Friday, April 20, 2018

'A Higher Loyalty' by James Comey ~ a review with commentary from the point of view of Linda Fetterly-Root

 In his controversial book 'Higher Loyalty,' former FBI Director James Comey identifies ego as his fatal flaw: in attempting to write an apolitical review of Comey's book,  I share his curse. It is hard to take a neutral stand on a report of the political events of 2015-2018 without interjecting a piece of oneself.  When JFK was assassinated, I wrote a poem which was read into the Congressional Record and was republished in numerous metropolitan dailies.  Those who commented on it, and there were many, did not address the literary merit of the piece, and I am likewise reviewing Comey's best seller with a similar omission.  I do not seek to judge his prose.  I did detect some head-hopping back and forth from one James Comey --the public servant who functioned as Director of the F.B. I., and another--The James Comey who is suddenly a private citizen with an ox to gore.  I do, however, admit to viewing both from the viewpoint of an aging  woman who lived through most of the events discussed in Comey's book, some of which at first glance seem to have a very tenuous nexus to the political upheavals of 2015-2018, but which make the back story interesting.

However, when I stepped back for a second look at the items I had considered window dressing, their relevance became apparent, for they contained the key to the  making of a man not always wise, sometimes arrogant, and utterly driven, and as miscast as the Good Cop to Donald Trump's Bad Cop, as Luke would have been against Darth Vader, had he not possessed a Light Saber. Comey seems to realize as much and thus invents a weapon forged of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.  It does not always work, and therein lies the tragedy.

The Young James Comey:

 I was 21 years old when James Comey was born.  John F. Kennedy was President-elect of the United States. J. Edgar Hoover had been the Director of what became the FBI, since 1924, and remained its Director until his death in 1972. Robert F. Kennedy was soon to become Attorney General and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was, with his father, co-pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and leader of the Civil Rights Movement.  The timeline cited here is relevant, because all of the men named above were influential in shaping James Comey's character, but none of them were living by the time he reached adolescence.  Thus, in the middle pages of Comey's book when he speaks of his reverence or his reservations about these icons and other men and women of similar fame or infamy, he is speaking as a youthful historian, rather than a spectator.  These were heroes of his childhood, just as FDR was one of mine.  And even the most precocious child's perception of the make-up of a hero is inherited from those who influence us.  Perhaps this is why we look around at today's American and see ourselves locked in battles belonging to our ancestors. 

Comey and the Bullies:

When James Comey's father moved the family from Yonkers, where James had been a popular elementary school student, to Allendale, New Jersey, where he was the unimpressive new kid,  Comey was ridiculed and bullied for his home-done haircuts and unfashionable clothes, and because he spoke with a New York accent.  The bullying ranged from humiliation to physical assault. and because of his past popularity, he was unequipped to meet it.  He he had not yet enjoyed the growth spurt that topped him out at 6'8".  He endured three painful years holding his tongue and avoiding the bullies as much as he could, but they left their imprint on him. And they brought with it an enduring guilt, when he discovered one defense to bullying was to take part in it, and another was to cut and run. It is no surprise that he devotes pages in the later chapters of his book discussing the bully mentality of men like Dick Cheney's henchman David Attington, Cheney himself, and at times, Presidents George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, and why he had an intense reaction to issues regarding torture and water boarding. When the scandals of Guantanamo and secret rendering of suspected terrorists made the headlines and he was struggling to do the right thing without losing his influence on the administration, his wife brought him back to earth with a comment, 'Don't be the torture guy.'  He followed her advice, which did not endear him to Bush and Cheney and eventually  drove him to return to the private sector.

The Years with Rudi Giuliani and Martha Stewart:

When Comey moves his dialog  to his years as a  Deputy United States Attorney he speaks perhaps a bit too idealistically about the pursuit of justice.  Working under Rudi Giuliani was a challenge. There was a saying in the US Attorney's office that the most dangerous place in federal prosecution was standing between Giuliani and a microphone. I was intrigued by Comey's  recap of the prosecution of Martha Stewart, in which he played a principal role. Comer does not dodge the issue of the relative triviality of the crime in comparison with most occurrences involving inside trading violations. A woman with a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars had bailed out of a stock in which she sought to loose  somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000, not because she had inside information of an adverse decision about licensing a wonder drug, but because she and the CEO who was about to bail were not only personal friends but had the same broker, and there had been a series of communications between the broker and her offices just prior to her stock sale.  Even if she had learned something alarming in those communications,  under those circumstances, the likely outcome would have been a fine. But then Martha Stewart lied about it when her name appeared on a list of persons who had sold their stock in haste. She claimed she had left a short sell order with her broker that pre-authorized the sale, and laughed to a friend about getting away with it.  In any event, the prosecution was unpopular, and her imprisonment did little to enhance the reputation of Comey. Ironically, while she was incarcerated, her net worth grew like Jack's beanstalk.  Was the prosecution cost productive?  Not at all. But if Comey's goal was as stated in his book, it sent a message that no matter who you are, you cannot ignore the law and lie about it to the FBI.

