In spite of this week’s horrific news from Las Vegas, I remain convinced that Americans, on the whole, are the most kind, moral, and resilient people on the planet. This is why crimes and tragedies such as mass shootings shake us to the core; they challenge what we know about ourselves, along with the sense of justice that binds together a free and peaceful society. Without faith in justice – our collective sense of knowing right from wrong – society falls apart at the seams.
Therefore, amongst all the news of tragedy this week, it behooves us to focus at least some of our emotional energy on the good news coming from a major facet of justice in American society — the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and its newly sworn-in director, Christopher Wray.
I had the honor of attending Wray’s swearing-in ceremony in Washington last week; and the praise directed to him during the event, along with what I know of Wray from his time spent in Atlanta as an Assistant United States Attorney, as a top official at Main Justice during the second Bush Administration, and as an attorney in private practice, demonstrate there is much to be optimistic about regarding his tenure at an agency suffering through a period of waning public confidence.
Wray’s speech at his investiture was rife with heartfelt and genuine respect for the FBI as an institution, acknowledging the agency’s proud history of sacrifice and integrity in pursuit of its mission. His remarks also offered a glimpse at his refreshingly professional approach to directing the FBI. This is a welcome change of pace.
To be sure, over the decades as a watchdog of government abuse of power, I have been hard on the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies when they fail to truly uphold the law and the Constitution. For example, the conduct of federal agencies during the Waco (1993) and Ruby Ridge (1992) sieges warranted intense scrutiny and scorn for failing to stay within both operational and legal boundaries during the incidents; and I was among those who demanded that they be held accountable.
In the short term, accountability ensures the guilty and corrupt are punished for their crimes. For the longer term, accountability is the first step in helping to ensure such mistakes are not repeated. Pleasantly, this was a theme in Wray’s remarks. The FBI’s history “hasn’t come without missteps… without errors in judgment,” said the new Director. But the former prosecutor did not leave it at that, as others might have; he continued: “But we take those mistakes, and we learn from them. We get better at doing what we need to do, and closer to being the very best we can be.”
Wray may have been referring to the historical “missteps” and “errors in judgement” like those I mentioned above, but it is not hard to infer he may also have been referring to those of his predecessor, James Comey, who took center stage in a political drama in which neither he nor the agency should ever find themselves. Fortunately, Wray carries no such baggage. “A director must know it is not about him, but about security, justice and law,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said of Wray at the ceremony; concluding that, “Director Wray meets that test in full… He has no hidden agendas.”
This is precisely what the FBI needs at this moment in time. It needs a restart that puts its mission — “to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution,” as Wray put it — at the forefront of the agency, rather than be driven – even in part – by any political or other hidden agenda. It needs a leader who “always pursue[s] justice,” as Wray eloquently put it, echoing James Madison in the Federalist Papers that justice is indeed the ultimate goal and purpose of government; and always with a “drive and passion for excellence.” Finally, it needs a director who does not see himself as bigger than the agency he leads. Wray is that leader.
It is certainly a high bar set for him and the Bureau, but listening to Wray speak, and hearing others like Sessions speak of him, it is clear that Wray is the right man for the job, at exactly the right time. His plate is full already; but by every measure, he is well-poised to take on the challenges.