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A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership by James Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the investigation and security agency of the United States, is a tough book to begin reading because almost the first one-third of the book is an exercise in — as the writer himself says — “vanity.”

This is how the first paragraph of the author’s note begins: “Who am I to tell others what ethical leadership is? Anyone claiming to write a book about ethical leadership can come across as presumptuous, even sanctimonious. All the more so if that author happened to be someone who was quite memorably and publicly fired from his job.”

That is probably what the author promised to a wide readership about his book: the dramatic firing from his job by one of the most powerful persons in the world, US President Donald Trump, who never gets tired of injecting drama into his actions and utterances.

The former FBI director reserves his choicest hits for the US president — but they only come after one ploughs through a third of the book

In essence, this is a book of explanations — explanations given by a person about why he was fired and why he did not speak about the investigation that the FBI was conducting into Trump’s alleged Russian connections when he should have, and why he spoke about the reopening of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s email investigations when he should not have. By keeping quiet on the Trump investigation and speaking about Clinton’s, Comey is being blamed by many for Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential elections and for messing up Clinton’s chances. The author strives to justify his decisions on the principle that the FBI keeps itself out of politics.

Comey had the experience of observing from close quarters how three US presidents worked –– Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. He seems to admire Obama and is not fond of Bush, but he hates Trump. He also seems to be fond of Clinton, despite being a Republican voter.

A Higher Loyalty provides glimpses into the goings-on inside the US corridors of power and the author’s own perspective of what he saw happening at the highest decision-making level in the US administrative hierarchy. But the reader reaches these inner sanctums of US power corridors only after having patiently leafed through almost 80 boring pages in which the author attempts to recount his journey to the position of the US deputy attorney-general. On the way, he presents himself as a person strictly dedicated to Boy Scouts’ ethics.

From the word go, Comey tries to turn a piece of non-fiction into fiction, succeeding at places but failing frequently. With every event he recounts, he tries to make his book into a whodunnit thriller. A third-rate thriller. A page-turner of dubious quality. And he paints every character in his story with a broad brush in order to make each one of them come alive and appear as plausible as possible. Some of them he portrays positively, some negatively and others in-between the two extremes. But he reserves the choicest adjectives for President Trump. He claims he has never seen President Trump laugh, making this characteristic of the president something of a gross personality flaw.

His very first encounter with Trump is full of salacious drama. He goes to meet the president-elect at Trump Towers along with all the heads of security who had unanimously chosen Comey beforehand to meet Trump alone to discuss an important matter. So, after permission is granted and his colleagues leave the room, Comey begins to summarise “the allegation in the dossier that he [Trump] had been with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel in 2013 and that the Russians had filmed the episode. I didn’t mention one particular allegation in the dossier — that he was having the prostitutes urinate on each other on the very bed President Obama and First Lady had once slept in as a way of soiling the bed ... Before I finished, Trump interrupted sharply, with a dismissive tone. He was eager to protest that allegations weren’t true.”

Trump denied, asking whether he seemed like a guy who needed the services of prostitutes. He then began discussing cases where women had accused him of sexual assault.

“As he began to grow more defensive and conversation teetered toward disaster, on instinct, I pulled out the tool from my bag: ‘We are not investigating you sir.’ That seemed to quiet him.”

Comey served as director of the FBI from 2013 to 2017, appointed to the post by then president Obama. He had previously served as US attorney for the southern district of New York and as US deputy attorney-general in the administration of George W. Bush. From prosecuting the mafia to helping change the Bush administration’s policies on torture and electronic surveillance, overseeing the Clinton email investigation as well as ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, Comey has been involved in some of the most consequential cases and policies in recent US history. In his position as assistant attorney-general in the Bush administration, Comey claims he had played a crucial role in bringing to an end the immediate post-9/11 practices of aggressive surveillance and torture, both of which he justifiably describes as illegal.

The issue was, essentially, that both the White House and important elements of the intelligence community wanted Comey — who was acting as attorney-general when John Ashcroft was in hospital because he was unwell — to certify that the Department of Justice (DoJ) regarded certain aggressive surveillance practices as legal. The DoJ’s career staff disagreed and Comey refused to overrule them — first at a dramatic White House meeting and then later at an even more dramatic hospital encounter when he raced to Ashcroft’s bedside to prevent then vice-president Dick Cheney and his allies from prevailing on the ailing attorney-general.

I stared again at the soft white pouches under his expressionless blue eyes. I remember thinking in that moment that the president doesn’t understand the FBI’s role in American life or care about what the people there spent 40 years building. Not at all. — Excerpt from the book

Traditionally, the FBI is said to have enjoyed an unusually large degree of institutional autonomy all through its history. The legendary J. Edgar Hoover had run the FBI for almost 48 years and was said have gone through “a mix of political savvy and implicit and explicit blackmail.”

Interestingly, when Hoover died, former president Richard Nixon is believed to have tried to assert his authority over the bureau. In the process he annoyed the then FBI associate director Mark Felt, compelling Felt to become the Watergate-era source, “Deep Throat” (the main source of The Washington Post’s journalist Bob Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein) who helped bring down the president.

The post-Watergate congressional investigations into Nixon’s abuses of power is said to have further insulated the FBI from direct political control.

Comey’s refusal to back down when Trump urged him to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and to bring the entire Russia inquiry to a premature conclusion is being seen as an attempt by the then FBI director at keeping the independence of his organisation from being compromised. His dislike of the president appears to stem from this blatant attempt of the latter to blackmail him into pledging his loyalty to the person of the president.

Here is what Comey says in his telling epilogue of the book: “Donald Trump’s presidency threatens much of what is good in this nation. We all bear the responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election and our country is paying a high price: the president is unethical and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty. We are fortunate some ethical leaders have chosen to serve and stay at senior levels of government, but they cannot prevent all of the damage from the forest fire that is the Trump presidency. Their task is to try to contain it.”

The reviewer is former resident editor Dawn Islamabad

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership
By James Comey
Flatiron, US
ISBN: 978-1250192455
312pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 8th, 2018