The Martha Stewart's
prosecution tells us something important  if we wish to understand the case of Hillary Clinton's emails.  I have always considered the matter poorly handled at best, an unforgivable misuse of the federal police power at its worst, and to prove a point, just look  at where it got us. But after reading Comey's book and reflecting on my own life experience, I am no longer  sure my wrath is justified.  I have no doubt whatsoever that the email crisis was exploited  to the fullest by Hilary Clinton's enemies and especially, by the Trump Camp. But not all of the fault is Comey's.

The Incredible Story of the Emails :

When I was a student at Pomona College in 1958, I was a finalist in the General Dynamics-Convair Management Club Scholarship competition, in which a significant prize included summertime employment in a high paying air-frame industry. Most of the winners were science, math and engineering standouts, but I had no such claim to fame. I became the department clerk for the Administrator of the Physics Section, and one of my duties was security.  I was charged with erasing equations on chalkboards,  making certain no documents were left on desktops at the end of the day, and testing to make certain the padlocked on each scientist's file were actually closed.  To do my job, I needed a Secret (and later, a Top Secret) clearance, and to get it, I took a couple of hours of training and a simple test. I knew penalties attached to leaving the premises with raw data and memos in a briefcase in order to work at home on nights and weekends. I kept tally of the violations, which became job-threatening at number three.  There were way to get around the rules for a Ph. D. with two violations, and the most popular method was to pass the fatal third off to someone expendable, very often, a clerk or a lab. tech.   From the lowly college kid like me to the Chief of Physics, we all knew taking paperwork home or discussing work product over cocktails were verboten.  Arguably, we thought the penalties would be work related and potentially severe: there isn't much demand for a theoretical physicist without a security clearance.  In retrospect, I suppose some of us knew criminal penalties might attach.  I know I did. because of an incident involving my father, whose paperwork revealed an arrival date in California that was two days different than mine. I was the kid with the journal, and Dad had filled out the DOD form from memory.  No one went to jail, but it was scary.

Thus, even before reading Comey's book,  I was utterly convinced  Hillary Clinton violated the Securities Act by dealing with classified materials on her personal email server, just as I knew my favorite physicist at Convair violated the Securities act by taking his rough drafts home at night.  This is no longer a disputed fact, and in the case of Secretary Clinton, once that threshold had been breached, the question facing the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and its Director,  became whether or not it was done with criminal intent.  I am a lawyer, and I have a good understanding of the law o circumstantial evidence.  It is  an elusive concept sometimes easiest proved by a course of conduct.  And in the case of the emails on HRC's server, there was much to look at.  But, in July 2016 when Comey's first 'final' decision was announced, there was no proof at a reasonable doubt standard that Mrs Clinton knew what she was doing was criminal--in other words, after isolating the memos that were either rightfully or wrongfully still classified, none had been shared with anyone who was not cleared to deal with them.  The G.O.P.'s mammoth  security breach of Rosenbergian proportions was a political red herring.  Mrs. Clinton was reprimanded for implementing a sloppy practice fraught with danger, and was put in a similar position as Martha Stewart Stewart would have been had she sold her stock because other people in her circle who might know something were selling.  Clinton supporters, myself among them, were outraged at Comey for going public in the manner in which he did, Trump supporters were outraged because Clinton was not indicted for something, but the election was still several month's away, and life went on.

Then, 12 days before the election, Comey learned that hundreds of thousands of Clinton's emails had been discovered on the laptop of former Congressman Anthony Weiner, estranged and disgraced husband of Clinton's close aid and personal friend Huma Abedin. In any event, Weiner had used his computed as a repository for dirty pictures.  Comey's book is vague as to how this horror was detected, and at first, it was not clear to him how this impacted the initial determination closing the agency's file.  But when it was disclosed that emails from Mrs Clinton had made their way to Weiner's server, the initial closure could not stand. Weiner's file turned the findings upside-down.  At this point, there was no evidence the Trump camp knew what was happening, but  little reason to believe the information would not leak.  At this point, Comey could have dumped the dilemma in the lap of President Obama's Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, but he did not do so.

