James Comey’s Ethics Class
The Editorial Board Wall Street Journal 1-22-18
Some advice on questions to discuss and speakers to invite.
The College of William & Mary in Virginia announced last week that James Comey will teach a course on “ethical leadership” starting this autumn. The former FBI director would not have been our first choice for such an assignment, but upon reflection maybe his experience as a federal prosecutor, deputy attorney general and FBI director is ideal for the task.
Mr. Comey said in a statement accompanying the news that “ethical leaders lead by seeing above the short term, above the urgent or the partisan, and with a higher loyalty to lasting values, most importantly the truth.” In that spirit, here are some suggestions on how Mr. Comey can structure his course to help students confront these profound questions.
Week One case study: The FBI is investigating a presidential candidate for mishandling classified emails as Secretary of State. The director decides on his own to violate Justice Department rules and exonerate that candidate in a public statement to the media, letting an aide replace the legally potent phrase “grossly negligent” in a draft of his statement with “extremely careless” in the final version.
Students will examine when a public official can choose to ignore rules and standards of conduct for what he considers to be higher purposes. Required reading: Former Deputy Attorney General and federal Judge Laurence Silberman’s February 2017 speech to the Columbia Law School chapter of the Federalist Society.
Breakout session topic: Having exonerated that candidate, the FBI director intervenes in the campaign again only days before Election Day, saying new evidence has required him to reopen the email case. Two days before the polls open he says that the new evidence turned out to be nothing of consequence. Was the FBI director protecting the rule of law, or his own reputation?
Ethical guides Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner will visit each breakout session to steer the discussions. (Thanks to the federal prison system for letting Mr. Weiner appear by video from Federal Medical Center Devens.)
Week Two: Amid the post-Enron political frenzy, a prosecutor indicts an investment banker not on bank-related charges but on obstruction of justice based on a snippet of an ambiguous email. The first trial ends in a hung jury but the prosecutor wins on the second try only to be overturned by an appellate court.
Students will explore the ethical demands of prosecutorial discretion. Guest lecturer: Frank Quattrone.
Week Three: FBI director Robert Mueller and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York are convinced that the man behind the 2001 anthrax mail attacks is a government virologist. They spend years pursuing him and destroying his reputation through the media, only to concede years later that they had fingered the wrong man.
Students will examine the ethics of trial-by-media and the risks to the fair administration of justice from prosecutors who ignore contrary evidence. Visiting scholars: Nicholas Kristof and Steven Jay Hatfill.
Week Four: A deputy attorney general handpicks a personal friend and godfather to one of his children, Patrick Fitzgerald, as a special counsel to investigate who leaked the name of CIA official Valerie Plame. Within days Mr. Fitzgerald learns that the leaker was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a fact he then keeps secret for years.
Instead of closing the case, the deputy AG expands Mr. Fitzgerald’s mandate. After a three-year investigation that turns up nothing new, Mr. Fitzgerald indicts a White House aide for perjury to salvage something from the effort. Reporter Judith Miller, whom Mr. Fitzgerald sent to jail for 85 days to force her testimony that was crucial in convicting the White House official, later says she testified falsely after Mr. Fitzgerald withheld crucial information from her.
Students will consider the ethics of special counsels without effective supervision, and whether Mr. Fitzgerald showed loyalty to lasting values and the truth by keeping the name of the leaker secret from the public and President George W. Bush. Special guest (invited): Scooter Libby.
We can think of many other ripe areas for ethical exploration across Mr. Comey’s long career, but this should get him off to a compelling start. If Mr. Comey decides to go in a different direction from our advice, perhaps an enterprising student can raise the issues here during discussion periods.