JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good afternoon. Thank you all for coming. It is a real privilege this afternoon to have this conversation with Judge Webster and with all of you.
Contrary to your thoughts coming over here, we did not "rig" the news, although I would like to take credit for it. When we selected the date for this, we had absolutely no idea that the news would come our way in the way that it has, so I am sure we will be discussing it. [Dr. Rosenthal is referring to the fact that on November 6, FBI Director James Comey wrote a second letter to Congress saying he had not changed his opinion that Hillary Clinton's emails did not warrant criminal charges, despite newly uncovered emails.]
I would like to start by thanking Jon Colby, our former chairman of Carnegie Council, current trustee, and great friend, for arranging this meeting and supporting it.
I should also tell them about how this meeting came about. Jon and I had the opportunity to have lunch with Judge Webster last summer in Washington, DC, and we had such a good time that we decided we should share the experience with some of our closest friends, which is what we are doing now. Jon suggested it, and Judge Webster very graciously agreed—right away, I should say. We have had a lot of fun in setting this up. Thanks to both of you.
It is very hard to introduce somebody like Judge Webster. You all know him. You know the old saying, "needs no introduction" and so on. But I thought I would just say a couple of brief things about his career, which is highly relevant to this moment, the day before the election.
Just the highlights looking at his career: In 1973, William Webster was appointed judge of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals—and you will recognize 1973—that appointment was made by President Nixon; in 1978 he was appointed director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and that appointment was by President Carter. He served as director of the FBI until 1987, when he received a call from President Reagan to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and he served as director of the CIA from 1987 to 1991.
Not content in retirement, I am sure, he became the chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC) in 2005, and that appointment was by President George W. Bush. Judge Webster still serves in that capacity under President Obama.
Finally, among all of these important jobs appointed directly by the president, Judge Webster was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 by President George H. W. Bush. It seems to me you have known all the presidents, and I always wondered what it was like to get a call from the president, so maybe you can tell us a little bit about that.
I do think it is important at this moment in time to think about a judge's career and public life and what that all represents. So what we are going to do is we are going to have a conversation here, and I agreed to start it off with a question or two to Judge Webster, and I know Jon has a question or two, but it is really meant to be a group conversation, so I hope you will all join in.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I cannot resist the first question, which is: We seem to be at a very low moment in terms of public trust. If we look at the polls in terms of the trust or unfavorability, or however you want to look at it, in terms of our leadership, we are at a low moment. What do you have to say about that, Judge, and what do you think we should be doing to address this problem with trust in our leadership?
WILLIAM WEBSTER: That's a big question, Joel.
First, I am very glad to be here, and thank you all for coming out. I look forward to this discussion. I am always interested in other people's points of view on these issues.
You touched on a very important issue in my mind that is very near and dear to me because I have some theories about the role of trust.
This spring I gave a commencement address at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, where 34 years before I had delivered a commencement address. At that time, my subject to the graduates was justice. They sent me a copy of my previous address, and I said, "You know, I don't think I can do much better than this."
But I changed the thesis a little bit because in the interim of 34 years I have been thinking about how we succeed in achieving the kinds of things that I think you all are dedicated to doing. The remarks that I made—and I will not put you through all of that—but what I told them, I said, "The bottom line is that things work better when people can trust each other. And how do you go about earning and keeping that level of trust?" A lot of people have talked about it. David Abshire wrote a book called Trust is the Coin of the Realm.
But it is a serious issue, and when I think about some of those chief executives that I had the privilege of serving—thinking particularly of 41 [President George H. W. Bush], there was something about a combination of his basic decency and his trustworthiness that permitted him to do things at the opening of the Gulf War around with other countries with whom we had to marshal that I thought was very impressive, and it was because of how he treated them and how they counted on him and believed him.
We find in the various jobs that we do that there sometimes at the bottom of the problems is failure to have that trust, and it is very noticeable these days with two candidates who seem to have a knack in building people who do not trust them. Of course, they have the counterpart—people who do trust them and want to vote for them. It makes it hard to get things done and to get them done in the right way when they cannot do that.
