A Higher Loyalty

by James Comey

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: April 24, 2024
A Higher Loyalty
A Higher Loyalty

Explore key insights from "A Higher Loyalty" - dive into the FBI's independence, Comey's leadership, and the challenges of speaking truth to power. Discover how personal experiences shape professional ethics. Get actionable questions to apply the book's lessons.

What are the big ideas?

FBI’s Struggle with Independence

The FBI, under James Comey, faced challenges maintaining its independence due to intense political pressure during the 2016 election, reflecting the complexities involved in keeping a crucial law enforcement body separate from political interference.

The FBI’s Role in High-Stakes Political Environments

James Comey’s leadership highlights the FBI’s critical involvement in sensitive political matters, like the Clinton email investigation and Russian election interference, showcasing the agency's evolving role in political landscapes.

Personal Integrity in Leadership

Comey emphasizes the importance of integrity in leadership, both in law enforcement and beyond, showing how personal ethos guides decision-making processes even under extreme pressure.

Challenges of Speaking Truth to Power

Comey’s experiences detail the difficulties and importance of presenting unbiased facts in politically charged environments, particularly during congressional briefings and interactions with high-ranking officials.

Impact of Personal Experiences on Professional Life

The book ties Comey’s early encounters with crime and bullying to his career choices and leadership style, demonstrating the profound influence of personal history on professional ethics and actions.

Crisis Moments Leading to Institutional Changes

Comey's handling of the Stellar Wind program and his refusal to align with the White House on its legality highlight how pivotal moments can redefine the course of an institution’s role and operations.

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FBI’s Struggle with Independence

The FBI's independence is critical to its ability to effectively carry out its mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution. However, the FBI under James Comey faced immense political pressure during the tumultuous 2016 election, which threatened to undermine this independence.

The FBI found itself caught in the middle of intense partisan conflict, with both Republicans and Democrats seeking to leverage the Bureau's actions for their own political gain. This placed an enormous strain on the career professionals within the FBI, who were constantly having their motives and integrity questioned.

Comey recognized the importance of the FBI remaining apolitical and not being seen as beholden to any particular political party or administration. However, the highly charged political environment made this increasingly difficult, as the FBI's actions were scrutinized and criticized through a partisan lens.

The challenge of maintaining the FBI's separation from politics is a complex and ongoing issue. It requires the Bureau to steadfastly uphold its commitment to finding the truth, regardless of the political consequences. Comey's experience underscores the delicate balance the FBI must strike in order to fulfill its vital role in American democracy.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about the FBI's struggle to maintain independence during the 2016 election:

  • The FBI, under Comey's leadership, was "caught in the middle of the partisan bile" surrounding the 2016 election, as both Republicans and Democrats wanted the FBI to validate their political interests rather than focus on the truth.

  • Comey explains that the FBI is "meant to stand apart from politics" and "can't be on anyone's side except the country's." However, in the "capital city, and a country, torn by partisan conflict, the FBI's separateness was both alien and confusing, and constantly tested."

  • This placed an "enormous strain on career professionals in the agency, especially as their motives were routinely being questioned" due to the intense political pressure.

  • Comey describes congressional briefings on the 2016 Russian election interference as "even more vicious, with few willing, or able, to put aside their political interests to focus on the truth." Republicans wanted assurance the Russians didn't elect Trump, while Democrats wanted the opposite.

  • Comey states that the FBI's independence is "constantly tested" in a capital city and country "torn by partisan conflict," making the FBI's separateness from politics "both alien and confusing."

The key terms here are independence, political pressure, and partisan conflict, which illustrate the challenges the FBI faced in maintaining its role as a non-partisan law enforcement agency during the highly contentious 2016 election.

The FBI’s Role in High-Stakes Political Environments

The FBI plays a pivotal role in navigating high-stakes political environments. As the nation's premier law enforcement agency, the FBI is often thrust into the center of contentious political issues, tasked with investigating matters that can have significant implications for elected officials and the political process.

The experiences of former FBI Director James Comey illustrate this dynamic. Comey found himself at the heart of two of the most politically charged investigations in recent memory - the probe into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server and the inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. These cases highlighted the delicate balance the FBI must strike between upholding the law, maintaining political neutrality, and avoiding the appearance of partisanship.

Comey's leadership during these turbulent times underscores the evolving role of the FBI in the modern political landscape. The agency must navigate a complex web of partisan interests, public scrutiny, and the need to preserve the integrity of its investigations. This requires the FBI to cultivate a culture of truth-telling, transparency, and independence, even in the face of intense political pressure.

Ultimately, the FBI's involvement in high-stakes political matters underscores its critical function as a nonpartisan arbiter of justice, tasked with uncovering the facts and upholding the rule of law, regardless of the political implications. This role is essential for maintaining public trust in the democratic process and the institutions that safeguard it.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about the FBI's critical role in sensitive political matters:

  • Comey describes the FBI being "caught in the middle of the partisan bile" surrounding the 2016 election, as both Republicans and Democrats wanted the FBI to validate their political interests rather than focus on the truth.
  • Comey notes that the FBI's "separateness was both alien and confusing, and constantly tested" in the highly partisan political environment of Washington, D.C.
  • Comey recounts the FBI being "sucked into the election" starting in July 2015 with the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a personal email server, which became a "source of needless controversy" even when using terms like "criminal" and "investigation."
  • Comey describes the FBI then beginning an investigation in July 2016 into "whether there was a massive Russian effort to influence the presidential vote by hurting Clinton and helping elect Donald Trump."
  • Comey highlights the challenge of the FBI maintaining its independence and not being seen as partisan, as "members of the Bureau may have their own private political views, like anybody else."

