Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

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I have recently read James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”—and unlike my last excursion into “Trump literature”, I find this book worth the reader’s time.

Above all, it provides a very important message on leadership, in particular in the “Author’s note”*, including the value of ethics, humility, the willingness to be open to input from others, …—and how such characteristics are all too often missing. Indeed, their weaknesses in such areas strongly contributed to my own feeling that the choice between Hillary and Trump was between two of the worst (realistically electable) candidates on record. (Cf. e.g. [1].)

*For those who do not want to read the book as a whole, do go by a bookstore and just read this part.

As a whole, the book is engaging with many interesting discussions of stations of his life. Unfortunately, parts are poorly written* and/or formulaic, as seen e.g. by how again and again a short paragraph is spent on describing someone and then spending just a few paragraphs on interactions with that someone, leading to situations where the description is too short to bring any value to the text and making it self redundant—these should either have been left out or expanded to such a point that they would have brought something to the context. This type of description does not appear aimed at actually bringing information to the text, but rather at “human interest” or similar cheap entertainment. To boot, they are potentially dangerous by giving his abbreviated view of someone else.

*Possibly ghost written: Apart from the high proportion of ghost-written works, the text often seems too polished (but not in a good way) and (again) formulaic for this to be the work of someone who is not simultaneously a professional writer, lacking in artistic drive, and not having a true connection to the material.

For the below items on and around the book, I will largely assume that the text is true or close to true. However, I stress that, as with any such text, warnings have to be raised with regard to its accuracy and fairness, e.g. due to memory lapses, subjective estimates, misunderstandings, and other human weaknesses. Worse, a text of this type and by an author coming from such hot weather could easily be an apologia or an attempt to position the author for a political career (see excursion at the end). To the degree that the text is not true, the items can need corresponding adjustment.

  1. A particular disturbing aspect is the great influence of politics (be it public or interpersonal/office politics) on his work and the maneuvering and compromises that were needed. This theme recurs through-out the book, including e.g. how to handle matters like the investigations of Martha Stewart and Hillary Clinton, or how to handle pressure from people in the White House (this not restricted to Trump, specifically, or to members of his team).

    I have already contemplated that some parts of law enforcement might need its own branch or to become a part of the judicial branch, rather than the executive. His problems point further in that direction.

  2. I found his discussions of the mafia and various interactions with its members highly interesting, through depicting a very different world and a very different sense of ethics than I have myself encountered. Even so there are at least some areas of overlap in attitude with e.g. politicians. (With a high degree of likelihood, Comey has deliberately written these parts as pieces of a greater puzzle and in a deliberate attempt to show such similarities.)
  3. Loyalty (as might be suspected from the title…) is another important theme, with the implicit question of what someone should be loyal towards. Comey seems to focus on higher ideals in the general area of truth, justice, and whatnot (which I consider highly appropriate for someone in his shoes); Trump wanted personal loyalty towards himself; others wanted loyalty towards some cause (e.g. national security in the wake of 9-11); others might have* wanted loyalty towards a particular institution or his subordinates; …

    *I do not recall whether this appears in the book; however, it is a quite common phenomenon.

    Loyalty is something that we do well to think hard on: What should we be loyal towards and why? A good example is national loyalty, where people who have sided against their countries have historically been among the worst condemned and/or punished—but why? Should we not rather side with those who share our ideals, plans, visions, … than with our country when they conflict? (This especially since the “country” often amounts to nothing more than the opinion of the country’s current leaders.) Similarly, should we not, in an argument, side with those in the right over those in our family? Etc.