For an example, it occurs to me to mention that when I went to CIA from the FBI after nine years at the FBI, I found a problem: Congress was all over the Agency at that time, and mostly it was about a thing called Iran-Contra, which I am sure all of you remember, and how it was being managed, and a sense that the folks at CIA—whom I greatly admired—were not always being up front with the Congress, who had the oversight responsibilities; they were dancing around. Some of my most favorite people—some of whom are not with us anymore—Clair George, for example, who was just a lovely guy; but he would take a question that they asked and he would twiddle it a little, he would go around, and they wouldn't get there, but he avoided the question. Some were not as careful about that even, and some of the questions were not candid or correct.
I said, "We've got to do something about this, and we have to make it very clear how we're going to deal with it when we testify before these committees in closed circuit."
I understood their problem. They were saying, "Have you ever seen those gargoyles sitting around the room listening to us talk about secret material?" And he said, "We just can't have that." So it was an attitude.
The solution was—I'll get to the end of the line quickly—"Okay. We are going to make it very clear to our people that when they go to testify before the Congress it will be in a closed room. But there are going to be people in there—you do not know who they are, what are they doing here, and how much can I trust them with—and protect secrecy, which is an important aspect of our foreign service and what we are doing for national security?"
We developed something called the "four C's": All testimony given before this committee, even in closed circuit, must be correct, candid, complete, and consistent. Those are words that everybody understands.
Well, what do you do about this? I said, "Okay. If you get a question that you feel is highly sensitive and there are people in that room whose dependability, or even whose identity, is not clear to you and you're concerned about it, we are not going to lie about it; we are not going to fib around it; do not say you don't have an answer; say if you do have an answer you have an answer but are not authorized to give it, that you will take the question back to headquarters, and headquarters will work with staff to satisfy the needs of the Congress."
And you know, it worked. They stopped saying, "You are lying to us," and we began to develop credibility. It was a simple thing that I put together with the help of some very serious-minded people who wanted to improve our credibility with the Congress and consequently their trust in us and how we were doing it.
I put that on the table as a way to think about trust when you are talking about what you are doing. We can talk later, if you want, about secrecy and how we protect it and safeguard it. But I think we were able to do that without giving away the store to people where we are now reading about WikiLeaks and other things of that kind.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Not to preempt the question that I am sure is on everybody's mind, I would be interested in how you judge Mr. Comey's behavior in light of what you were just describing, which is the need to be—as you say, the four C's—reporting to authority, reporting to the executive and the Congress. Was it a case in your view of a job well done or overzealous? How do you rate that?
WILLIAM WEBSTER: I think we are at a point where I can say something. I did not want to get involved with that brouhaha as it was going along. Let me say first, I am an admirer of Jim Comey, and his personal integrity has been demonstrated time and time again to me.
I will tell you what I think—and you will not hear it anywhere else, I suppose—about that whole process, which I am sure you have not been able to avoid listening to on the tube or in the newspapers. When all this happened and the investigation of the emails and so forth was taking place, there was an unfortunate incident in which the attorney general had an unexpected tarmac meeting with Bill Clinton.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Yes, we heard about that.
WILLIAM WEBSTER: I am assuming you all know as much as I do about some of this. The consequence was that she decided that under the circumstances she should recuse herself from exercising her prosecutive discretion on this investigation. I do not criticize her for that.
What I do question is why she pointed to Director Comey to do that for this reason: The FBI's job is to produce the evidence, the cases, analyze it, present it, and it is the Justice Department's job to make the call, and that put him in an unusual and awkward position.
Now, he did not ask for it. People can have different opinions on how he handled it. But what she easily could have done—aside from reaching out in the cold and producing somebody else—was to appoint the deputy attorney general. That is what they are for; when the attorney general cannot do something, the deputy does it. But she did not do that. She maybe thought that Comey, who had been in the Department of Justice and understood how it worked there, would maybe be just right to get an honest answer.
I could see when that started that there was a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" situation developing in a hotly contested race, and I was really disappointed that they put him in that position.
When he had concluded it, he tried, I think—and I have not talked to him about this—to move a step away from talking about the bureau—"the bureau thinks this, that, and the other." He reviewed all the records, and then when he made his announcement he said, "Nobody knows today in this organization what I am going to say. This is my version"—this is Jim Comey talking. But, of course, that was probably a misjudgment or a misapprehension of what the press and everyone else was going to conclude, because all they wanted to write about was what did the FBI conclude about this and not so much what Jim Comey thought. He tried his best at that point, and he came down with it. I guess some people were less than satisfied and some were satisfied and some were not.