These examples illustrate how the FBI under Comey's leadership found itself deeply involved in highly charged political matters surrounding the 2016 election, highlighting the evolving and complex role the agency plays in sensitive political environments.

Personal Integrity in Leadership

Personal Integrity is the foundation of effective leadership. A leader must have the courage and conviction to do what is right, even when it is difficult. This means being honest and transparent, and holding oneself and others accountable.

True leaders understand that ethical decision-making is not about finding the easy path, but about navigating complex situations with sound judgment. They are confident enough to be humble, recognizing their own limitations and seeking diverse perspectives to inform their choices.

This kind of integrity inspires trust and loyalty from those they lead. Employees are drawn to leaders who demonstrate kindness and toughness, who create an environment where people feel empowered to speak the truth and grow. In this way, integrity becomes a powerful motivator, driving individuals and organizations to reach new heights.

Ultimately, personal integrity is not just a lofty ideal, but a practical necessity for effective leadership. It is the foundation upon which leaders build lasting success and impact, guiding them through the challenges and pressures of their roles.

Here are specific examples from the context that illustrate the key insight of personal integrity in leadership:

  • Comey describes how ethical leaders "never ask for loyalty" - they instead offer "honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice." This contrasts with Trump's demand for "loyal[ty]" from Comey, which Comey saw as a sign that Trump "didn't understand leadership."

  • Comey notes that he felt compelled to document his interactions with Trump in memos, as he "couldn't trust this person to tell the truth about our conversations." This demonstrates Comey's commitment to maintaining integrity and an accurate record, even with the president.

  • Comey recounts how he burst into tears when having to make the difficult decision to remove his infant son Collin from life support. This shows Comey's personal integrity and emotional vulnerability, even in the face of immense tragedy.

  • As FBI Director, Comey emphasized the importance of "people of integrity and decency" as the kind of leaders he wanted to develop in the organization. He saw this as crucial for the FBI to fulfill its mission.

  • Comey describes how he aimed to "set an example" of ethical leadership on his first day as FBI Director, such as by wearing a blue shirt instead of the standard white, to signal a "different tone" from the previous leadership.

The key insight is that Comey viewed personal integrity as essential for effective and ethical leadership, both in his own conduct and in the leaders he sought to cultivate within the FBI. The examples illustrate how Comey's personal ethos guided his decision-making and actions, even in high-pressure situations.

Challenges of Speaking Truth to Power

Presenting unbiased facts in politically charged environments is immensely challenging, yet critically important. Government leaders and officials often have strong political agendas and biases, making it difficult to have open, honest dialogues focused on the truth.

Comey's experiences highlight the strain this places on career professionals tasked with informing and advising those in power. When testifying before Congress, Comey faced lawmakers more interested in scoring political points than understanding the facts. Similarly, his interactions with President-elect Trump revealed a leader more concerned with managing his public image than comprehending the gravity of the situation.

In these high-stakes settings, maintaining independence and objectivity is paramount, yet constantly tested. The FBI Director's 10-year term was designed to insulate the role from political influence, but the reality is that the Bureau inevitably gets "sucked into the partisan bile" of Washington. Navigating this minefield requires exceptional courage, integrity, and a steadfast commitment to serving the country, not any particular party or leader.

Ultimately, Comey's story underscores the vital importance of truth-telling, even in the face of intense political pressure. Leaders must be willing to present unvarnished facts, even when they are inconvenient or at odds with the preferred narratives of those in power. This is the only way to ensure sound decision-making and uphold the principles of democracy.

Here are key examples from the context that illustrate the challenges of speaking truth to power:

  • During the meeting with President-elect Trump and his team, Comey observed that they were more focused on "positioning these findings for maximum political advantage" rather than understanding the gravity of the Russian interference in the election. The Trump team debated how to "spin" the intelligence community's findings rather than engage with the substance.

  • Comey notes that this was very different from his experiences with Presidents Bush and Obama, who kept a clear separation between the intelligence community's role in providing facts and the White House's role in politics and messaging. The Trump team blurred this line.

  • When Comey later met one-on-one with President Obama, Obama demonstrated the ability to have a genuine two-way dialogue, "leveling the field to draw out perspectives different from his own." This allowed Comey to share his unvarnished views, even on sensitive topics like the impact of law enforcement on minority communities.

  • In contrast, Comey found it difficult to have a real discussion with President Trump, who made "constant assertions" rather than asking questions, making it hard for Comey to know if Trump was truly listening or just trying to push his own narrative.

The key insight is that presenting unbiased facts and truth can be challenging in politically charged environments, especially when dealing with leaders who are more focused on messaging and spin than understanding the substance. Comey's experiences highlight the importance of maintaining independence and objectivity, while also demonstrating the value of leaders who are willing to engage in genuine dialogue and consider perspectives different from their own.

Impact of Personal Experiences on Professional Life

Comey's early experiences with crime and bullying profoundly shaped his career choices and leadership style. These personal encounters instilled in him a deep commitment to justice and a keen understanding of the fragility of life.