    An oddity is his discussion with Trump, where he consents to give “honest loyalty”: In the context, Comey might have meant “loyal honesty” or “loyalty to truth”, but that is not what he actually, by his own depiction, agreed to. He seems to believe that he dodged a bullet and managed to avoid promising loyalty without upsetting Trump. However, the only reasonable reading of the text is that he did explicitly promise loyalty, the most reasonable involves loyalty towards Trump (as per Trump’s request), and it would be highly surprising if that is not the message Trump took home. Many less egocentric people than Trump would have been upset when this loyalty failed to materialize. The right thing to do would have been to turn Trump down without any possibility of a misunderstanding, or, on the outside, find a way to dodge giving an answer entirely, e.g. by a change of topic. (However, I stress that I have great understanding for someone who does not think sufficiently fast on his feet in a stressful situation.)

  4. Some parts of the book appear a little too self-congratulatory or conceited, especially with regard to his relationships with his subordinates, their feelings towards him, his effect on them.

    Judging such things correctly is extremely hard, and that a boss thinks that he is a beloved source of inspiration does not automatically make him so. Even should he be correct in his assessment (by no means impossible), it would be better to play it down.

  5. An interesting topic is lying under oath, during an investigation, whatnot, which is a recurring theme of the book, albeit always with a simplistic “it’s wrong” as the message:

    Many jurisdictions, including the U.S.*, contain some provisions to limit the requirement to testify, e.g. when self-incrimination is involved or when incrimination of family members could occur. Outside these narrow exceptions there is usually a blanket obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Over the years, I have grown increasingly skeptical whether this is sensible from a “Rechtsstaat” point of view, and I consider it better that anyone acting in a private** capacity would have the right to refuse a statement at will, irrespective of e.g. self-incrimination. Further, there must even be some*** room for legally allowed lying when the witness is also the accused/suspect, especially in those circumstance where refusing the answer could be seen as admitting guilt. Consider, as an extreme example, the question “Did you kill the victim?”, the reply “I refuse to answer!”, and the impression left on the jury.

    *In the following, I discuss the topic in general. I have not studied the exact rules in the U.S., specifically, and I do not rule out that parts of what I say has been implemented.

    **As opposed to e.g. in the capacity of an elected official, a CEO, whatnot, possibly even as a regular employee.

    ***Exactly how much, I leave unstated. A blanket allowance is likely overkill. Lying on behalf of someone else is not included; however, there might be situations when even this might be sufficiently reasonable to warrant a legal exception. (Consider e.g. the question “Is your best friend since Kindergarten a Jew?” posed in Nazi-Germany: “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” would hardly have been believed.)

    The difference between lying or refusing a statement on behalf of one self and on behalf of another party should not be understated. Failing to make this differentiation taints some of Comey’s comparisons.

  6. His assessment of Trump as e.g. an incompetent leader is true from one perspective, but not necessarily from all. If we look at the situation from the view point of the led, he does not appear to do well; by implication, he is a poor leader. If we look at the situation from Trump’s perspective, things might be very different*: What are his goals and how well does he reach them? Considering his success at gaining power, he is certainly not incompetent** (but still poor) as a leader. I strongly suspect that Trump is merely continuing practices that have worked well for him in the past—even bringing him the presidency…

    *Looking e.g. at his interactions with Comey, as described by Comey, it is clear that he is attempting something that would weaken the separation of powers within the executive branch as well as the integrity of the FBI. However, he is also doing something that might have been good for himself. Notably, very many would have been swayed to do the wrong thing in Comey’s shoes, being (or appearing to be) implicitly offered the keys to the kingdom.

    **With some reservations for what baseline is used in the comparison. For instance, the average Bundesliga player is extremely competent at soccer by any mortal measure—but that does not mean that he is World Cup material. Similarly, of those who do go to the World Cup, only a fraction make the honorary all-star team.