Of course, both candidates were having a way of talking about things they did not like and things they did like. I am not going to review that whole process. You couldn't have missed it.
And so it was pretty much left there where it was, until it developed that the FBI agents in Manhattan were developing a case against Anthony Weiner. The unexpected consequence was that he happened to be married to one of Hillary Clinton's closest associates.
There are a lot of issues I do not know the answers to. How did all that stuff get on Anthony Weiner's computer? But it did, and apparently a huge amount of it, so much so that Jim Comey had promised, after five hours of cross-examination in Congress, that if anything came along to change his view, he would let them know.
Well, as it turned out, there were 600,000 emails, most of which were personal exchanges that had no relationship to anything and the rest of which were largely already identified but requiring a deliberate process to find out, to answer correctly to the Congress. Again we get into these accountability challenges here: How to do it?
He knew from his own experience that it was getting close to an election, and you try not to get into these things if you can help it. I know on other occasions he has done that properly. But he said, "Since I promised them, I've got to tell them something's happened. I don't even know because I haven't seen these papers; nobody has given me a full enough briefing to know where that is."
So what does he do? He said, "I've got to tell them." I think he was smart enough to know that he was not going to go without being criticized by the other group. So he says, "Some of these appear to be pertinent"—he picked that word carefully; he didn't say "significant" or "compelling" or this, that, and—just "pertinent."
They had been working around the clock to do this, and I guess over the weekend he concluded that nothing they had seen—and they thought they had seen it all—caused him to change his point of view.
I'm sorry. I did not want to talk this long about this, but I didn't know how else to explain where we are with this.
He has been criticized. He will continue to be criticized when it's over, regardless of who wins. It was an awkward situation to get into. But I cannot help but wonder if we would be in this situation if the attorney general had simply understood the proper relationship at the beginning and then appointed her deputy or someone else to do that. That's my answer to your question.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Reflecting on your own experiences either at FBI or CIA, did you have any similar tough call with regard to either having to go public or something that you felt would be politicized in this way, or did you just manage to avoid that?
WILLIAM WEBSTER: I can't think of things as the way you put the question, where I got put in a public crack or not. I think that effort—the four C's—put me in a much better position to deal with the Congress and to meet with the heads of the committees and to be as forthright as I could, and they largely respected the confidentiality issues and did not put them out when they should not have been put out, while we were working on investigations, and I think that helped a lot.
I had two questions that came up that were risky in my first years as director of the FBI that I think have some relevance to what you are asking me here. We were getting into the world of undercover operations by the bureau to develop evidence of criminal activity. We had a lot to learn, and we were learning it, and I think they were doing a good job of that.
But when we got on the issue of public corruption, suddenly we had a problem on our hands. The problem was this: We had been running an undercover operation about stolen artwork—not much to be worrying about there—but it was coming from Arabs who were buying stolen art.
We conceived an undercover operation to try to find out who was doing this. In the process of setting that up, we suddenly found it started in the cities—in Camden, New Jersey, places like that—that people were anxious to get hold of this and turn it into a profit. So we established a mythical sheikh or sheikh's representative who would deal with stolen artwork. Some of it is funny if you look at it. We were videotaping the meetings, and these things were taking place.
All at once, to my horror, we had some corrupt middlemen who didn't know they were dealing with the FBI, who were making money by bringing these opportunities in to this mythical sheikh. All at once, to my horror, they started wanting to work from the people in Camden, New Jersey, and so forth down to the Hill, and we had people wanting to bring congressmen in to talk about they could do for the sheikh for a price. You can see where that's going. We had a number of meetings. But my conclusion was: "We must follow our leads, but let us do it in a way that doesn't add to the corruption or confuse or confound the issues or solicit this. Let's see what happens."
They started coming in, and they were saying, "Does the sheikh need any help getting to the United States in case he needs the money? We could take care of that." Things were going on like this.
I said, "Well, okay. I'm really worried about how you're bringing these people here. We can't have any of that." So I put up a few more rules of the game. I was trying to keep them simple. I said, "First of all, I've got to sign off on your bringing any congressmen here. When they come, talk dirty; make it very clear that the sheikh knows this, that it is an illegal operation what you're doing."
