During ABC’s much-anticipated interview with former FBI Director James Comey, the ex-lawman held virtually nothing back, from his views on impeaching President Trump to gossiping about hand size. Yet curiously, Comey brushed away one issue that he clearly didn’t want to discuss: his leaking of memos to the New York Times.
“(W)hether you can leak unclassified information, I don't want to get involved in that,” he said firmly.
That won’t come as a surprise to America’s working-level spies and law enforcement officers. They can see right through Comey’s charade of “leadership” and “loyalty” because they know the immeasurable damage he has caused.
When a servicemember, covert operator, or G-man takes their oath of allegiance to the nation, it’s a moment of both joy and humility. It’s a covenant signifying sacrifice, fidelity, and mission. New recruits quickly understand that they are no longer an individual – neither Republican nor Democrat, Muslim nor Christian, gay nor straight – but rather part of a collective force that stops at nothing to defend and promote America’s interests.
I certainly recall that moment in my own life. My CIA classmates and I stood in front of the CIA’s wall of stars – a slate of Alabama marble memorializing the dozens of officers who had fallen in the line of duty. It was a sober, fitting place for us to fully understand the sacrifice we would face in the years ahead.
After taking our oath, then-CIA Director George Tenet wasted no time in making clear to us the task before the nation. It was late 2001, only weeks after 9/11. We were the first class to begin our duty following the terror attacks. America was scrambling to catch up to the Al Qaeda threat.
Our cigar-chomping leader reminded us to keep humble hearts and conduct ourselves with integrity. He made clear that the operational tools that would soon be at our disposal – from a cadre of global informants to stolen emails and hacked phone calls – were an intoxicating elixir that could be abused by those of weak character.
In the days thereafter, others leaders went to great lengths to remind us of the consequences should we falter, and that we had a moral obligation to flag any officer who abused their authority. They explained that if we ever felt someone had crossed a line, there were ways to address it. Certainly we could speak with our managers. Failing that, the CIA’s Office of Inspector General. Or we could escalate it directly to the FBI.
If all of those options failed, we were given one final outlet: our elected representatives in the House and Senate.
One fellow student raised his hand. “If that doesn’t work, can we go to the press?”
Our leadership shot him a look of pure ice. “No,” one man replied with contempt. He continued that once we passed off our allegations to a Representative or Senator, it was their job – the job of the people – to decide whether we were right or wrong in our judgment of abuse. Our lifetime vow of secrecy precluded us from speaking with reporters.
This message of reporting waste, fraud, and abuse wasn’t exclusive to the CIA. Friends and colleagues in other intelligence and law enforcement agencies heard the same. Including those at the FBI. They were words spoken directly by Comey himself.
And then, on June 8, 2017, everything changed.
On that day, Comey admitted to leaking notes of his conversations with President Trump to the New York Times. He used a friend – or “cutout” – to leak the memos so that he could hide his identity.
It’s impossible to overstate what a gut punch this was for officers in the FBI and CIA. For years, we had been told, lectured, and threatened not to leak to the press. We were given clear paths to share our concerns of abuse, all of which were known and available to Comey. He could have handed his notes to the Senate or House, but he didn’t. He could have testified about his concerns, but at that point he didn’t.
Instead, Comey chose to leak. And he admitted to his treachery only after being compelled to testify.
Friends I spoke with at the Bureau and Agency shared my anger and disgust. Our brother in arms – the most senior leader in the fights against corruption, terrorism, and espionage – had violated his lifetime oath. He had betrayed not just the American people but his fellow officers as well.
And no matter his excuses, he also broke every FBI rule regarding contact with the press and release of government information.
Many of us also saw a direct assault on the spirit – if not the letter – of the very laws he swore to uphold.
But the most worrying of consequences was his demonstration to partisan spies and G-men that they too could successfully leak. How? Legal analysis explained that the disgraced leader followed a series of clear steps to avoid prosecution. They included:
1. Resign or be terminated from your position. Inspectors General have little jurisdiction over a former employee.
2. Ensure that any leaked information can be argued as an unclassified “personal reflection” written by “a private citizen” to “memorialize” past events.
3. Never share leaked information in written form. Oral disclosures are not subject to the FBI or CIA’s prepublication requirements.
4. Ensure there’s no payment for the leak itself. Monetization can come later when writing a book or delivering paid speeches about the leak personal reflections.
It doesn’t take a spy or special agent to understand the ramifications of Comey’s plotting. If a senior leader can get away with violating his or her oath, anyone can. And unquestionably, someone else will, spurred on by their personal agenda.
The result? A weakened America, hobbled by the selfish pursuits of officers that choose to disregard their allegiance as it suits their interests.
Me first, country second.
It’s an outcome that appeared lost on Comey during his interview Sunday night. After all, he had the audacity to title his book, “A Higher Loyalty.” It’s as though he thinks he still has some lingering respect from a grateful nation or a brotherhood of public servants. He does not. His loyalty is no longer to his country or its security, no matter his charade of claims.
Comey has one loyalty and one only: to himself.