    In addition, we have to consider that aspects of leadership like e.g. humility and integrity are means to an end, not the end it self. They are needed because it is almost impossible to be and remain a good leader without them. However, they do not automatically make someone a good leader, because this also requires making the right decisions and being able to enforce these decisions. It is also not a perfect certainty that someone without them will be a poor leader—just an overwhelming probability. Now, I very seriously doubt that Trump will get an A+ through such aspects when his presidency is eventually summarized; however, as for now I still remain with my thumb angled slightly upwards when looking at actual policy until now*. More importantly, when judging whether someone is a good or poor leader, in general, it is dangerous to look just at humility et co.—the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    *With reservations for the results of his tax reform: A tax reform was needed, but I have serious doubts as to the one that took place, and it could turn out to be Trump’s biggest screw-up, just like ObamaCare turned out to be Obama’s.

  7. A few areas where Comey loses credibility include diversity*/PC nonsense, including abuse of “they”** as a generic singular, and his disregard for citizens’ rights with regard to surveillance and the like.

    *While some degree of diversity can be good in the FBI, in order to facilitate its work with e.g. immigrants, Comey seems to belong to the more naive brigade that sees diversity (in the racial, cultural, whatnot sense) as a good in its own or even as a fairness issue. Down that road lies affirmative action and other destructive measures: Pick the best person for the job, irrespective of sex, color, and creed, and no-one has a legitimate cause to complain.

    **I have a post in planning on this type of abuse, where I discuss why this is a bad thing and some alternatives. In this specific context, I note that a person of his level of education and accomplishment should know the rules of grammar better, implying that, almost certainly, this has been done deliberately in the highly offensive PC manner.

    To expand on the latter: While he claims to try to see various sides of the issue, he is clearly very set on the advantages that surveillance, lack of encryption, whatnot can bring to law enforcement. He does not appear to understand the technical risks involved and how opening doors for the government also opens doors for criminals; he fails to consider that we must always have regulations based on the assumption of an evil government, because a good government today does not imply a good government tomorrow; that e.g. anti-encryption regulation will hit “small timers” much worse than “big timers”, who have the resources to work around such regulations. Cf. e.g. my previous post.

    Other related issues already discussed on this blog include the uselessness of digital evidence, the danger of tools like the “Bundestrojaner” eventually being used to plant evidence, the risk of legally gathered data (accidentally or through intrusions, cf. my previous post) moving outside the control of the government, …

    An interesting point is his claim that the surveillance of many big timers only became hard in the wake of the Snowden revelations (quite contrary to my expectations). This, however, is not a sign e.g. that Apple should not give end users means of encryption—just a sign that these big timers used to be highly naive about their vulnerability to surveillance when not taking counter-measures: They are not doing things post-Snowden that they could not have done pre-Snowden. It is not even that strong an argument for e.g. encryption backdoors in standard software, because these would simply lead to competing, possible illegal or black-market, products without backdoors that big timers would use—while the small timers, again, are the ones left vulnerable…

Excursion on Comey as President:
On several occasions through the book, I considered the outside possibility that it was intended as a maneuver towards a presidential (or other high position) candidacy of Comey’s own. I note in particular the combination of stress on ethical leadership and other characteristics with how he portrays himself to have them and Trump to not have them.* From another perspective, consider how satisfying it might be for him, should he win an election over the same President that fired him…

*He is probably mostly correct about Trump; whether he is correct about himself, that I cannot judge.

Would Comey be a good choice? This depends to a large part on how serious he is about what he says on leadership and how well his self-portrayal matches reality. If he scores highly in these regards, then he could be a very interesting candidate. Unfortunately, I some fears on matters of policy (cf. the last item above), and I also have some doubts about his suitability in terms of experience: Being head of the FBI or the Deputy Attorney General are not bad qualifications; however, a few terms as e.g. governor would have been much better. (But they could be very valuable for some other position.) Either which way, he would be bound to be better than either of Hillary and Trump.

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Written by michaeleriksson

May 6, 2018 at 1:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] A recent post ([1]) of mine contained a brief discussion of lies under oath and similar circumstances*, especially with the claim that the accused** should be given some leeway to lie, not just to refuse a statement. Having run this through my head a few times since then, especially while writing [2], a few additional points: […]


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