Tag Archives: FBI

The Original Sin

We can all list behaviors we consider sinful.

My list begins with self-righteousness, defined as moral smugness combined with a troubling lack of self-reflection and humility. Enormous harm is done by folks who are absolutely convinced that they are in possession of Truth, and that their actions–no matter how inconsistent with social or constitutional norms–are therefore justified. When self-righteous people are in positions of authority–whether they are Governors or FBI officials–their unshakable belief in their own moral superiority can undermine both liberty and democratic processes.

As Learned Hand famously put it, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”

Which brings me to FBI Director James Comey.

As two former Deputy Attorneys General wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post, the FBI

operates under long-standing and well-established traditions limiting disclosure of ongoing investigations to the public and even to Congress, especially in a way that might be seen as influencing an election. These traditions protect the integrity of the department and the public’s confidence in its mission to take care that the laws are faithfully and impartially executed. They reflect an institutional balancing of interests, delaying disclosure and public knowledge to avoid misuse of prosecutorial power by creating unfair innuendo to which an accused party cannot properly respond.

Decades ago, the department decided that in the 60-day period before an election, the balance should be struck against even returning indictments involving individuals running for office, as well as against the disclosure of any investigative steps. The reasoning was that, however important it might be for Justice to do its job, and however important it might be for the public to know what Justice knows, because such allegations could not be adjudicated, such actions or disclosures risked undermining the political process. A memorandum reflecting this choice has been issued every four years by multiple attorneys general for a very long time, including in 2016.

It is precisely this “balancing of interests” that self-righteous people cannot understand.

The modern world, to the consternation of many people, rarely gives us a bipolar choice between good and evil, black and white.  We live–like it or not–in perpetual shades of gray, a world where “on the one hand” competes with “on the other hand,” and ethical decision-making more often than not requires us to balance competing goods. Unfortunately, ambiguity is intolerable to people who live in a Manichean world where they are on the side of righteousness.

There has been an eruption of anger over Comey’s decision to make public the discovery of emails found on devices used by then-Congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife, Huma  Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton. The criticism–much of it from Republicans within the FBI– has been harsh: not only was the disclosure inconsistent with Department of Justice traditions, not only did Comey ignore his boss, the Attorney General, who told him to abide by departmental regulations, but he admitted he didn’t know whether the emails were significant, or mostly copies of messages the Department had previously reviewed. He hadn’t seen them.

Partisans, noting that Comey is a Republican, have accused him of political motivations. Perhaps, but my reading is different. The way in which he announced the FBI’s original conclusion not to recommend charging Clinton (a result entirely unsurprising to most lawyers) provided a clue. During that press conference–itself a violation of normal procedures–he coupled the FBI’s finding that no laws had been broken with a highly offensive, unnecessary and self-serving lecture about “carelessness.”

Comey has defended his decision to inform Congress of the existence of additional emails  with reasoning that reeks of self-righteousness and an unseemly focus on his own reputation–consequences to the integrity of the FBI and the Presidential campaign be damned.

As the former Attorneys General concluded,

Justice allows neither for self-aggrandizing crusaders on high horses nor for passive bureaucrats wielding rubber stamps from the shadows. It demands both humility and responsibility.

Ironically, unless I miss my guess, Comey’s utter lack of such humility has now destroyed the reputation that meant more to him than the consequences of his decision for the nation. His incredible arrogance has also probably ended his career. But in the age-old tradition of the self-righteous, he will undoubtedly consider himself a martyr.

 

Crime and Punishment

When I was practicing law, I often heard people complain about judges and prosecutors when those officials reached conclusions with which they disagreed. In most instances, the complaints were based on a lack of understanding of the facts of the case, the legal rules involved, or both. That was particularly true of criminal accusations.

Let’s say you are texting and driving. You know better; Public Service Announcements tell you how dangerous it is. Your mother tells you how dangerous it is. But your state has no law against it, and you think you’re in control. While you are texting, you crash into another car, injuring a passenger and totaling the vehicle.