Comey's brush with the "Ramsey Rapist" as a teenager made him acutely aware of the evil in the world. This terrifying experience also imbued him with a profound appreciation for the preciousness of life. This perspective would guide his later work in law enforcement, where he strived to protect the vulnerable and uphold the rule of law.

Similarly, Comey's exposure to bullying in his youth cultivated his empathy and emotional intelligence as a leader. He recognized the importance of creating an environment where people feel valued and supported, rather than one of fear and intimidation. This approach would become a hallmark of his leadership at the FBI.

Comey's personal history was not just a collection of traumatic events, but a formative influence that molded his professional ethics and actions. His early experiences taught him the true meaning of justice, the fragility of life, and the power of compassionate leadership. These lessons would become the foundation of his distinguished career in public service.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight about how personal experiences can impact one's professional life:

  • Comey's encounter with the "Ramsey Rapist" as a teenager had a profound impact on him, making him "think about him every night for at least five years" and sleep with a knife at hand for much longer. This early traumatic experience led him to reflect deeply on the meaning of life and what truly matters, shifting his focus from becoming a doctor to pursuing a career in law and justice.

  • Comey explains how the Ramsey Rapist experience "was, in its own way, also an incredible gift" that made him appreciate life as a "precious, delicate miracle" and notice the beauty of the world around him. This shift in perspective influenced his later approach to leadership, emphasizing the importance of humility and using one's abilities to help others.

  • The death of Comey's infant son Collin had a devastating impact, forcing him and his wife Patrice to make the difficult decision to remove Collin from life support. Comey describes this as an "indescribable grief" that taught him the brevity of life and the need to focus on what truly matters.

  • Comey's wife Patrice played a key role in shaping his leadership approach, repeatedly reminding him that "it's not about you" and helping him develop the emotional intelligence to consider others' perspectives. This insight stemmed from Patrice's own experiences and wisdom.

  • Comey's discussion with President Obama about the impact of law enforcement language on minority communities is another example of how personal experiences and perspectives can profoundly influence one's professional approach and decision-making.

Crisis Moments Leading to Institutional Changes

Pivotal moments can redefine an institution's role and operations. Comey's handling of the Stellar Wind surveillance program is a prime example.

When Comey refused to align with the White House on the program's legality, he stood firm against pressure from powerful figures like Vice President Cheney's counsel, David Addington. This crisis moment forced the administration to reckon with the program's dubious legal foundation.

Comey's principled stance ultimately led to changes in how the program was overseen and executed. It demonstrated how a single leader's commitment to upholding the law can reshape an institution's trajectory, even in the face of intense political pressure.

This episode highlights how critical junctures can compel institutions to reexamine their practices and priorities. By refusing to compromise his principles, Comey helped steer the government's counterterrorism efforts back towards legal and ethical boundaries. Such pivotal moments can be catalysts for meaningful institutional reform.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about how crisis moments can lead to institutional changes:

  • Comey's Handling of the Stellar Wind Program: When Comey was briefed on the highly classified Stellar Wind surveillance program, he realized it lacked a proper legal foundation. Despite pressure from Vice President Cheney's lawyer David Addington to keep the program secret, Comey insisted on informing the new Deputy Attorney General about the program's issues. This led to a confrontation with the White House and ultimately forced the administration to make changes to bring the program in line with the law.

  • Comey's Refusal to Align with the White House on Encryption: When Apple and Google announced plans to implement default encryption on their devices, Comey strongly disagreed, seeing it as undermining law enforcement's ability to access electronic devices. Comey's public stance put him at odds with the Obama administration, which was trying to balance privacy and security concerns. This crisis moment highlighted the tensions between tech companies, law enforcement, and the government, ultimately leading to ongoing debates about the appropriate balance.

These examples illustrate how Comey's principled stands during crisis moments, even when at odds with the White House, helped redefine the roles and operations of the FBI and the broader government's approach to issues like surveillance and encryption. Comey's actions in these cases demonstrate how individual leaders can shape the course of institutions during pivotal moments.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "A Higher Loyalty" that resonated with readers.

Ethical leaders do not run from criticism, especially self-criticism, and they don’t hide from uncomfortable questions. They welcome them.

True leaders possess the courage to confront their own shortcomings and acknowledge mistakes. They invite scrutiny and examination, recognizing that it is through self-reflection and openness to criticism that they can grow and improve. By embracing uncomfortable questions, they demonstrate a commitment to honesty, integrity, and continuous learning. This willingness to be vulnerable fosters trust and respect from others.

I know I can be wrong, even when I am certain I am right. Listening to others who disagree with me and are willing to criticize me is essential to piercing the seduction of certainty.

Humility is key to making informed decisions. Recognizing the possibility of error, even when convinced of being right, allows for openness to opposing views and constructive criticism. This willingness to listen and adapt helps to overcome the limitations of personal conviction and foster a more nuanced understanding.

Whenever I speak to young people, I suggest they do something that might seem a little odd: Close your eyes, I say. Sit there, and imagine you are at the end of your life. From that vantage point, the smoke of striving for recognition and wealth is cleared. Houses, cars, awards on the wall? Who cares? You are about to die. Who do you want to have been? I tell them that I hope some of them decide to have been people who used their abilities to help those who needed it—the weak, the struggling, the frightened, the bullied. Standing for something. Making a difference. That is true wealth.

