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Institutional corruption

Here’s a passage from The Atlantic:

“I’m really concerned… about the constant criticism and accusation from the president of the United States that the FBI and Department of Justice [are] corrupt,” James Comey said this June in an interview with The Atlantic at the 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival. The former FBI director goes on to explain how President Trump’s “attacks on the rule of law” have the effect of eroding trust in these institutions, which are undergirded by ideals of nonpartisanship and accountability.

I just don’t know where to start when I read something like this. Should I start with, “I don’t like Trump either”? Or perhaps: “If Trump would just tone it down a little, maybe more people would listen to him.” The extraordinary presumption on Comey’s part is that the FBI deserves our confidence, that it is not corrupt, that it is in fact undergirded by ideals of nonpartisanship and accountability.

I want to know how anyone can think that. Again, how can anyone think that? Comey is a smart man. I would not say he has finely tuned political instincts, but man, can someone who has served as long as he has in Washington possibly be that deluded? How does he sell himself these falsehoods, in light of the FBI’s history? Do you just tell yourself constantly that all those people out in the provinces don’t have it right? Can the DC bubble be that impervious to reality? Yes, that’s why they call it a bubble.

Here is a thought on matters of institutional history. If a law enforcement organization participates in a crime, such as the assassination of a president in order to carry out a coup, and it helps the new ruler make the coup a success, the organization is corrupt. Moreover, it remains corrupt until it acknowledges what it has done. It cannot let fifty-five years pass, then say, “Well, that’s water under the bridge.” It cannot excuse itself because different people have taken charge. It is responsible for what it has done, because like people, institutions live in time. Past behavior matters.

The FBI has done nothing of the sort. In fact, it denies it has ever done anything wrong. It is the guardian of the rule of law, according to its former leader, James Comey. To attack the institution, according to Comey, is to attack the rule of law. This kind of statement – the idea that we must honor a corrupt organization, because to speak ill of it reduces trust in its purity – compounds the original corruption. It suggests that what is rotten is actually healthy. A more dishonest, damaging statement about ideals of law in our democracy is not possible.

Organizational culture and the FBI

Human organizations share certain common qualities related to their social nature. They all have a history, a distinct culture, a way of treating people. These qualities apply whether the organization is a family, a volunteer group, a business corporation, a church, a college, a political advocacy group, a civic organization, a professional group, or a government agency. I put government agency at the end of the list, because I want to elaborate a bit on my observations about the FBI.

Like other groups, the FBI has a history and a culture. More than we care to think, an organization’s culture affects how it treats people, group members as well as non-members. Culture strongly affects members’ attitudes and values, as well as general conceptions about why they belong in the first place. These latter considerations affect motivations for belonging and participation, as membership is almost always voluntary. If you want to belong to a group, you may have to prove yourself worthy or eligible for membership. If you want to leave a group, you simply cease participation.

Why do I make these remarks as we ask whether we ought to trust and respect the FBI? FBI agents see themselves as part of an elite force of law enforcement specialists, guardians of the law in our democratic republic. Its leaders and former leaders do not apprehend that many – certainly not all, but many – citizens regard the FBI as a threat that subverts our republic, all the more fearsome because the institution lies within our borders. Rooted in our legal system, people outside the organization have no effective means to counter its illegal behavior.

Most disturbing of all, it exercises its authority with virtually no constraints. That by itself violates all the fundamental principles of our constitutional system, which rest on the idea that no power shall be unchecked. The FBI values its independence: that is, it does not want to operate under anyone’s authority, including the president’s, the attorney general’s, and certainly not under any supervision from the judiciary. It answers only to itself, and that is exactly what insiders want. What do the rest of us want? It does not matter.