Editor’s Note: Josh Campbell is a CNN Law Enforcement Analyst, providing insight on crime, justice and national security issues. He previously served as a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI. Follow him on Twitter at @joshscampbell. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Of all the crimes on the books in the United States, there is one kind that impacts every single American citizen.
It’s not terrorism, although terrorist acts have tragically claimed lives, and, at times, instilled fear into our society. It’s not cybercrime, although the ubiquitous nature of electronic devices and connected networks poses vulnerabilities.
Rather, when perpetrated, the single category of crime that affects the entire nation is corruption by government officials, and, if not for the efforts of law enforcement and a robust press, it would continue unabated.
Those elected or appointed to government positions wield significant influence as the custodians of our nation’s authority. They control the levers of power. The bargain that we citizens establish with our government leaders is that we will entrust them with significant power as long as they exercise their duties ethically and honestly – always putting the good of the nation ahead of personal gain.
What happens when a government official strays? In a way, every single citizen is impacted, because we are all party to the social contract our leaders accept when they seek public office. When an official violates his or her oath, the entire system is threatened.
Contrary to one popular belief, I do not believe politicians are inherently shady people, but I do believe they are extremely susceptible to the slippery slope of rationalization. When I was in the FBI, I was read-in on many investigations involving alleged malfeasance on the part of elected officials, and one pattern I noticed is few woke up one day and decided to engage in criminal activity.
Rather, over time, they began to rationalize their behavior. Perhaps they could be making more money in the private sector. Maybe they saw themselves as personally sacrificing for the good of the country, so why not position themselves a smidge better? The stress, long hours, and time away from family surely justify a little extra pay.
While the warning signs of rationalization are tough to spot, the public is not alone in holding those in power accountable. The American people have two powerful advocates in law enforcement and the press. These entities serve crucial watchdog roles, ferreting out corruption where it exists, and serving as deterrents to temptation. They help us answer the critical question: “Are our government officials the kinds of people we want representing us?”
Perhaps surprising to some is the fact that public corruption is one of the FBI’s top criminal investigative priorities, second only to the national security threats stemming from terrorist groups, foreign intelligence services and cyber criminals. When I served in a leadership role at the FBI, I was amazed at the caliber and doggedness of my colleagues who worked the public corruption beat. They approached each case with incredible zeal, ever aware of the responsibility placed in them by the American people to find and disrupt government officials using their public office to enrich themselves.
Now as a commentator for CNN, I’ve been equally impressed with the professionalism and determination of those who work hard every day in order to ensure transparency and accountability. I have witnessed media outlets assign some of their best reporters to cover government agencies, because of their vital role as guardians of democracy.
Which brings us to recent events and the seemingly endless stream of investigations and inquiries into the actions of former, aspiring and current government officials. Those charged are innocent until proven guilty, and an allegation alone should not cement a conclusion, but the sheer number of allegations shows us how much work there is for both law enforcement and the press. It’s not the rock – it’s the pile, and the pile can be crushing.
As we, as a nation, navigate the various ongoing investigations into our government officials, remember that the law enforcement officers working the cases and the gumshoe reporters covering them are simply seeking the truth. We should block out attempts by those actively working to undermine these efforts, and let the investigators and journalists do their work.
In the United States, you do not get to enter into a position of authority without accepting the fact you will be held accountable, and the American people will always trust but verify. The cops and reporters are serving that critical oversight role we expect of them, asking tough questions and deterring other government leaders who might be watching and rationalizing.