The third or fourth principle, which was very important: "If the government official wants to leave, let him go. Don't try to sweeten the deal. Don't try to bring him in. You're not in there to corrupt him; we're there to determine whether he is already corrupt. So don't do that." I think that was a very important consideration in how that thing played out.
Ultimately, we had about six congressmen, including one senator. The senator was very popular—he had done some good work as a senator—but he gave a pretty good account of himself on filmed interviews. We had him in Florida on a boat—the boat was named The Left Hand; I don't know who thought of that—and he was explaining all the things he could do and so forth. He wanted them to know he's one of them, you know.
During that period of time—let me get to a quick conclusion on that so I can say the other thing that pleased me about this kind of challenge—I was thinking to myself, "If any of these things go bad, it's going to reflect very badly on me," and we would have the same issues that we had been talking about before. So I said, "Please follow these rules. Our job is to find the corrupt people—not to corrupt them." About then, I was thinking, "If anything else goes wrong, this is going to go, and this is an important investigation."
About the same time, out in Chicago, a level of corruption—and if you don't know about this case, you can hardly believe how corrupt it was. The state judges in Cook County had decided they could pick up a lot of money on the side by fixing traffic cases and other minor criminal cases that came before them, and they corrupted their staffs. They started getting the staff not only to bring people in but to go looking for people who had charges against them so then they could fix them up for a price.
I guess the conditions of government in Cook County at that time were bad enough that they weren't worried about it. We began to get wind of this and began to ask, "How do we stop this?" The name of this operation was "Operation Greylord." By the way, I got in trouble—the other "Abscam" case was named for Abdul Enterprises; it wasn't for "Arab scam." They were saying, "Why didn't you call it Jew Scam? Why did you call it Arab Scam?" It was everybody looking at their own point of view and doing these things. This was called "Operation Greylord" and I don't remember why, but they were bringing them in.
Then we had a county judge, a state judge, who was assigned to come in and sit in the city—not by us, but he was there—and he was appalled at what he heard, and he talked to us about it and said, "Can I help?"
We code-named him "Winston"—sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't, with these code names. Winston carried a recorder in his cowboy boots and sat in on these meetings where these judges were among themselves: "How'd you do today?" "Well, I got four or five." We had over 100 indictments which were on their way coming through in that case alone. All I was thinking about was, "I hope to hell nothing goes wrong in Abscam because what are we going to do about this one? It's got to go through."
It did, and it was successful. Congress investigated the Abscam cases, and while they found some legitimate criticisms, whether they thought somebody had overdone or not, we had done nothing illegal, and in the end we had served the cause of justice by doing what we did.
You asked me did I have some close calls. Those did not turn out to be bad, they turned out to be good, but they were pretty close, and we had to have some clear understanding of where we stood.
I have to say that I think the FBI understood this better than some of the people at the Agency—I say that with respect—but there were a few cowboys there who were doing very dangerous things abroad and didn't see why they had to stop doing those things when they were in the United States.
We would have these intensive discussions: "Well, everything we do is illegal." And I'd say, "No, over there espionage is a crime in every country in the world, and we have to do it. But over here, we're going to follow the law." "That ex-FBI guy is maybe going to slow down a fast-moving machine or something." That wasn't the general thing, but I had to encounter that attitude in some places.
The FBI, by the way, named a conference center for me, which was one of the great compliments to my career, and they put up an 80-pound bronze medallion with the face of a much younger Bill Webster sitting there, and the inscription of what I said when I was sworn into office at the FBI—because the FBI had gotten into some black-bag jobs and some other things that people have long since forgotten, but they were going in the wrong direction. I said, "Together we will do the work that the American people expect of us in the way that the Constitution demands of us." They put that outside the conference room, and they followed it. They understand that. I think the vast majority of the Agency folks understood the concept that we had to be responsive to the requirements of the Constitution.
