Insider Interview: James Comey explains the rule-bending feds in his new and 'real' mystery novel

James Comey on a black bakground with a red fingerprint
A satirical Onion headline once called James Comey "a catty bitch from New Jersey" who lives "for drama." Comey told Insider the "catty bitch" appellation had become a running joke in his family. He included it in his new book "because it would make my children smile."Dia Dipasupil/Getty; Marianne Ayala/Insider

Near the beginning of "Central Park West," James Comey's debut novel, a detective named Benny Dugan blackmails a sitting US Attorney into doing the right thing.

"I could give a shit where you put your dick," Dugan tells him, "but I'm guessing your wife cares."

As Dugan makes his demands, his Smith and Wesson revolver is in full view, sitting in an ankle holster around Dugan's crossed leg. The US Attorney — Dugan's ostensible boss — relents. He allows Dugan's team to investigate a former governor's mysterious death.

It's hard to read this passage and not think of Comey's own attempt to confront Donald Trump with sexual rumors gleaned from the Steele dossier. That confrontation ended differently. Trump survived to serve a full term; Comey was fired. Already despised by Democrats for his disruptive pre-election announcements about the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Comey's vigorous pursuit of Trump — first with the dossier, then with a series of orchestrated leaks — thrust the FBI into the political spotlight, where it remains to this day.

Through it all, Comey has maintained a smooth exterior, calmly articulating and re-articulating his thicket of reasons behind actions that even longtime allies have called inexplicable. But there are a number of questions that he has not yet addressed: Given his rapt attention to the Steele dossier during the transition, and the supposed theory that Trump had been compromised by a foreign power, why wasn't Comey informed when the FBI discovered just how weak the dossier's sourcing was? Did he feel vindicated in his judgment of Trump's character by Trump's actions on January 6? Does he feel responsible for the FBI's current predicament, as a political football?

Those questions will have to wait for another day. Comey declined to discuss anything outside the four corners of "Central Park West." Long before he was FBI Director, Comey served as the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the most powerful prosecutorial arm of the Justice Department outside of Washington. "Central Park West" offers an intimate view of the Southern District, from the dogged investigators who work witnesses behind the scenes to the faulty air conditioning system and petty politicking over office rugs. The novel's characters grapple with a question that hangs over Comey's own legacy: how much rule-bending is permissible when you're sure that you're doing the right thing?

Insider: Let's talk about Benny Dugan, the salty, streetwise investigator who works with prosecutors for the Southern District of New York. Another character calls him "a catty bitch from Brooklyn who lives for drama," which made me think he might be some version of you. But now I'm hearing that he's based on Kenneth McCabe, someone you used to work with?

Comey: Benny is a fictional character, obviously. But when I wrote him, I pictured Kenny. That rift between him and his colleague Nora, the prosecutor, is taken from the way he and I would interact when I was at the Southern District of New York. He called me Mr. Smooth and I called him Mr. Rough. Then he would always say, "I'm not as good a person as you think I am." And I would say, "What makes you think I'm a good person?"

That wasn't just a game. He was someone who had done rough things and had stepped into the gray in the service of the battle between white and black. He had an ability to connect with people, especially bad people, that I've never seen before.

Insider: The Nora-Benny dynamic brings to mind a line from John le Carré: "In every operation there is an above the line and a below the line. Above the line is what you do by the book. Below the line is how you do the job."

Comey: Benny's approach is, "Look, you got to get — you don't cross any bright lines — but there's a time when you got to get a little dirt on your shoes to get the job done." Nora thinks that's shortsighted. That's a tension in all human affairs, but especially in law enforcement.

Insider: Another one of your characters, a defense attorney named Matt Parker, reflects that the justice system works well for innocent people. And the book ends without the reader knowing whether some of the people who were complicit in the crime will ever be held accountable.

Comey: Yeah, that's right. Truth and justice are not always the same thing. You can know something without being able to prove it. That's tension that a lot of prosecutors don't realize at first. And then when they get into the system, they realize that it's set up intentionally, that sometimes the guilty can't be held accountable. And it's a balance we've struck because we think it's protective of a free society. In my view, that's a good thing.

Insider: It's funny. Compared to most novelists, you're unusually open about your intentions and the fact that parts of your book are based on certain people and experiences from your own life. Most professional novelists protect that stuff like it was sources and methods.

Comey: Oh, is that right? I'm probably making a big mistake.

James Comey stands in front of a wall of signed books.
Comey, the author of two memoirs, told Insider that one of the benefits of writing fiction is that "all I need to write is me and my laptop."James Comey via Twitter

Insider: Maybe there isn't as much on the line for you, given the way that you're already known. Is that just your reflex, to be transparent about your process?

Comey: Yeah, I mean, I try to be transparent in general. It's the reason I could never, or never would want to, be a political candidate. I tend to answer the question I'm asked. If you ask about my process, I'm going to tell you about my process.

Insider: You've spent so much of your career in New York. I feel like the novel is grappling with the possibility that the city is fundamentally corrupt.

Comey: I don't mean to portray it that way. I mean to portray it as person by person, people who are these mixtures of good and bad in different measures.

Insider: Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't all the good people get bought up by the end of the book?

Comey: I don't know if they get bought up. I don't mean to suggest that the good people are compromised at the end. I struggled with the ending. I wondered whether it should be more satisfying. I wrote one version where the FBI comes out of the bushes and makes an arrest at the end. There's a takedown. It's a satisfying ending. But I decided that so much of life is ambiguous, so I decided to go with something slightly unsatisfying. Hopefully it works.

Insider: When I talk about people getting bought up, maybe I'm being too cynical about the private sector.