At the end of one's life, material possessions and recognition become insignificant. What truly matters is the positive impact one has had on others, particularly those who are vulnerable or in need. It is through selfless actions and standing up for what is right that we can create lasting value and leave a meaningful legacy.

Comprehension Questions

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How well do you understand the key insights in "A Higher Loyalty"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. Why is it crucial for a federal investigative agency to maintain independence from political influences?
2. What are the consequences of a federal investigative agency being caught in the middle of partisan conflicts?
3. How does intense scrutiny and criticism through a partisan lens affect a federal investigative agency's operations?
4. What is the role of the FBI when participating in investigations with significant political implications?
5. How must the FBI maintain political neutrality during significant investigations?
6. What challenges does the FBI face when involved in politically sensitive cases?
7. How does the FBI's involvement in high-stakes political matters affect public trust in democratic institutions?
8. What role does personal integrity play in effective leadership?
9. How does ethical decision-making contribute to leadership?
10. Why is it important for leaders to recognize their own limitations and seek diverse perspectives?
11. In what ways can a leader's personal integrity motivate their team?
12. What practical benefits does personal integrity bring to a leadership role?
13. Why is it important to maintain independence and objectivity when presenting facts in a politically charged environment?
14. What challenges might a professional face when trying to present unbiased facts to leaders with strong political agendas?
15. How does a politically charged environment affect the ability of leaders to make sound decisions?
16. What are the consequences of failing to speak truth to power in high-stakes settings?
17. What qualities are essential for someone tasked with providing truthful information to those in power?
18. How can early encounters with crime shape a person's career and ethical stance?
19. In what ways can personal tragedies influence professional priorities and values?
20. How can early experiences with bullying affect leadership styles?
21. What can a leader's refusal to compromise their principles in a crisis moment lead to in terms of institutional operations?
22. How do critical junctures impact the trajectory of an institution?
23. What role does a single committed leader play during intense political or organizational pressures?

Action Questions

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"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "A Higher Loyalty". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How can you ensure that your decisions remain unbiased and free from external influences in environments of high conflict or pressure?
2. How can you promote nonpartisan decision-making in your own community or organization to ensure fairness and integrity in handling sensitive matters?
3. What steps can you take to reinforce your commitment to honesty and accountability in your leadership role?
4. How can you create an environment that promotes unbiased discussions despite differing political views?
5. How can reflecting on your past traumatic experiences help you redefine your goals and values in a way that aligns more closely with your current needs and aspirations?
6. In what ways can increased empathy and emotional intelligence, gained from dealing with life's trials, be leveraged to enhance your leadership style or team dynamics?
7. How can you adopt a principled stance to drive change within your organization during a critical decision-making moment?
8. What strategies can you employ to ensure legal and ethical boundaries are respected within your group or team, especially in high-pressure situations?

Chapter Notes


  • The FBI's Dilemma in a Partisan Environment: The FBI, under the directorship of James Comey, found itself caught in the middle of the partisan divide during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Bureau was tasked with investigating both Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server and the Russian interference in the election, which put it in a difficult position of trying to maintain its independence and focus on the truth, while navigating the political interests of both Republicans and Democrats.

  • The Strain on FBI Professionals: The partisan nature of the investigations and the constant questioning of the FBI's motives placed an enormous strain on the career professionals within the agency. They were expected to rise above the political fray and present their findings in a neutral manner, even as their actions were being scrutinized and criticized by both sides of the political spectrum.

  • The Importance of the FBI's Independence: The FBI is meant to stand apart from politics and focus on finding the truth, rather than aligning with any particular political party or ideology. The ten-year term for the FBI director was created by Congress to reinforce this independence, but in a highly polarized political environment, the FBI's separateness was seen as both alien and confusing.

  • The Challenges of Congressional Briefings: Appearing before members of Congress to provide briefings on the investigations was a difficult and disheartening experience for Comey and the FBI. The lawmakers often seemed more interested in scoring political points than in understanding the facts, and the discussions were frequently marked by partisan bickering and a lack of common ground.

  • Comey's Attempt to Lighten the Mood: In the face of the intense pressure and stress, Comey tried to lighten the mood during the ride to the Capitol by joking with the FBI's head of congressional affairs, Greg Brower. This brief moment of levity was a respite from the constant tension and uncertainty that characterized the FBI's involvement in the 2016 election.

  • The Evolving Nature of the FBI's Role: The FBI's involvement in the 2016 election was an "unfortunate, if unavoidable, situation" for the Bureau, as it found itself at the center of one of the most contentious and consequential elections in U.S. history. This experience would have a lasting impact on the FBI and its role in the political landscape.

1. The Life

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Mafia's Rules and Lies: The Mafia has a set of rules that members are expected to follow, such as no killing with explosives, no killing law enforcement, and no sleeping with another made man's wife. However, these rules are routinely violated, as the Mafia members see them as more like "rules against fighting in hockey" - on the books but still a regular feature of the game. The Mafia also has a culture of dishonesty, where members are allowed to lie to each other if it is necessary to lure them to their death.

  • The Author's Early Career and Motivations: The author, as a prosecutor, confronted the Mafia early in his career, which reinforced his belief that he had made the right career choice. The author chose a career in law enforcement because he believed it was the best way he could help other people, especially those suffering at the hands of the powerful, the crime bosses, and the bullies.