And we get into some of these other issues. I can appreciate so much while we're trying to do good, we don't want to do it by doing bad in ways that we shouldn't be doing it, one of which you may be planning to ask me about—I don't need to talk about it at all—that enhanced interrogation technique that has been abandoned over there. The director of the CIA has said, "Even if we got authority to do it, we're not going to do it," which had the waterboarding and other things of that kind. In your long-range best interest, even though you badly need to know something—and some of the finest government servants I know still have trouble with that: "If we think that's the person who has the information and lives are at stake, why shouldn't we do whatever it takes to get that information?"
I have two answers to that, which have to do with this sense of trust. How reliable is it going to be when someone under great pain and stress and fears what you're going to do next says, "Take it off—I'll tell you what you want to know"—how reliable is that going to be?
The FBI found that out a long time ago, and they developed in the hostage rescue team and others, trying to get close to people who were breaking the law, that if they treated them in a different way, they were apt to get not only reliable information but a lot more besides. I am convinced that we were on the right trail and that [CIA Director John] Brennan's decision not to engage in that was the correct one—pragmatic if you want to say, but also the right decision in terms of trust and trustworthiness.
I took much too long to answer that question.
QUESTION: My question to you is about the overlapping jurisdictions of intelligence agencies in Washington today. I was wondering, if you were going to give advice to the someone new in Washington, how do you manage that overlapping jurisdiction?
WILLIAM WEBSTER: We don't do it very well, and I say that with some sadness; I'm not being silly about it.
But I have to say that we have been unusually blessed to have Jim Clapper as the director of national intelligence. We have had a few before him who had trouble with that responsibility, largely because I don't think—some of you may have a different point of view—it was a well-drawn statute, and it left a lot of confusion about who's in charge and where does it go and so on, all the way from budgets to other issues and keeping people informed. But Clapper is smart enough, intelligent enough, and experienced enough that he handles these agencies and has earned their respect and their trust, and I think that is a good step in the right direction.
We usually look to see what is the jurisdiction of this agency, what is its mission, what can it do, what does it need to do, what kind of joint operations do we have, and how does that work? Different things will work better at different times. When I was at the agency, we established a number of centers, which were headquartered at CIA but in which other agencies in government had a chair, and they would come and we would try to work those issues out together. At that time, there was the director of central intelligence, and there were not these other overlapping areas.
Your question really had to do with are we getting too many agencies. I don't think that is really the case. But they need always to work on the coordination to keep people informed of what they are doing and to work out their problems without getting into a brouhaha or ignoring the authority of the senior person who has the right and the duty to take the action he thinks necessary. It is something we have to keep working on.
We have these other fusion centers, other things of that kind. We have a lot of that, but we have a lot of problems too.
QUESTION: What troubles me is the burden and the difficulty that we place on our people around the world, where they're dealing with corrupt, dishonest counterparts—Russians perhaps, Iranians perhaps—and what a difficult position our people are in when the other guys are playing by rules that are nowhere near the rules that we live by.
WILLIAM WEBSTER: That's a good question, and there is no easy answer for it. I think one of the things we try to wrestle with—I know the agency works very hard to try to give good advice to our National Security Council (NSC) about the individuals abroad who are making decisions that may or may not ....
I remember—these things just pop in my head and don't have a lot of relevance—do you remember it was George W. Bush who said, "I looked into his soul"—I didn't know how he spelled that word; I think he left out a syllable. [Laughter] That's part of the play, and we're living with it now. This whole cyber world is something we're not on top of. We are getting there, but we've got a lot to learn about it. I just cannot imagine where we are going to end up with it.
Somebody is probably going to ask me a question about WikiLeaks, and I would rather not answer it. But I want to say something about it because I don't understand WikiLeaks and how WikiLeaks gets away with what it is doing. I have done some research on it—not enough. They have set themselves up as a not-for-profit corporation. They have an editor-in-chief and founder, Julian Assange, who is hanging out in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, for reasons I can understand. But I don't know how they're managing to do these things.
In the meantime, hackers who for good cause—in their own minds, so they say—are wanting to get stuff out—that includes potentially people in Russia and other places who see a good opportunity to make life difficult for the rest of us. I am waiting to see how we learn to deal with this.
I think we have encryption issues. We have to figure out how to improve their quality—and I know there is some progress being made there—and different attitudes about utilizing this, which may take us at some later point this morning into talking about covert action, which I'll be happy to do.