Or let’s say you made the potato salad for the family’s picnic. It’s a really hot day and the sun is beating down. You know that foods with mayonnaise shouldn’t be left in the heat, but you are tending to other things. When everyone finally sits down to eat, several people get violently ill and it’s traced to the spoiled mayo.

Or let’s take a far more serious situation: you are one of those “good guys” with a gun. You bought it legally and have a permit to carry it. You have it in a holster, and for some reason, when you sit down, it discharges, killing a bystander.

In each of these scenarios, you have been responsible for harm. In none of them have you committed a crime, because criminal acts require something the law calls mens rea–criminal intent. In order for the state to charge you with a crime, it must have evidence that you intentionally committed a criminal act. Negligence and stupidity are not crimes.

That is not to say that your actions cannot be punished. In each of my examples, the persons harmed can bring civil actions against the negligent person who caused the harm, and can recover damages. In addition, your actions can be reported by the media, censured by your neighbors and provide reason for your boss and others to lose confidence in your judgment.

The FBI investigated Hillary Clinton’s use of her own email server, and found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing sufficient to charge her with a crime. The investigation found (and severely criticized) carelessness–both in Clinton’s handling of her emails and in what the agency characterized as the “culture” of the State Department. The conclusion was not that she hadn’t done anything wrong; the conclusion was that the wrong was not criminal in nature. (Click here for a more extensive explanation of the legal standards and relevant statutes.)

Individual voters can–and will–decide for themselves whether they think this particular breach of judgment makes Clinton unfit to be President. If she weren’t running against a certifiable psychopath, it might well cost her the election; but even if it doesn’t, even if she wins handily, it will cost her significant political capital (indeed, it already has) and will give additional ammunition to those who despise her.

Although it does not excuse her breach, the investigation’s discovery that many other State Department officials (including but not limited to Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice) have used and continue to use personal servers because of the ponderous nature of the “official” system should lead to a formal review of the agency’s technology systems, and to an effort to improve the State Department’s evidently unwieldy system.

Rather than Congressional action that might reduce incentives to bypass the rules, however, we have Paul Ryan’s announcement that the GOP will now “investigate” the FBI for reaching a conclusion partisans dislike.

The FBI investigation was conducted by a Republican appointed by George W. Bush, a man with a reputation for independence and unimpeachable ethics. Ryan’s willingness to besmirch that reputation and impugn the credibility of the FBI in order to make political points is something we might expect from Donald Trump, but is exceedingly disappointing (albeit not surprising) coming from the Speaker of the House.

At some point, it would be nice if our political actors focused upon making government work better, and left toxic gamesmanship behind. But I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

An Interesting Observation…

Yesterday, President Obama nominated a veteran of the Bush Administration to head up the FBI. There has been a lot of chatter about the choice–the nominee is apparently highly regarded on both sides of the aisle, something we don’t see much of these days. But I was struck by an observation posted to Maddowblog:

If the president and his team had any reason to worry at all about ongoing investigations casting the White House in a negative light — or worse — there’s simply no way Obama would choose a Republican lawyer with a history of independence to lead the FBI. Indeed… just the opposite is true — if Obama were the least bit concerned about any of the so-called “scandals,” he’d almost certainly look for a Democratic ally to lead the FBI.

But the president is doing the opposite — Comey is not only a veteran of the Bush/Cheney administration, he also donated to the McCain/Palin and Romney/Ryan campaigns, in the hopes of preventing Obama from getting elected. If the president thought the “scandals” might lead to the Oval Office, he’d never choose someone like Comey to take over the FBI right now.

Another indication that there is no “there” there.

The real problem with the persistent, ongoing hysterical efforts to prove that Obama’s Administration has done something criminal, of course, is that it has utterly distorted what ought to be the critique of this or any administration. Rather than focusing on the misplaced policies or bureaucratic inefficiencies  that are always fair game, drummed up (and sometimes wholly fabricated) accusations simply feed the appetites of GOP partisans who want to believe the worst. That in turn generates knee-jerk defensiveness by Democrats who might otherwise disagree with administration policy.

Partisan pissing contests have taken the place of potentially productive conversations about how we might govern ourselves better, or how we might grow the economy or improve education or balance the right to privacy against the needs of national defense.

We are governed by two-year-olds.