The Foreign Policy Consequences of Impunity – What Price Do We Pay For A Lack Of Accountability

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking past a TV screen in the office and saw former Director of National Intelligence Clapper with a caption underneath saying, “any layman would discern collusion (between the Trump campaign and Russian government] …” from the evidence Special Prosecutor Mueller has unearthed. My immediate reaction was to wonder why anyone would give credence to anything said by a former government official who lied to Congress while under oath about illegal government surveillance of American citizens.

Even more confusing was the College of William & Mary’s announcement that it would hire former FBI Director James Comey to teach a course in ethics in government, despite well-reported instances of his likely lying to Congress under oath, not to mention his authorization of the destruction of potentially incriminating evidence related to the Clinton e-mail case. Former Secretary of State Clinton remains a public figure today, despite mountains of evidence that she may have committed numerous felonies while in office, because former Director Comey, an appointed administrator, arbitrarily decided that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring her to trial. And I thought that in our system of government, juries determined guilt or innocence.

These are not isolated instances of senior U.S. government officials violating the law and getting away with it. Intelligence Committee Chairman Nunes is now investigating whether former CIA Director John Brennan lied to Congress while under oath. An examination of all publicly available material on the Benghazi tragedy suggests that both former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Michael Morell and State Department Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy repeatedly testified untruthfully to Congress. There is substantial public evidence that former IRS Commissioners and senior officials, along with top bureaucrats of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and others did the same.

There are also disturbing stories that suggest this problem extends even more deeply into the federal law enforcement system. We now know that the FBI and Justice Department lied, by omission of pertinent evidence, to the FISA court when seeking a warrant to tap Carter Page’s communications. We also know that Justice Department attorneys provided false evidence in the Texas, v. United States immigration case (WSJ – “The Miscarriage of Justice Department,” 5/22/16). My friend Joan Wadelton has assembled ample evidence that senior State Department officials falsified personnel records about her and Justice Department attorneys entered them as evidence in federal court.

As we know, lying to the FBI is a felony, but so too is lying while under oath to Congress or the courts. The crime is perjury; however, none of the people mentioned above have faced a serious investigation of their possible criminal conduct, let alone a jury to determine guilt or innocence. Many of them are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars as TV experts. Others remain in their civil service jobs. One wonders if they continue to submit false evidence to courts and Congress and how widespread the practice has become.

In international human rights parlance, this condition is called impunity, and it means freedom from the consequences of illegal actions. As Transparency International says, ‘impunity fosters and perpetuates acts of corruption.” Once a government official knows that he or she can break the law to gain advantage and not be held accountable, that official will continue the practice. More insidiously, other officials who observe success achieved through illegal activities will follow that example, especially if the lawbreakers are in leadership positions. During my Foreign Service career, I witnessed and recorded in annual human rights reports the deleterious impact of impunity and corruption on societies in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere. The results were not pretty. In some cases, foreign government officials got away with murder.

Just as our diplomats measure the practices of foreign government officials against their statements to determine their integrity and reliability, foreign government diplomats in Washington do the same. They also monitor more broadly the American democratic system to determine if it is meeting its own standards. After all, diplomacy depends on trustworthiness, and the integrity of the international system depends on countries meeting their international obligations. Is an official or country as good as its word?

The founders of our Republic understood these principles. Indeed, they built U.S. foreign policy on a solid foundation of leadership by example. The names of Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe became synonymous with integrity, and that reputation extended to the U.S. democratic system and its foreign policy for decades. The integrity of America’s leaders and system imbued the words of American diplomats with substantial power when they questioned other governments’ negative human rights practices. The combination of example and word often produced positive change in the human rights practices and broader foreign policies of many countries around the world.

Today, impunity for senior American government officials who lie under oath and get away with it is damaging the integrity of the American political system, and U.S. foreign policy is being undermined. Senior foreign government officials must increasingly be concerned about the reliability of their American counterparts. Can their words be trusted? Likewise, American diplomats advocating our human rights agenda are assuredly facing rejoinders from their counterparts about American human rights shortcomings. Consequently, America is less influential at a time when the competition for global leadership is intensifying.

Nothing less than the credibility of the United States and its status as leader of the free world is at stake. Congress and America’s leaders need to take immediate action to end impunity for government officials, now.