  • The Ramsey Rapist Incident: When the author was a high school senior, he had a life-altering experience when a gunman broke into his family's home, held the author and his brother at gunpoint, and terrorized them. This incident made the author realize the preciousness of life and the importance of using one's abilities to help those who are weak, struggling, frightened, or bullied.

  • The Influence of Reinhold Niebuhr: The author's encounter with the philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, while taking a religion course, had a significant impact on him. Niebuhr's views on the necessity of seeking justice in a flawed world, despite human limitations, led the author to conclude that a career in law, rather than medicine, would be the best way for him to make a difference.

2. This Thing of Ours

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The United States Attorney's Office in Manhattan is one of the largest and most well-regarded federal prosecutor's offices in the country. The author joined this office in 1987 and worked under the leadership of Rudy Giuliani, who was known for his confidence and brash style.

  • The author was inspired to become a federal prosecutor after witnessing a case against the Mafia boss Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno. The case involved the use of wiretaps and witness testimony to demonstrate Salerno's role as the boss of the Genovese crime family and his involvement in ordering violence and killings.

  • The author learned valuable lessons about leadership and work-life balance from an experienced lawyer named Richard L. Cates. Cates demonstrated kindness, toughness, confidence, humility, and a fierce commitment to protecting the weak from the strong.

  • As a federal prosecutor, the author investigated and tried a wide range of federal crimes, including drug dealing, bank robbery, and complex frauds. He also worked on a high-profile case against the Gambino crime family, which involved collaborating with other prosecutors like Patrick Fitzgerald and working with Mafia turncoats like Sammy "The Bull" Gravano and Francesco Marino Mannoia.

  • The Mafia's code of silence and loyalty was a key challenge in prosecuting these cases. Mafia members were forbidden from revealing their membership and were expected to remain loyal to the organization, even if it meant committing murder to protect the family's secrets.

  • Presenting Mafia killers as witnesses was a strategic decision to make the star witness, Sammy Gravano, more palatable to the jury. The author and his team wanted to ensure the jury would not be overly shocked or disturbed by the grim details of the Mafia's violence.

  • The author's work, along with that of many other investigators and prosecutors, helped to break the Mafia's grip on unions and significantly weaken the power of La Cosa Nostra in the United States and on both sides of the Atlantic. While there are still some groups claiming to be the Italian Mafia, they are a far cry from the organized crime families of the past.

3. The Bully

  • Bullies and Insecurity: Bullies are often driven by their own insecurities, using threats and intimidation to assert power over the weak. The author experienced this firsthand as a child, being targeted by bullies after moving from Yonkers, New York, to Allendale, New Jersey.

  • Importance of Supportive Figures: The author had several supportive figures in his life, including his parents, teachers, and a kind boss named Harry Howell, who helped him navigate the challenges of being bullied and provided positive role models.

  • Lessons from Bullying: The author's experiences with bullying taught him valuable lessons, such as the importance of resisting peer pressure, standing up for oneself, and not surrendering one's moral authority to the group.

  • Becoming a Better Person: The author's experiences as an outsider and a target of bullying ultimately made him a better person, instilling in him a lifelong hatred of bullies and a desire to help others who are being victimized.

  • Surrendering to the Group: The author's own experience of participating in bullying another student in college serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of surrendering one's moral judgment to the group, even when it goes against one's own principles.

  • Importance of Individuality: The author's mother's advice about not simply following the crowd, and the quote from Emerson about maintaining one's independence in the face of societal pressure, highlight the importance of maintaining one's individual identity and moral compass.

  • Lasting Impact of Bullying: The author's experiences with bullying had a profound and lasting impact on his life, shaping his values, career choices, and approach to dealing with power dynamics and threats.

4. Meaning

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Meaning and Transformation: The chapter opens with a quote from Hermann Hesse, emphasizing the idea that we can give meaning and transform any good or bad fortune that comes our way.

  • Influential Women Leaders: The author highlights two important women who were influential in his life and leadership development - Helen Fahey, the U.S. Attorney, and his wife, Patrice.

  • Helen Fahey's Confident and Humble Leadership: Fahey's confident and humble leadership style allowed the author to grow and succeed, even when he made mistakes. She prioritized the team's interests over her own reputation.

  • Patrice's Wisdom and Resilience: After the tragic loss of their son Collin, Patrice demonstrated remarkable wisdom and resilience. She decided to expose their older daughters to Collin's death, recognizing it as an important part of their grieving process.

  • Turning Grief into Purpose: Patrice channeled her grief over Collin's death into a nationwide campaign to change medical practices and save other babies' lives. This influenced the author's views on the purpose of the justice system.

  • Meaning in Suffering: The author learned from Patrice that there is meaning and purpose in not surrendering to loss, but instead working to ease the pain of others and ensure that something good comes from suffering.

  • Duty to Ensure Good Comes from Suffering: The author believes that our obligation is to ensure that something good comes from suffering, not to justify the loss, but to survive and thrive by channeling grief into purpose.

  • Unexpected Opportunity and Transition: When the author was called to return to New York as the U.S. Attorney after 9/11, it was an unexpected opportunity that required a difficult transition for his family, but one they were willing to make.

5. The Easy Lie

  • The Danger of Casual Lies: The chapter emphasizes how seemingly small and inconsequential lies can lead to a slippery slope of bigger and more consequential lies. The author's own experience with lying about playing basketball in college highlights how easy it is to fall into the habit of lying, and how it can erode one's moral compass over time.