There were high level discussions within the agency of what would happen if criminally actionable activity was  uncovered involving a president-elect.  Only one person interjected the possibility of a Trump victory into the equation.  Once the facts were on the table, only one option was discussed, and that was reopening the investigation. The integrity of the F.B.I was at stake. Justice was still in the dark. No one in the Obama administration was apt to applaud Comey or the F.B.I. The next step was  the tricky one: should they conceal or disclose the decision to reopen the investigation. Since Comey had been advised there was no way the investigation could be concluded before the election, Comey decided concealment would be a fraud against the American people. At that time, according to his book, Comey conceded whatever the outcome, he was 'screwed'.  While I accept Comey's assertions regarding protocols that disfavor interviewing a person of interest in an investigation until the fact-finding is essentially complete,  in a situation involving a presidential candidate in an election year, it might have served the Bureau and the American people to have made an exception to the rule and interviewed Mrs. Clinton earlier in the game.  And as the new phase of the investigation played out, thanks to new technology, the huge number of Clinton emails was culled to a few thousand, and no criminal conduct was disclosed.  An announcement was made, but by then, it was too late to unring the bell. The email controversy was a major issue.

And then came Donald J. Trump:

The last portion of the book, the pages dealing with the Trump Presidency, are sparse, through no fault of the author's. His dealing with Trump as told in the book were few and strange, and document the President's  unwarranted and inappropriate rather medieval demands for a pledge of loyalty which Comey never gave.

At the onset of the Trump presidency, Comey was viewed by many White House staffers  as the man who delivered the election to their candidate.  It was a label he abhorred. His objective had been to insure an enduring, independent  Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Trump's objective was to assure the F.B.I. Director's unwavering and absolute fealty.

Some critics of Comey's book accuse him of getting down and dirty with Donald Trump, disrespectfully remarking on the length of his ties, the size of his hands, the tanning booth white circles around his eyes. It has been mentioned he should have followed Michelle Obama's advice, that when 'they go low, we go high.' It is true at times Comey's childish, petulant remarks creep into his narrative to detract from the seriousness of his message.. Considering how he was treated, how he learned he had been fired in a streamer on a muted television left running while he conducted a recruitment seminar in California,  small wonder he let his stoicism slide. The letter firing him had not been delivered and he was blindsided.  I have read the letter, and it is a one paragraph self-serving letter oddly worded. It might as well have been a Tweet.


Even if there were no Russian Investigation, the bizarre events surrounding Hillary Clinton's emails alone make this an important book.  Although James Comey fails as his own apologist, his story is one that must be told.  However, I also believe it should not be taken in a vacuum. I suspect there will be a large body of literature dealing with the 2016 election and all that has followed. As for Comey's role, I cast him as a honest man of great integrity who has difficulty confronting evil, a tragic character whose fatal flaw may not be his ego as much as it is his desire to be liked and understood.  He wanted his agents to have fun.  He made a point of never wearing his suit jacket when he was not in a formal setting.  He ate in the cafeteria and never 'took cuts in line.'  He told his agents to never put their loved ones on the back burner, to eat well and get lots of sleep--advice commendable in a friend, but perhaps not enough from a leader at a time when extraordinary leadership skills were required.   But the question remains unresolved as to whether in spite of 6'8" frame, his shoulders were broad enough to carry the weight of the job. When the boss is Donald Trump, the job description and requirements change.

Thus, whether you like Comey or not, Trump or not, Hilary or not, consider if you will, how the means of Comey's dismissal may have affected his audience of would be recruits and sworn agents who watched their leader sacrificed on national television.  I wonder how many in the audience signed on to follow in his footsteps. This is not the only story of its kind likely to emerge to tell the tale of a nation being culled of its best and brightest by men and women whose goals are wealth and power, in whatever branch of government, whichever side of the aisle, or from the shadows.  That is the message I draw from A Higher Loyalty.  I suspect many readers will find similar or opposing messages, all of which make this a compelling reading experience for those of us who care how the story ends. I recommend this to anyone curious as to where and why our government disappoints us.  

April 20. 2018, from Yucca Valley, California

                                                                         Linda A. Fettterly-Root, J.D.

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