What causes the corrosion of Americans’ faith in our system of government? There are many culprits, but one is the pervasive sense that there are two sets of rules in our country: one for the elites, and one for the rest of us.
That cynicism got a boost recently with the release of an inspector general’s report on the behavior of former FBI chief James Comey, including a criminal referral — along with the simultaneous announcement that the government would let Comey off the hook.
Two years ago, the Department of Justice initiated an IG probe to investigate Comey’s conduct with information he took home with him and then gave to others.
Comey treated public documents, memos of his meetings with President Trump, as his personal property — and used them to advance his political goals. Some of these memos contained classified information, the IG found.
Obviously an FBI chief with years in the system is well aware about the rules regarding documents. But when he left the bureau, Comey kept the documents and, in fact, declined to even disclose their existence to the FBI.
Comey gave the memos to a friend who dutifully leaked them to The New York Times. Mr. Comey wanted, the IG said, to “achieve a personally desired outcome” — a special counsel to investigate the president. That outcome was, of course, achieved.
Perhaps Attorney General William Barr considered the offense a minor one, or concluded prosecution would be unsuccessful.
It is critical that powerful figures in the intelligence community, with their access to privileged information, not misuse their positions to promote themselves and advance political aims. That can quickly undermine our system of self-government.
“By not safeguarding sensitive information obtained during the course of his FBI employment, and by using it to create public pressure for official action, Comey set a dangerous example for the over 35,000 current FBI employees, and the many thousands more former FBI employees, who similarly have access to or knowledge of non-public information,” the IG said.
Certainly less rich and powerful figures have been harshly punished for disclosing sensitive information. But the Justice Department, the report says, could not determine whether Comey “knew and intended to violate laws on handling classified information.”
That seems puzzling. Comey, after all, had spent years in government.
Comey has enjoyed immense power through his government positions over the years, which undoubtedly helped him thrive in the private sector as well. When President Obama appointed him FBI director in 2013, Comey disclosed his net worth as more than $11 million. He has sold a $2.5-million mansion in Connecticut since then and may have made millions of dollars off a book.
In return for their power and riches, political appointees at the highest levels of our government should be held to exceptionally high standards. They should refrain from weaponizing government against those they consider their political opponents. They should, at the very least, not be held to a lower standard than others.
This editorial first appeared in the Providence Journal.