  • The Importance of Protecting the Credibility of Institutions: The author recognizes the critical role that institutions like the Department of Justice play in maintaining the rule of law and public trust. He emphasizes the need to guard and protect the "reservoir of trust and credibility" built by those who have come before, and the danger of a single person's actions in undermining that foundation.

  • The Challenge of Proving Criminal Intent in Corporate Fraud Cases: The author contrasts the relative ease of prosecuting drug crimes, where the physical evidence is clear, with the difficulty of proving criminal intent in complex corporate fraud cases. He highlights the importance of electronic communications in providing the necessary evidence to overcome this challenge.

  • The Decision to Prosecute Martha Stewart: The author initially saw the Martha Stewart case as a distraction from more important work, but ultimately decided to prosecute her for lying to federal investigators. He recognized the importance of sending a message that lying in the justice system will not be tolerated, regardless of the individual's wealth or fame.

  • The Tension Between Political Loyalties and Institutional Integrity: The author's experience with the Valerie Plame investigation highlights the political pressures and partisan allegiances that can influence the administration of justice. He emphasizes the need to maintain the Department of Justice's independence and credibility, even when it means going against the interests of the administration in power.

  • The Challenges of Working in Washington: The author's transition from the U.S. Attorney's office in New York to the Deputy Attorney General position in Washington exposes him to the political dynamics and power struggles within the federal government. He grapples with the temptation to make exceptions to the rules for the sake of expediency and the president's agenda, and the importance of maintaining institutional loyalty over political considerations.

6. On the Tracks

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Conflict with the White House over the Stellar Wind surveillance program: The chapter describes a major conflict between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the White House over the legality of the Stellar Wind program, a highly classified NSA surveillance program conducted without judicial warrants. The DOJ, led by Acting Attorney General James Comey, concluded that parts of the program were unlawful, while the White House, led by Vice President Cheney and his counsel David Addington, insisted the program continue.

  • Comey's refusal to recertify the program: When the authorization for the Stellar Wind program was set to expire on March 11, 2004, Comey refused to recertify the program's legality, despite intense pressure from the White House. This set up a dramatic confrontation at the hospital bedside of the ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft.

  • The hospital room confrontation: Comey raced to the hospital to prevent White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card from getting the gravely ill Ashcroft to reauthorize the program. Ashcroft, despite his illness, sided with Comey, declaring that Comey was now the acting Attorney General.

  • Comey's standoff with the White House: Comey refused to back down, even when Vice President Cheney warned that "thousands of people are going to die" because of Comey's actions. Comey insisted the program was unlawful and could not be recertified.

  • The president's intervention: After Comey threatened to resign, President Bush intervened and directed the DOJ to work with the White House to modify the program in a way that addressed the DOJ's legal concerns. This allowed the program to continue in a revised form.

  • The aftermath: The crisis was resolved, but Comey and FBI Director Mueller were prepared to resign over the issue. The chapter highlights the intense pressure and high stakes involved in the conflict over the surveillance program.

7. Confirmation Bias

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Confirmation Bias: The chapter discusses how confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out and focus on information that supports our existing beliefs, influenced the Bush administration's views on the effectiveness of "enhanced interrogation" techniques. The administration officials were unwilling to consider evidence that contradicted their beliefs.

  • Torture Redefined: The chapter explains how the U.S. government redefined "torture" in legal terms, requiring "severe pain or suffering" to meet the legal definition, even though most people would consider many of the interrogation techniques used to be torture.

  • Flawed Legal Opinions: The chapter describes how the Justice Department issued flawed legal opinions that initially supported the CIA's interrogation program, and how Jack Goldsmith and others later had to withdraw those opinions as legally unsound.

  • Tension between Justice and Politics: The chapter highlights the tension between the Justice Department's role in upholding the rule of law and the political pressures it faces from the administration in power. It discusses the importance of the Justice Department maintaining its independence and integrity.

  • Gonzales as Attorney General: The chapter portrays Alberto Gonzales as a weaker attorney general compared to John Ashcroft, more willing to bend to political pressure from the White House, particularly from Vice President Cheney and his counsel, David Addington.

  • Attempts to Rein in Interrogation Program: The chapter describes the efforts by Goldsmith, Comey, and others to rein in the CIA's interrogation program and push for a more thorough policy review, but their attempts were ultimately thwarted by the White House.

  • Lasting Consequences: The chapter suggests that the administration's actions on interrogation and torture would have lasting negative consequences for the country's reputation and standing in the world.

8. In Hoover’s Shadow

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Integrity is the supreme quality for leadership: Eisenhower's quote at the beginning of the chapter emphasizes that integrity is essential for true success in leadership, whether in the military, business, or government.

  • President Obama valued the FBI director's independence: Contrary to Comey's assumption, Obama appreciated that Comey was politically independent, as this would allow him to lead the FBI with competence and credibility.

  • The FBI director must maintain distance from the president: To preserve the FBI's credibility and independence, the director cannot be close with the president, as they may be called upon to investigate cases involving the president's senior aides.

  • Hoover's legacy shaped the FBI's culture: Hoover's long tenure as director (nearly 50 years) and his use of an "iron hand" to drive the agency created an environment where agents and supervisors aimed to avoid being noticed by the director.

  • Comey sought to transform the FBI's leadership culture: Comey wanted to make the FBI the government's "premier leadership factory", focusing on developing ethical leaders who are people of integrity, confident yet humble, and transparent.

