Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law

Judge William Webster’s New York Times Op-Ed

John Bellinger
Tuesday, December 17, 2019, 4:49 PM

Every American—and especially every member of Congress—should read Judge Webster’s words on the current threat to the rule of law.

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When I was a young lawyer, I had the great privilege to serve as special assistant to Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) William Webster from 1988 to 1991. Judge Webster served as DCI for four years, after he was asked by President Reagan to head the CIA in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal. Webster had previously served for nine years as the director of the FBI, having been appointed by Jimmy Carter. Before that, he had been a district judge and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit (nominated by President Nixon to both positions), a U.S. attorney (under President Eisenhower), and a naval officer in both the Korean War and World War II. Throughout his career, Webster has been the embodiment of integrity, probity, ethics, civility, and decency. A lifelong Republican, he is the gold standard for commitment to the rule of law and a role model for generations of lawyers and government officials. At age 95, his mind is as sharp as ever.

Webster has an important op-ed in the New York Times, entitled “I Headed the FBI and the CIA. There’s a Dire Threat to the Country I Love.”

Every American—and especially every member of Congress—should read Webster’s words. Here are some key excerpts:

Today, the integrity of the institutions that protect our civil order is, tragically, under assault from too many people whose job it should be to protect them.

The rule of law is the bedrock of American democracy, the principle that protects every American from the abuse of monarchs, despots and tyrants. Every American should demand that our leaders put the rule of law above politics.

I am deeply disturbed by the assertion of President Trump that our “current director”—as he refers to the man he selected for the job of running the FBI—cannot fix what the president calls a broken agency.

The president’s thinly veiled suggestion that the director, Christopher Wray, like his banished predecessor, James Comey, could be on the chopping block, disturbs me greatly. The independence of both the FBI and its director is critical and should be fiercely protected by each branch of government.

I know firsthand the professionalism of the men and women of the FBI. The aspersions cast upon them by the president and my longtime friend, Attorney General William P. Barr, are troubling in the extreme. Calling FBI professionals “scum,” as the president did, is a slur against people who risk their lives to keep us safe. Mr. Barr’s charges of bias within the FBI, made without providing any evidence and in direct dispute of the findings of the nonpartisan inspector general, risk inflicting enduring damage on this critically important institution.

The country can ill afford to have a chief law enforcement officer dispute the Justice Department’s own independent inspector general’s report and claim that an FBI investigation was based on “a completely bogus narrative.” In fact, the report conclusively found that the evidence to initiate the Russia investigation was unassailable. There were more than 100 contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russian agents during the 2016 campaign, and Russian efforts to undermine our democracy continue to this day. I’m glad the FBI took the threat seriously.

I have complete confidence in Mr. Wray, and I know that the FBI is not a broken institution. It is a professional agency worthy of respect and support. The derision and aspersions are dangerous and unwarranted.

This difficult moment demands the restoration of the proper place of the Department of Justice and the FBI as bulwarks of law and order in America. This is not about politics. This is about the rule of law. Republicans and Democrats alike should defend it above all else.

John B. Bellinger III is a partner in the international and national security law practices at Arnold & Porter in Washington, DC. He is also Adjunct Senior Fellow in International and National Security Law at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as The Legal Adviser for the Department of State from 2005–2009, as Senior Associate Counsel to the President and Legal Adviser to the National Security Council at the White House from 2001–2005, and as Counsel for National Security Matters in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice from 1997–2001.

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