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Breaking the rules

James Comey poses for photographs as he arrives to speak about his new book at a Barnes & Noble in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


Breaking the rules

Jim Comey’s disregard for FBI norms shows he doesn’t have ‘the right stuff’

Jim Comey’s A Higher Loyalty is one of the most reviewed books in recent years. Pundits, political scientists, and psychologists have all weighed in. But one group has been mostly silent: Comey’s fellow FBI agents and leaders.

I know from my 20 years in the bureau that it has a distinctive culture with a firmly established set of ethics, policies, and practices. The FBI summarizes those values with a helpful acronym, “FBI”: Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity. These ingredients are “the right stuff” for an FBI agent.

Like the test pilots Tom Wolfe wrote about in The Right Stuff, FBI agents control their emotions, put aside self-interest, and don’t crack under pressure. An FBI agent, like Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, may crash his jet, but even if ejected midmission with his helmet on fire from vicious attacks, he still manages to float to earth, pack his chute, and walk upright, as he’s been trained.

Here, based on my reading of A Higher Loyalty, are eight FBI right stuff rules that Comey broke.

FBI Rule 1: Good agents serve the country, not themselves. They avoid self-serving statements. Comey writes that a free weekly Richmond newspaper “put a picture of me on its cover, calling me ‘One of the Good Guys.’” He writes, “One New York journalist captured the views of many of my colleagues when he wrote a piece titled ‘Mr. Comey Goes to Washington.’” We also learn that Comey “never cut the line” in the FBI headquarters cafeteria, although as director he could have, and that Donald Trump “said more nice things about me. … He thought very highly of me and heard great things, that the people of the FBI really like me.”

Comey shows himself to be like Sally Field at the Oscars saying, “You like me!” FBI agents should not act like high-school students signing yearbooks.

FBI Rule 2: Since investigations can change in an instant as new information appears, FBI agents do not comment publicly about cases. An investigative team is always just one email click, one subpoena return, one internet hit, one search warrant, one wiretap intercept from apparent innocence becoming apparent guilt, or vice versa. Comey’s job during the Hillary email investigation was to be silent during the investigation, pass on results to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, then follow its lead. FBI agents let the wheels of justice grind at their own pace: They do not declare the subjects of investigation innocent or guilty.

Nevertheless, on July 5, 2016, Comey disregarded a century of precedents and announced he was closing the Hillary Clinton email investigation without recommending prosecution. Then, in early October 2016, Comey learned of “hundreds of thousands” of new emails found on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, the husband of Clinton’s top aide, Huma Abedin. This was the sort of development an FBI director with the right stuff should have anticipated.

FBI Rule 3: Good FBI agents recuse themselves from matters involving a conflict of interest and do not act politically. Comey allowed FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to participate in the Clinton case though McCabe’s wife had received major contributions for her 2015 Virginia Senate campaign from a top Clinton ally. Two months before interviewing Clinton, Comey told McCabe to begin drafting a statement announcing the FBI wouldn’t recommend prosecution. Comey also undermined FBI independence when he agreed to use Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s scripted term and refer to the Clinton case as a “matter,” not an “investigation.”

After learning of the Weiner emails in early October 2016, Comey did nothing until the FBI team investigating Clinton forced his hand on Oct. 27, by pushing for action and a search warrant. Comey realized the news would get out: On Oct. 28, 11 days before the election, he announced he had been premature in closing the investigation. Then, two days before the election, Comey made another premature announcement about the emails, telling Congress that an FBI review of the new ones would not change his previous recommendation of “no prosecution” for Clinton—even though the review was still going on.

Andrew Harrer/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

Trump with Comey at the White House (Andrew Harrer/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

FBI Rule 4: FBI agents with the right stuff listen more than they talk. Comey frets over Trump speaking “an overwhelming amount of the time” during their meetings—but that’s exactly what FBI agents want: Let the subjects talk. The more they talk, the more we learn. Comey also complains that during their 80-minute private dinner, Trump “asked very few questions that might prompt a discussion,” but he then lists seven open-ended questions Trump asked, including: “What do you want to do?” and “What are your thoughts?”

A good agent listens, then asks clarifying questions—and Comey certainly should have done that at least twice. When Trump requested loyalty, Comey should’ve asked, “Mr. President, when you say you expect loyalty, exactly what are you asking of me?” When Trump reportedly asked him to drop an examination of Michael Flynn’s conduct, Comey should have asked, “Sir, let what go? Are you talking about his contacts with the Russian ambassador or his lying to FBI agents about it? One is a crime and one isn’t.” Trump’s answer to those questions would have been the “make or break” on an obstruction case. Instead, Comey agreed that Flynn was a good guy.

FBI Rule 5: An FBI agent with the right stuff does not make catty remarks. In A Higher Loyalty, Comey said he told Barack Obama after Donald Trump’s victory, “I dread the next four years.” FBI agents, even if they disagree with a president’s policies, refer to him as “my president” and never disparage an incoming president, especially when talking to a leader from the opposing party. Comey writes about fighting bullies his entire life and regretting being a bully in college—but he makes remarks about Trump’s face and clothing. He stoops to the “hand-to-genital-size” formula Trump disgracefully used on the campaign trail—noting his hand was bigger.

FBI Rule 6: Good FBI agents are precise in their reporting. Comey writes that his White House dinner with Trump began with them “four feet apart” at a dinner table, but moments later (after Trump asked him for “loyalty”) Comey was suddenly “inches from the president, staring him directly in the face.” On May 10, 2017, one day after Comey was fired, his goodbye letter was circulated to FBI employees on the bureau’s email system—but he now claims his testimony to the Senate a month later was his chance to say goodbye, something “President Trump did not have the grace or charity of spirit to allow me to do.”