  • Comey emphasized the importance of work-life balance: Recognizing the high-stress nature of FBI work, Comey stressed the importance of agents finding joy in their work, maintaining balance in their lives, and making time for their loved ones.

  • Comey prioritized diversity and inclusion: Comey was concerned by the trend of the FBI's special agent workforce becoming increasingly white, as he believed a diverse workforce was essential for the FBI's effectiveness in a diverse country.

  • Comey promoted transparency and acknowledging mistakes: Comey believed in being open about the FBI's history, including its mistakes and missteps, as a way to learn from the past and prevent repeating the same errors.

9. The Washington Listen

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Viral Videos and Distrust between Police and Black Communities: The chapter discusses how viral videos of police encounters with Black civilians, such as the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray, ignited communities that had long experienced discrimination and mistreatment, leading to a growing distrust between police and Black communities.

  • The Michael Brown Shooting and the Ferguson Investigation: The chapter examines the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent federal investigation that found evidence contradicting early media accounts, but concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge the officer with federal civil rights crimes. The chapter notes that by the time the investigation's findings were released, the false narrative had already spread widely.

  • Increasing Homicides in 2015 and the "Ferguson Effect": The chapter discusses a concerning rise in homicides in many major U.S. cities starting in late 2014, which Comey suggests may be connected to changes in police and civilian behavior due to the narratives driven by viral videos. Comey refers to this as the "Ferguson effect," though the causes are not definitively known.

  • Comey's Efforts to Foster Dialogue and Understanding: Comey describes his attempts to foster better dialogue and understanding between law enforcement and Black communities, including a speech at Georgetown University outlining "four hard truths" and ordering FBI offices to convene meetings between police and communities.

  • Comey's Conversation with President Obama: The chapter details a one-on-one meeting between Comey and President Obama, where they engaged in a true, open-ended dialogue, with each trying to understand the other's perspective on issues of race, policing, and criminal justice.

  • The Encryption Debate: The chapter explores the complex and emotional debate over encryption, with Comey representing the law enforcement perspective of needing access to electronic devices for investigations, while tech companies like Apple prioritized user privacy. Comey describes President Obama's efforts to find a balanced solution.

  • Comey's Leadership Approach: The chapter highlights Comey's efforts to foster a culture of truth and open dialogue at the FBI, including encouraging less formal attire and personal sharing, in order to overcome the "impostor complex" and encourage candid input from employees at all levels.

10. Roadkill

  • Comey's Attempts to Meet with Hillary Clinton: Comey tried to arrange an introduction with Hillary Clinton when he became the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 2002, but his attempts were unsuccessful. He speculates this could have been due to his prior work on the Whitewater investigation or the investigation into President Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich.

  • The FBI's Investigation into Hillary Clinton's Email Use: In July 2015, the FBI opened a criminal investigation into whether Hillary Clinton had mishandled classified information while using a personal email system during her time as Secretary of State. The investigation focused on two key questions: 1) whether classified information was moved outside of classified systems or discussed outside of a classified system, and 2) what Clinton was thinking when she mishandled the classified information.

  • Comey's Concerns about Politicization of the Investigation: Comey was concerned that the investigation could become highly politicized, with Republicans accusing the Obama administration of not being able to be trusted to investigate the Democratic presidential front-runner, and Democrats dismissing the case as not even being a real "investigation."

  • Comey's Interactions with Attorney General Loretta Lynch: In a meeting with Comey, Attorney General Lynch directed him to refer to the Clinton email investigation as a "matter" rather than an "investigation." Comey followed this directive, though he felt it was an attempt to align with the Clinton campaign's strategy of avoiding the term "investigation."

  • The FBI's Investigative Process: The FBI's Counterintelligence Division assembled a team of about 20 experts to work on the Clinton email investigation, which they codenamed "Midyear Exam." Comey relied on a 12-member team to help make decisions, though he made the ultimate decisions himself.

  • Comey's Concerns about Transparency and Independence: As the investigation progressed, Comey became increasingly concerned about maintaining the credibility and independence of the FBI and the Department of Justice. He considered appointing a special prosecutor to take over the case, but ultimately decided against it.

  • Comey's Announcement about the Clinton Email Investigation: On July 5, 2016, Comey held a press conference to announce the FBI's findings and recommendation in the Clinton email investigation. He decided to make this announcement separately from the Department of Justice leadership in order to maintain the FBI's independence and credibility.

  • Comey's Reflection on the Announcement: Comey acknowledges that in hindsight, he would have handled a few aspects of the announcement differently, such as stating the conclusion upfront rather than building up to it. However, he stands by the overall decision to provide detailed transparency about the investigation's findings.

11. Speak or Conceal

  • Speak or Conceal: The FBI faced a difficult decision in October 2016 regarding whether to inform Congress about the discovery of new emails related to the Clinton email investigation, or to conceal this information. Comey ultimately decided that the credibility of the FBI and Department of Justice was at stake, and that concealing the information would be "catastrophic", even though speaking about it was "really bad".

  • Avoiding Impact on Elections: The FBI has a long-standing tradition of avoiding any actions that could impact an election. Comey struggled with this, as he felt he had an obligation to be transparent about the new information, even though it could influence the election.

