A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and LeadershipA Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Every review of this book will be read through a political lens, so I’ll first tell you that my bias is pro-FBI. I am a 25-year FBI Special Agent retiree and attorney. I was a Legal advisor for the FBI and had a successful legal career post-FBI. Most of my FBI career was doing national security investigations. So I know what I’m talking about with regard to the subject matter of this book. I was a lifelong Republican until about 10 years ago when the worst elements of the party seemed to gain control and I left. I could not become a Democrat, though, since that party does not represent my views, either. I registered as an independent and consider myself conservative. I hold President Trump in low regard and do not like Hillary Clinton.

The beginning of this book talks about Comey’s early life and career. I give him credit for being an effective crime-busting prosecutor for his many years at DOJ, but that’s not what readers are interested in. They, like me, want to hear his take on the 2016 election through his firing. I found this book to be self-serving, unconvincing, and a bit sanctimonious. I believe he is honestly telling it like he thinks it is, but there are a number of major problems with his account.

The biggest question I had going into this book was why the investigation of Clinton’s email was ever started. It’s not illegal to own a computer, whether a server or not, and the physical location of a server, at least between Clinton’s house and the USDS, is not relevant to its security risk. Comey provides only a single sentence on this which said simply it was a referral from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) because there were indications she was discussing “classified topics” in her unclassified email. He does not clarify which OIG, since both DOJ and USDS have one, but it must have been the USDS OIG since that is the agency responsible for seeing that State Department employees follow proper procedures. But this raises several questions that are unaddressed in the book. The USDS IG position was vacant during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. She was in effect the head of that agency as she was over the rest of the USDS. Did she refer herself to the FBI? It had to be an underling making the referral. If so, why didn’t he or she go directly to Clinton, the boss, and advise her that this may be (more on that in a moment) a violation of law or simply give her a security briefing? It looks suspiciously like someone resentful at not being promoted to the IG position or feeling the agency was dissed by leaving the IG spot vacant. Even if it was the DOJ OIG, the same is true.

More importantly, the use of the term “classified topics” is problematic. Every mishandling of classified information case I saw in my 25 years involved classified documents or classified information (i.e. an excerpt from a classified document), not “topics” which is essentially meaningless for prosecutorial purposes. Everything the Secretary of State does or says relates to a classified topic. It’s America’s foreign policy. A classified topic is not classified information until it is reduced to writing with a header and a footer specifying the classifying authority and the date and the level of classification. The Secretary of State is by law a classifying authority. She had the power to decide what is classified and what is not, at least for USDS matters. She did not have the authority to disregard or declassify classification by other authorities such as the FBI and CIA Directors, but there was no indication in the book that was the case. For practical purposes of a criminal mishandling investigation, unless she wrote an email with a heading, footer and proper classification marking on it, it was unclassified. She in theory could have forwarded a classified document or an excerpt from her classified USDS system to her personal system, which would be improper, but there’s no indication in the book or in Comey’s subsequent Congressional testimony that either of those things occurred, or was even alleged to begin the investigation. He repeated the term “classified topics” as being present on Clinton’s server later in the book, yet during testimony before Congress said they had not found classified information or documents on the server. Even if you disagree with my legal view, the fact remains that everyone who corresponded with Clinton on that server had the necessary clearances for the “topics” so there was no real security threat. I’m dubious that there was any justification for initiating the investigation beyond bias against her because she was a Democratic nominee for President or for internal USDS politics.

I’ll give Comey the benefit of the doubt that the OIG information justified opening the case, but if so, she should have been interviewed very soon after the case was opened, or at least once the server itself was obtained. A flat-out wrong statement he makes to justify waiting till much later is that it is standard procedure in white collar crime cases until you “have the goods” on the perpetrator to confront them during interview. This is sometimes true in Ponzi schemes or mail fraud, but rarely in national security investigations involving mishandling. You want to know the defense before you look at the evidence so you know what to look for that supports or refutes it. Otherwise, after you interview, you have to go back and look at it again. Once the server was in FBI hands where she couldn’t alter it, they should have interviewed her. Her explanation that she talked around classified information in her email on that account, used the classified system at USDS for classified information, and had the server for personal convenience so that she could use her Blackberry proved to be true in the end as Comey admits. As mentioned, everyone who used it had proper clearances anyway. The FBI could have determined this within the first month and referred the case to DOJ for a quick declination, thus not affecting the 2016 election.

Another falsehood Comey repeats several times in the book is that there is no DOJ rule to avoid any investigation that would interfere with the presidential election process. He says there is no law or written rule, which may very well be true, but it is long-standing policy and practice at the DOJ and FBI to stay out of investigations on major candidates leading up to the election and he had to have known this. This was later cited by the DOJ OIG as one of the reasons for firing Comey. While Trump admitted he fired Comey for the Russia investigation, nevertheless, Comey’s policy violations probably did justify his firing. My uncle, also an FBI agent, served under Hoover as Deputy Assistant Director and I am somewhat familiar with how Hoover operated. Despite Hoover’s reputation as having a secret file of dirt on politicians, whether true or false, he never used them against a presidential candidate. He hated Kennedy, a known philanderer, and could easily have done so but never did. Any such investigation will only be used by the opposing party, as it was against Clinton, and will inevitably have the effect of making the FBI look partisan and causing the public to lose faith in the integrity of the FBI. Many people are unaware that Hoover was put in to clean up the FBI and rid it of political hacks and nepotism. It has stayed politically neutral ever since and I’m confident no other Director would have done what Comey did.

Comey’s decision to end the Clinton investigation with a public announcement of his opinion was not only in violation of this policy and unprecedented in history, it seemingly usurped the authority of the DOJ to decide what’s prosecutable. It was meaningless legally, so I believe could only have a political purpose. The alt-right wing of the GOP was outraged that he “cleared” Clinton and the Democrats were outraged that he spent many minutes berating her for something that wasn’t illegal. His explanation that he did it to make sure the public’s faith in the FBI as independent would remain untarnished is laughable; it had the predictable exact opposite effect. He didn’t clear Clinton. Her actions, whether negligent or not, were not illegal, so there was nothing to clear. He should have just referred it to DOJ for a declination as every other case of this sort has been handled. I can find no reasonable explanation for going public but to try to hurt Clinton’s chances at the election as much as possible or at least weaken her presidency. He is a lifelong Republican, although I understand he registered as an Independent when he became Director. Whether his bias was conscious or not, I believe he was biased against her and it shows in the writing of the book.

As for the Russia thing, I can assure everyone that Putin and the Russian government, at least in its current form, is pure evil and bent on hurting America and the American people. Russia is the enemy of our country and the FBI should be investigating them. I’m not going to get into the Steele report, golden shower, and the post-election stuff in the book because it’s beyond my area of expertise. The bottom line on the book is that I found it an unsatisfying failed attempt at self-justification. Comey was no victim.

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