Comey in A Higher Loyalty wrote Trump “gave me the sense he was defending himself to me.” Agents are not mind readers. They should only report what they heard. They should be like Jack Webb in Dragnet: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Susan Walsh/AP

Copies of Comey’s memos (Susan Walsh/AP)

FBI Rule 7: Any information obtained in the scope and course of FBI employment, or any document prepared in connection with bureau duties, belongs to the FBI and must be submitted into bureau repositories. Classified documents must be secured in FBI space. Any classified documents an agent discovers in his possession upon separation from bureau employment must be promptly returned. Comey reports that he made memos of his FBI-related conversations with Trump in 2017. He “shared” them with FBI leaders (including his chief of staff, Jim Rybicki) and “locked up at home” a paper copy. Comey called the memos personal property and likened them to a diary—but four of the memos the Department of Justice (DOJ) released to Congress in April contain classified information that cannot be declassified until the year 2042.

Particularly important is the Jan. 6, 2017, memo he pasted into an email shared with Rybicki, McCabe, and FBI legal counsel Jim Baker on the FBI’s classified email server. Comey used his power as FBI director to classify the entire email “Secret,” then failed to mark properly which portions of the document were classified, in keeping with FBI policy and annual refresher training. On April 19, 2018, prior to releasing the email, the DOJ determined three of the eight paragraphs in that memo also contained classified information that cannot be declassified for another 24 years.

If Comey copied and maintained classified information in his home after he separated from government service on May 9, 2017, he may face criminal liability for holding on to memos containing classified information. Comey told Trump that prosecuting a “leaker of classified information … would serve as an important deterrence signal.” If Comey leaked such information to the media, he has condemned himself.

FBI Rule 8: When an FBI agent may have to testify about something he witnesses, he describes what he saw in an investigative report (not an informal email, memo, or personal “diary”). He places his notes within a special envelope and submits them within five business days into FBI record systems to establish, among other things, a chain of custody for trial. Above all, FBI agents with the right stuff don’t leak materials and make no pretrial comments on pending matters. If Comey understood that he might be called on someday to testify about his meeting with Trump concerning the Steele dossier, Russian prostitutes, etc., he needed to write an FD-302 report, not an email. This is basic procedure taught in new agent training.

When President Trump reportedly requested loyalty, Comey said he did not “do sneaky things. I don’t leak. I don’t do weasel moves.” Months later Comey leaked a memo of his meeting with Trump to the press. Knowing he is likely to be a key witness in the Mueller investigation, Comey has brought out his book and gone on a media tour while the investigation is still pending.

—The views and opinions expressed above are strictly those of the author and not of the FBI or any other federal agency


  • JOHN B STONE DMIN's picture
    Posted: Thu, 05/10/2018 01:52 pm

    Thank you-your report was refreshing.  

  • E Cole
    Posted: Thu, 05/10/2018 09:22 pm

    I agree the Comey book shouldn’t have been written, but this article strikes me as being written from an extremely partisan point of view by someone who felt he was comfortably preaching to the choir. Maybe we need to review some rules of journalism.

  • Jeff Grubbs
    Posted: Sat, 05/12/2018 06:08 pm

    E Cole.  I don't see the "extremely partisan point of view" from the writer.  What he brings out seems to be a clear review of Comey's previous known comments which show Comey can't be trusted to speak the truth.

  • 4Aslan
    Posted: Tue, 11/06/2018 03:51 pm

    I echo your note that Long seems partisan in his perspective. It seemed to me that the under-current of the Article was that of frustration for the actions Comey took.

    I don't think Comey himself is looking to affirm that he is either "The Right Stuff" or that he himself is Thee Higher Loyalty. He taks time to talk about his failutes and cowardice in the book. However, the contrast that the book draws out is the remarkable contrast that the current President had from someone that has a higher loyalty. 

    I just wanted to affirm that Long felt to have made up his decisions on Comey before he read the book. It was less of a Review of the Book and more about critical political moves that Comey made during his time as the CIA Director. For instance, there are many things in this book worth noting: That Comey shows courage in exposing his lack of character and character flaws that he has learned from. Also, Long, does not engage with the massive complexities that would be required in dealing with our President. He is not willing to accept some of the questions that Long makes so clear. He rejects clarity quickly and is prone to denegrate and react. It is insincere in the article to make it seem so simple what Comey should have stated to President Trump (especially when Comey himself spoke to being stunned and saying that his response was “an act of cowardice”). How many of us act similalry and regret clarity and courage later on after we are engaging complicated scenarios. I think Long sees this just by realizing what is at stake if Comey had reacted the way that he did: that President Trump is incredibly nuanced and gifted in what he says and doesn’t say in meetings like this. 


  • Wayne Asbury
    Posted: Thu, 05/17/2018 10:06 pm

    I just finished listening to this book, and it is one of the most interesting books I've read or rather in this case heard. One thing this review and many other reviews fail to mention is that a lot of the book is not even about President Trump. I hesitated to buy this book because I was afraid it would just be a tell-all-Trump-bash-fest, which it isn't.  One thing Mr Comey said that I can identify with is how he loves his country too much to wish failure on it's current President. The author of this review brings up several valid points that are worthy of discussion, but his personal dislike for Mr Comey comes through too loudly.  I would urge World members to read the entire book for themselves before they discount it completely.