  • Criticism and Second-Guessing: Comey faced intense criticism and second-guessing from both Democrats and Republicans regarding his decisions in the Clinton email investigation. He acknowledges that reasonable people may have handled the situation differently, but stands by his choices based on the information he had at the time.

  • Institutional Integrity: Comey was deeply concerned about preserving the integrity and independence of the FBI and Department of Justice, and did not want their actions to be perceived as politically motivated or influenced. He felt that concealing important information would be a betrayal of this principle.

  • President Obama's Support: Despite the intense criticism Comey faced, President Obama expressed his continued confidence in Comey's integrity and ability, which Comey found deeply meaningful and reassuring.

  • Uncertainty about Impact: Comey acknowledges that he is unsure whether his actions in the Clinton email investigation ultimately influenced the outcome of the 2016 election. He expresses regret over the pain his decisions caused, particularly for Hillary Clinton and her supporters.

12. Trump Tower

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Intelligence Community Briefing on Russian Interference: The intelligence community leadership, including the directors of the CIA, NSA, and FBI, briefed both President Obama and President-elect Trump on the intelligence community's assessment that Russia had extensively interfered in the 2016 presidential election. The goal of the Russian interference was to undermine faith in the democratic process, harm Hillary Clinton's electability, and help Donald Trump get elected.

  • Comey's Private Briefing on the Steele Dossier: After the full intelligence briefing, Comey privately briefed President-elect Trump on the existence of the Steele dossier, which contained unverified allegations about Trump's personal conduct in Russia. Comey was uncomfortable with this task, fearing Trump might assume he was trying to gain leverage over him.

  • Comey's Assurance to Trump: To try to reassure Trump, Comey told him that the FBI was not currently investigating him, even though this assurance could be seen as misleadingly narrow, as the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign's potential coordination with Russia.

  • Mixing of Intelligence and Politics: Comey was struck by the Trump team's immediate shift into a strategy session about how to spin and position the intelligence community's findings for political advantage, rather than focusing on the substance of the threat. This blurring of the line between intelligence and politics concerned Comey.

  • Comey's Analogy to the Mafia: Comey had the impression that the Trump team was trying to make the intelligence community leaders part of their "family" and their "thing of ours," rather than maintaining the traditional separation between intelligence and politics.

  • Trump's Subsequent Calls to Comey: After the initial briefing, Trump called Comey twice more to discuss the Steele dossier allegations, with Trump vehemently denying the claims and emphasizing that he was a "germaphobe" who would not have engaged in the alleged activities.

13. Tests of Loyalty

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Comey's Concerns about Appearing Close to Trump: Comey was concerned about being seen as close to President Trump, as many people believed he had helped get Trump elected. Comey wanted to avoid a false narrative that he and the FBI were close to the new president.

  • Trump's Unusual Behavior at the White House Reception: Trump's behavior at the White House reception, such as calling Comey forward and appearing to go for a hug, was seen by Comey as unusual and concerning. Comey worried that Trump was trying to get law enforcement leaders to show deference and loyalty to him.

  • The Private Dinner with Trump: Comey was deeply uncomfortable with being invited to a private dinner with just the two of them, as he felt this could compromise the FBI's independence and integrity. He was concerned Trump was trying to establish a patronage relationship.

  • Trump's Demand for Loyalty: During the dinner, Trump directly demanded Comey's "loyalty", which Comey saw as an inappropriate request that went against the FBI's role of independence. Comey responded with silence, refusing to give any hint of assent.

  • Comey's Efforts to Explain the FBI's Independence: Comey tried to explain to Trump the importance of the FBI maintaining independence from the White House, but felt Trump did not understand or care about this principle.

  • Comey's Observations of Trump's Behavior: Comey observed that Trump seemed incapable of laughing or showing vulnerability, which Comey saw as rooted in deep insecurity. Comey also noted Trump's tendency to make unnecessary lies.

  • Comey's Documentation of the Interactions: Concerned about Trump's integrity and the potential importance of accurate records, Comey began writing memos to document his private interactions with the president, something he had not done with previous presidents.

14. The Cloud

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Relationship with President Trump: Comey describes his interactions with President Trump, including Trump's attempts to bring Comey closer to him and secure his loyalty, as well as Comey's efforts to maintain the FBI's independence and arm's-length relationship with the White House.

  • Trump's Requests Regarding the Russia Investigation: Comey recounts two specific instances where President Trump asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn and to publicly state that Trump was not personally under investigation. Comey refused these requests, as he saw them as inappropriate attempts to interfere with the FBI's independence.

  • Comey's Documentation of Interactions with Trump: Concerned about Trump's behavior and potential attempts to misrepresent their interactions, Comey made contemporaneous memos documenting his conversations with the president. This allowed him to have a record to refer to and potentially share, as he ultimately did.

  • Comey's Firing: Comey describes the circumstances around his abrupt firing by President Trump, including the president's stated reasons and the impact it had on Comey and the FBI. He also discusses his decision to share the contents of his memos with the media in order to prompt the appointment of a special counsel.

  • Comey's Testimony Before Congress: Comey details his public testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he addressed his interactions with Trump and defended the integrity of the FBI. He used this opportunity to deliver a farewell message to the FBI workforce.

  • Comey's Perspective on Trump's Leadership: Throughout the chapter, Comey shares his observations and concerns about President Trump's leadership style, including Trump's apparent disregard for truth, lack of empathy, and attempts to exert personal control over the FBI and the Russia investigation.


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