he was serving the greater good by disclosing gobs of intelligence secrets, as do Reality Winner and Chelsea Manning. Julian Assange believed he was building a freer, more open, more accountable world.

Every villain believes he is the hero in his own story. Quite a few criminals believe they’re breaking the law for good reasons. They’re committing fraud against an insurance company that they believe is greedy and unjust. What the law calls insider trading just means being well-informed. What they told the IRS is close enough to the truth about their actual income.

It’s justified; I’ve earned it; no one is really being hurt; not doing this would be the real crime. The human mind has enormous capacity for self-justification. If everyone really had the good judgment and moral clarity that they think they had, we wouldn’t need the rules!

For a while now, Americans have seen Comey’s gargantuan self-regard and insufferable self-image as the last honest man in Washington. As Comey became more openly political and self-aggrandizing, former FBI employees grew uncomfortable with the shift in his public image, and with it, the public image of the bureau. In the end, Comey’s unwavering faith in his own moral judgment — and his inability to see how his own self-justification echoed that of every other leaker the federal government ever prosecuted — ended up being his greatest weakness.