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James Comey and the F.B.I.

James Comey and the F.B.I.

By William H. Benson

May 3, 2018

Two weeks ago, I finished reading Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I., first published a year ago, in April 2017. David Grann, the author, tells a fascinating account of the reign of terror that the Osage Indians of central Oklahoma endured in the early 1920’s. 

Wildcat drillers had discovered a reservoir of oil that lay underneath the Osage Indians’ reservation. Hefty royalty checks transformed these destitute Native Americans into “the richest people per capita in the world.” They built mansions, purchased automobiles, and hired servants and chauffeurs. 

Then, one by one, certain Osage Indians began to die, or rather someone began to kill them off. Some were slowly poisoned. Some were shot. A bomb at night killed a husband and wife. Then, by ruse and artifice, the deceased’s claims to the oil passed on to others, some to non-Native Americans.

After more than twenty Osage Indians were killed, J. Edgar Hoover, head of the F.B.I., dispatched a former Texas Ranger, Agent Tom White, to Osage County to investigate and unravel the mystery. White assembled a team of undercover agents who infiltrated the county and discovered a sinister conspiracy of white people, who were killing the Osage Indians, in order to grab their oil rights.

Grann tells a fascinating story, all true, and in it he shows how White and his undercover agents brought into play more modern techniques of investigation to ferret out the truth. 

Fifty plus years ago, when in grade school, I read Quentin Reynold’s book, The F.B.I., first published in 1954. Some of its stories still stick in my memory. He tells of gangsters and bank robbers, including Ma Barker and John Dillinger, and of Russian spies, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

  1. Edgar Hoover wrote the book’s “Forward,” and in it Hoover says, “When a young man files an application with the F.B.I., we do not ask if he is the smartest boy in the class. We want to know if he is truthful, dependable, and if he played the game fair. We want to know if he respects his parents, reveres God, honors his flag, and loves his country.”

Last week, I began to read James Comey’s recent book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. The former F.B.I. Director lost his job a year ago, on May 9, 2017, when Donald Trump fired him. In the year since then, Comey has written a book, more of a memoir, than a “tell-all” exposé. He devotes only an estimated 20% of his book to his interactions with the president.

In the rest of the book, Comey tells of his early years in college at William and Mary, in law school at Chicago, and of prosecuting criminals in U. S. Attorney’s offices. He describes wrangling with the Mafia, the Cosa Nostra, the gangsters, and the terrorists. He rehashes his prosecution of Martha Stewart, his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, and he stands by his decisions. 

A smart thing that Comey did was draft memos, after he met or spoke with the president. One memo lists details of Comey’s meeting with President Trump on January 27, 2017, seven days after the inauguration. Alone, the two men shared a meal at a small table in the White House’s Green Room. 

In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on 20/20, on Sunday, April 15, 2018, Comey described their conversation. Trump said, “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” Comey said nothing. “We simply looked at each other in silence. I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression.”

At the end of the meal, Trump repeated his words, “I need loyalty.” This time Comey said, “You will always get honesty from me.” Trump said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” Comey said, “You will get that from me.”

Comey’s account demonstrates the distinction between a glib politician, and a stubborn law enforcement agent. The former says whatever he or she wants to say, but the latter is careful to stay within the borders of truth. The former is looking for followers who obey his or her wishes, but the latter avoids following anyone or anything, except the closest path to the truth.

Two and a half millennium ago, in ancient Greece, Socrates thought as deeply on the issues of truth and lies, knowledge and ignorance, and ethics and immoral actions, as anyone has. Up to the day the authorities ordered him to drink the hemlock and die, he maintained that a frank, honest, and public discussion of life’s great issues is necessary for a person to feel truly successful.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Near his book’s beginning, James Comey admits that on occasion he can be “stubborn and prideful,” as I suspect most F.B.I. agents are, but anyone who reads his words or hears him speak will detect his commitment to a higher loyalty: to the truth, to the rule of law, and to the U. S. Constitution.