Comey: Yeah, 'cause it happens all the time. Look, it happened to me. People leave for a variety of reasons, including to make more money so that they can continue to do the things they really want to do down the road. But I'm not trying to say that's corrupt. I'm just trying to say that's real. I want this novel to be real. In the next book, Nora's going to be in the private sector, in the hedge fund world.

Insider: It sounds a bit like "The Wire," — different seasons focusing on different worlds.

Comey: Never thought of that. If I'm doing it, I'm not doing it consciously. I'm imagining a third book back at the US Attorney's Office in Manhattan, probably with a domestic terrorism theme.

Insider: Al-Qaeda or homegrown?

Comey: Homegrown, so white-identity-based terrorism. And then maybe some books about DC. I'd like to take people inside the FBI, the CIA, in a fictionalized way. I'd like to tell stories that show them those places, but I'm not ready to do that yet.

Insider: What do you want to show your readers about the FBI that they don't already know?

Comey: A few things. The FBI is much more complex than the special agent workforce. Special agents are less than one third of the FBI's personnel. And there isn't really one FBI. There are at least 57 FBIs — a New York FBI, a Saint Louis FBI, headquarters, the Washington Field Office. It's more decentralized and has more cultural nodes than even something like the State Department, which has something like 130 embassies.

Insider: The mafia is a big force in the novel. People think of the mafia as a throwback. Is its present influence in New York underappreciated?

Comey: The mafia's power is significantly diminished as compared to 20 years ago, for a lot of reasons. That diminishment is both real and apparent. The apparent part comes from, they have figured out that nobody should want to be named the boss. And nobody should wear a suit standing on Mulberry Street holding court. Because that's a recipe for a life sentence in a federal prison. So they have intentionally adopted a lower profile.

Insider: So this picture of the mafia that we get from Martin Scorsese movies is no longer accurate?

Comey: Yeah. I mean, it still is an organized group of criminals organized into families, and into crews within the family. It still has procedures and discipline and structure. Money still flows up towards the leader. But they've lost their power over labor unions. That was their cash cow, the ability to impose a tax on goods sold in New York, construction, fish-mongering, you name it.

They lost that power through boring civil litigation. The Justice Department brought legal actions to have court appointed monitors run labor unions — electricians, longshoremen, concrete — and to purge the organized crime elements. To the benefit of the workers, obviously, but also to the benefit of consumers of the services those unions provide.

Because again, the five New Yorker Mafia families organized a cartel that decided who was going to get the concrete bid for every building built in New York, who was going to get the steel bid. They were able to jack up the bids because they controlled the construction sites, they controlled access to the materials and made everything in New York much more expensive. And the flip side of that was it generated millions and millions for La Cosa Nostra.

Insider: And as with the novels' governor character, these legacy relationships live on in politics and real estate.

Comey: Well, back in the day, to get anything done in New York, if you were a real estate developer, you had to at least brush against Cosa Nostra to get your work done.

Insider: The novel talks a lot about "digital dust" — commercial data that the authorities can use to track our movements and purchases. In the book, it seems to be pretty innocuous, a tool that the good guys use to catch the bad guys. Are there downsides?

Comey: I guess I'm trying to give people enough information that they can think about that for themselves. I hope people come away from the book with the reaction, "Holy cow, there is a lot that investigators can find out through digital dust."

Insider: You have a lot of haters out there. Are there things that you do as a private individual to make your own communications and your own digital footprint more secure? Things that you could share without making yourself less secure?

Comey:  I remember people making a big deal of the fact that I advised people to have a camera cover on their laptop. And they're like, Well, he's the FBI director and he has a camera cover. Yeah, of course I have a camera cover. I also lock my car and I don't leave the keys in it, and I lock my doors and turn on the alarm when I go to bed at night. None of these things are inconsistent with believing in law enforcement investigations. There's a lot that I do to try to stay safe. I don't want to talk about the particulars of it.

Insider: I was taking another look at your second memoir, "Saving Justice." You talk about the criminal wiretapping process, and how rigorous it is, and what you call the 'pucker factor,' when a prosecutor's reputation is on the line.

Comey: In a criminal case, two individual human beings have to go in front of a judge and put their butt on the line and swear to the truth of the application. The problem with the FISA process as I experienced it is that there was nobody like that. No single individual is ultimately responsible. Instead, you had dozens of people contributing little pieces. The FBI's director's role was simply to certify that a purpose of it was to collect foreign intelligence information, not to the accuracy of it. And an improvement would be to stop that dispersion of responsibility and make an individual human responsible.

Insider: So with Section 702 up for renewal and documented issues with how the FBI had conducted domestic surveillance under that law, do you have any solutions?

Comey: I want to pass on that question only because I don't know well enough what problems were at the FBI and how they occurred.

Insider: Okay, let's forget about the FBI and Section 702 and go back to digital dust versus the Fourth Amendment. On my reading, you do seem to be at least a little bit uncomfortable with the status quo.

Comey: Yeah. I don't have a particular policy prescription, but I worry that as a country we haven't grappled with two very different aspects of that challenge. When I was FBI director, I talked a lot about how it is now possible for bad people to communicate about really bad things without judges being in a position to order access to that information.

But at the same time, I also think we have not grappled with the fact that the distinction between content and non-content is less meaningful today than it ever was, because of the ability of the government and the ability of private companies to put together a pointillist painting of your life from non-content — from just where you went, where you clicked, what you saw, how long your eyes lingered, and so on. I don't think we've grappled with the implications of that, and whether it fits within our normal Fourth Amendment framework.

And I'll throw in another thing, then I'll shut up. It would be a mistake to miss that the corporations involved have far more information about us than the government ever will, or ever could. And these companies are subject to far less oversight, because the Constitution doesn't apply to them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mattathias Schwartz is Insider's chief national security correspondent. He can be reached by email at

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