South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy led an unsuccessful Republican effort on Monday to elicit a pledge from the director of the FBI that his agency would investigate how the media had obtained classified information about a probe of Russian influence in the U.S. election.
But FBI Director James Comey resisted, telling lawmakers in a rare public hearing of the House Intelligence Committee only that he took such leaks seriously.
“I can’t, but I hope people watching know how seriously we take leaks of classified information. But I don’t want to confirm it by saying we’re investigating it,” Comey said. “I’m sorry I have to draw that line, but that’s the right way to be.”
Over the course of a brief but intense interrogation, Gowdy pressed Comey to condemn leaks to The Washington Post and The New York Times and asked whether a series of officials in former President Barack Obama’s administration would have had access to the kind of information that had landed in news reports.
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The Post and others separately reported connections between the Russian ambassador and Michael Flynn, leading the former general to step down as Trump’s national security adviser after a short tenure.
Gowdy asked Comey whether he agreed that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other U.S. surveillance programs that monitor foreign targets, and which in these cases appear to have incidentally captured interactions with U.S. officials, were “vital and critical to the national security” and that they preserve the privacy of U.S. citizens. Comey repeatedly agreed.
“It is a serious crime,” Comey said. “I won’t comment on those particular articles because I don’t want to in any circumstance compound a criminal act by confirming that it was classified information. But in general, yes, it is a serious crime and should be for the reasons that you said.”
Gowdy said the information collected by intelligence agencies was “so highly valued” that it carried a felony of up to 10 years in federal prison if the information were unlawfully sent out.
“The way I view it, Director Comey, the American people have an agreement with the government,” Gowdy said. “We will give you the tools to keep us safe even if it infringes upon our privacy some. We will give you the tools. And government, in return, promises to safeguard the privacy of U.S. citizens. And when that deal is broken, it jeopardizes American trust in the surveillance program.”
He questioned Comey in hypothetical terms on how he would investigate such leaks and both agreed that there was no exception under the law that allowed officials to leak the information, nor is there an exception for reporters who publish the leaks.
Gowdy finally pleaded with Comey to seek authority to investigate the leaks, reiterating that it was vital to keep citizens’ trust.
“We, the American people, we give certain powers to government to keep us safe,” Gowdy said. “And when those powers are misused and the motive is not criminal investigations or national security, I will bet you that my fellow citizens are rethinking their side of the equation. Because that U.S. citizen could be them next time.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story wrongly said that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the unnamed person Rep. Trey Gowdy was referring to regarding a story in The Washington Post. Gowdy was referring to Michael Flynn.