Anyway, I do not have an easy answer for you. But I do think our organization is not working against itself. But it has to be carefully managed in a way that Congress doesn't get worried that we don't know what we are doing.
QUESTION: How do you build trust when a lot of people think that politicians are contemptuous of the electorate in the sense of tarmac meetings, private emails, blending of public and private interests? I think it was a great point, but what's the remedy?
WILLIAM WEBSTER: Well, I think some of it starts with the character of the people and the traditions when they are being trained and they are being coached and so forth. You are lucky if you have people who want to be trustworthy. You have to recognize some that think that is a silly thing to do when they could do these other things, or just are careless about how they protect national security.
I guess my own theory is to try to be as trustworthy as you can. I think trust is the coin of the realm, and it needs to be fostered by the traditions that you lay down from beginning to end and enforce in every way that you can.
Different people have different ways of trying to summarize these. They don't summarize easily. Disraeli said, "Justice is truth in action." Daniel Webster said, "It is the greatest interest of man on Earth." But what do you do about it to be sure that people are confident that particularly their leaders are in fact trustworthy?
That one example I gave you about the four C's and how to handle—I think it's important to remember that I didn't argue that you shouldn't refuse to tell something, everything they wanted to hear, but you have to do it under circumstances in which the integrity of that secret is preserved and that the people who are receiving the information are trustworthy themselves. I do not think that is impossible to do, but it sometimes can be very difficult when the other people do not necessarily subscribe to that principle.
There is something about being lied to that is poisonous and toxic, and American citizens do not appreciate that. Sometimes we have to be deceptive in order to achieve an objective, but we want to be careful that people are not hurt by that in the process. That might take us to a little discussion about covert action.
QUESTION: I think I remember you telling me one time that in the CIA 10 percent of your time was spent on covert action and 90 percent on the problems that came from that. Should the CIA be in that business?
WILLIAM WEBSTER: I think it has to be by default. But it does create a lot of potential problems if people don't do it in the right way.
We haven't talked a lot about accountability here, but that is part and parcel of it. People should know that they are accountable and that the Congress on the legislative side has a very serious oversight responsibility that has to be respected. You cannot lie to them; you've got to approach this in the right way.
We have tried to do that. Certain things can be limited to the Gang of Eight, which would be the top intelligence committees and the majority and minority leaders on both sides, so we're not talking about a partisan issue. It could be limited for a period of time, but not forever.
Covert action, in our understanding of what it is in our society, comes about when there is no military solution to a particular objective or problem that has worked and no diplomatic solution has worked. That is when they begin to say, "Get these other guys to scratch their heads and come up with something that might work."
Of course, it is not going to work if it is public. So we have to have an understanding that these things are going to be secret or limited, with some oversight of what it is but not in the newspapers and so on.
I do not think that this process has changed much from the time I was there. But under the existing regulations and practices, once a problem like that was referred to the CIA for an idea—a solution, an approach, a program—we started cranking up what we knew, bringing in our own people to review the problem, coming up with the ideas that might deal more successfully than a military or diplomatic solution had proved to be in the past.
Then the legal department looked at it from the standpoint of what laws—When we are talking about doing something unusual, can we do it? What kind of authority do we need to do it? Who needs to know?—go through the whole routine to come up with a program to try, knowing that everything else has failed.
When that has all been put together and there is agreement within the agency to present this to the president, it is customarily presented to the president with the full National Security Council in attendance, and then he and they can ask all the questions that they want to, all the what-ifs, test it, and so forth. It is a lot easier when you think that is something you want to succeed. You may not have thought of all the questions. But this is a pretty good opportunity for contingency issues to surface and to be thought about.
When that is finished, it is in the president's hands, and he has the statutory authority to make a finding, which is just another way of saying what they are going to do—you are going to find we are going to do this program—and that finding has to be in sufficient detail. Under the existing rules, unless they have changed, within 48 hours the leadership of the appropriate committees of Congress—which would be the Intelligence Committees usually, perhaps the Armed Services Committee, and so on—have to be informed of the finding.
Now, that does not give them rebuttal authority, if the president has the authority to do it and the legal authorities say that, but it gives them authority to raise questions themselves privately—not publicly—and maybe challenge it in ways that depend on what the circumstances are so that you have the appropriate oversight. Then there are a series of periodic briefings and oversight to keep the oversight people informed of how that covert action is taking place. Some of them work, and some of them don't work; some of them surprise you with the things they do that had unique appeal to the objective—which has always got to be a legitimate objective.
