Keeping up with Comey

The College of William & Mary announced last week that former FBI Director James Comey will teach a course on “ethical leadership” at the school next fall. By that time his book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership will be out. The promotional tour will be over. The book will be available for use as a text, or for use by ambitious students seeking extra credit.

At William & Mary, Aristotle’s Ethics is out; Comey’s Ethics is in. What we have here is yet one more episode of the crisis in higher education, though in this episode we have the potential for comedy a la Comey, the least self-aware man in the United States.

The Wall Street Journal comments in its editorial “James Comey’s ethics course.” The editorial takes a Swiftian turn to satire as it works up the first few weeks of Professor Comey’s syllabus. Savage indignation beats in the heart of someone on the Journal’s editorial board:

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.)

You get the idea. Perhaps you have ideas for a few contributions of your own. Whoever among the Journal’s editors has a heart beating with savage indignation also has a long memory:

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.

The editorial concludes: “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.”


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