The Tragedy of James Comey

James Comey is about to be ubiquitous. His book will be published next week, and parts may leak this week. Starting Sunday, he will begin an epic publicity tour, including interviews with Stephen Colbert, David Remnick, Rachel Maddow, Mike Allen, George Stephanopoulos and “The View.”

.. Yet anybody who’s read Greek tragedy knows that strengths can turn into weaknesses when a person becomes too confident in those strengths. And that’s the key to understanding the very complex story of James Comey.

.. Long before he was a household name, Comey was a revered figure within legal circles.
.. But he was more charismatic than most bureaucrats — six feet eight inches tall, with an easy wit and refreshing informality. People loved working for him.
.. If you read his 2005 goodbye speech to the Justice Department, when he was stepping down as George W. Bush’s deputy attorney general, you can understand why. It’s funny, displaying the gifts of a storyteller. It includes an extended tribute to the department’s rank and file, like “secretaries, document clerks, custodians and support people who never get thanked enough.” He insists on “the exact same amount of human dignity and respect” for “every human being in this organization,”
.. Above all, though, the speech is a celebration of the department’s mission.
.. Many Justice Department officials, from both parties, have long believed that they should be more independent and less political than other cabinet departments. Comey was known as an evangelist of this view.
.. Comey sometimes chided young prosecutors who had never lost a case, accusing them of caring more about their win-loss record than justice. He told them they were members of the Chicken Excrement Club
.. Most famously, in 2004, he stood up to Bush and Dick Cheney over a dubious surveillance program.

But as real as Comey’s independence and integrity were, they also became part of a persona that he cultivated and relished.

.. Comey has greater strengths than most people. But for all of us, there is a fine line between strength and hubris.

Making Sense of Mike Flynn

Some people seem to sift through information with high sensitivity, but low specificity—spotting connections that others can’t, and perhaps some that aren’t even there.

Then there’s the legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.

.. But critics allege that some of his work—particularly stories written without the fact-checking apparatus of The New Yorker, like his biography of JFK, or his investigation of the killing of Osama bin Laden—shows excessive credulousness.

.. Stanley McChrystal, then Flynn’s boss, harnessed his remarkable capacity for drawing connections while working to contain it, Priest reported:

He “boxed him in,” someone who had worked with both men told me last week, by encouraging Flynn to keep his outbursts in check and surrounding him with subordinates who would challenge the unsubstantiated theories he tended to indulge.

.. McChrystal saw the extraordinary value in Flynn’s sensitivity, recognizing that Flynn might spot things others would miss, so long as he was embedded in a system that could supplement it with specificity, knocking down suppositions and leaving only the solid claims standing. But, as The New York Times wrote, once Flynn found himself in command of the Defense Intelligence Agency, his sensitivity was no longer balanced by specificity—there was no one to steer him away from false positives:

.. His critics tell a different story, describing a man who brooked little dissent, and indulged in conspiratorial thinking

.. Jason Criss Howk, who worked with him in Afghanistan, called him as an “eager listener who quickly saw flaws in plans and questioned ideas that were weak.”

.. Sarah Chayes, who also worked with Flynn in Afghanistan, described him to the Timesas “a very talented information gatherer” whose “thinking process is not sufficiently analytical to test some streams against others and make sense of it, or draw consistent conclusions.”

.. But the question isn’t whether Flynn is the right choice, but whether Trump will scope and define his job in the right way—enabling him to succeed. At JSOC, he reported to a commander who apparently demanded that he discipline his outbursts and empowered his subordinates to rigorously test his ideas. He performed brilliantly. At the DIA, by contrast, he ran his own show, and reportedly demanded that his subordinates validate his ideas. He was promptly forced out.

.. One way to read Flynn’s record is as a reminder that our greatest assets are often also our greatest flaws—and it’s the circumstances in which we’re placed that enable success, or trigger failure.