At the ending of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, a number of those countries were looking for help, experience, inspiration, and so forth on how they could achieve something like we had. But we knew it would be poison if we tried to proselytize them publicly. Arrangements were made to have these important keystone documents in our history translated into the countries where this was taking place and made available through other means, through people. They sucked them up; they couldn't get enough of it. It was tremendously helpful in providing for a peaceful transfer out of the old Cold War and the dominance of the Soviet Union. I will not go into all the different ones that they had.
I like the approach to solving—it does not necessarily mean it is going to work, but at least we approached it from all the what-ifs, and others who are thinking about it, in terms of one or more of these agencies, might not have thought about it, get their shot at it before it's put into place, and then Congress is informed. It is not just, "Here's a little thing; let's go out and do it."
QUESTION: Thank you for coming. This has been incredibly enlightening. I want to take you back to the tarmac issue. It is not resting well with me. I understand "to err is human," but in my mind it is not only a crisis of trust with our leaders; it is a crisis of judgment. We have heard from the server to the tarmac, "Oh, if I would have known, I would not have done this." I expect a little different response from the attorney general.
For me—and I always try to put myself in someone else's shoes and say, "What would I have done?"—it was very clear that that meeting should not have happened in the first place.
My question is—and there are higher powers, and I don't really maybe understand how that works—was the attorney general obligated to meet with a past president, or should that attorney general have said, "Given that there is an investigation, I don't think this is wise"? I'm trying to understand that.
WILLIAM WEBSTER: I have no easy answer for you. This is a judgment call. I cannot disagree with you. But I can also understand how it may have come on her in ways—she said she didn't have a key to lock the door or something like that. [Laughter]
This is part of the trust factor and common sense. In your work, as I understand it, you are looking at ways in which countries and others can, without having a lot of laws laid down, have principles of conduct and approach that build trust because they are fair, open, and constructive in their end goals, and not full of deception and secrecy, and what must have happened there no one can know. The things that you do can be very helpful I think in furthering that process.
How many years has the Council been going?
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Since 1914. We are 102 years old.
WILLIAM WEBSTER: The work is not going to go away. [Laughter] That is why I really think trust is part of what you do and how you do it. Sometimes people are not very subtle about it. Sometimes people think, "Well, I have an answer for it," but it's not the right answer, not the truthful answer.
I think, human nature being what it is, we have to look at every approach that we see and ask ourselves, "Is there an issue here that requires a standard of conduct?"
That is why I frankly have felt very sorry for Jim Comey, because the situation that he found himself in was a "damned if you do and damned if you don't." There was almost nothing that he could have done once he accepted that responsibility. You could say, "Well, he shouldn't have accepted it." Maybe in hindsight, he would not do it again in the same way. I don't know. But he thought he could do it in an honorable, truthful, productive way, and I don't think we should take that away from him.
Any of us that watched him perform at the time John Ashcroft was flat on his back in the hospital and two men from the White House came over to renew a program that the Justice Department had concluded was illegal—he rushed over there and he stopped it. He was prepared to resign—and John was lying there, my old fellow Missourian, he was in his bed on his back—and he said, "Well, he's making the call. I hope he won't, but he's making the call." And he made it: "No way."
From time to time, our detractors and enemies are going to look at somebody and say, "If we do this, I wonder what they will do, and maybe we better not do that because that isn't going to fly." Sometimes it is innocent; sometimes they haven't thought it through; sometimes it is worse than that.
It is amazing to me what a great country we have, that we have so many people of goodwill and organizations like this that try to set the ground rules—the approaches—that make it easy for people to know what is the right thing to do and to say "You can't do that." We have it in the legal profession. We don't call it "ethics"—that is just a little too tony—we call it "professional responsibility," and we try to make it work.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. It is past time for concluding the lunch. But I want to thank you all for joining us.
In terms of ethics, I think the most powerful tool that we have when we think about ethics is the power of example, and I think we had a treat hearing from you today along those lines.
Thank you very much, Judge, for coming. Thank you all for coming.