FBI Director James Comey confirmed Monday that former Obama administration officials — including several at the White House — would have had access to classified information about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn that several news organizations published.
Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee that he was extremely concerned about illegal leaks of classified material but stopped short of confirming an active criminal investigation.
“It would be nice to know the universe of people who have the power to unmask a U.S. citizen, because that might provide something of a road map to investigate who actually might have disseminated and unmasked a U.S. citizen’s name.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) pressed Comey hard about leaks that revealed conversations between Flynn and Russian officials. President Donald Trump ultimately fired Flynn for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about those conversations.
While Democrats on the committee pressed in vain for testimony linking Trump and his associates to collusion with Russian officials who U.S. intelligence agencies say tried to influence the 2016 election, Gowdy and other Republicans kept the focus on the only crime that has been identified so far — illegal dissemination of conversations recorded by intelligence authorities.
Comey said he could not comment about Flynn. But in general, he acknowledged, several top officials would have access to the information or could request it. That includes top Obama appointees at the Justice Department, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and others. Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, testified that 20 people in his agency have the authority to “unmask” a U.S. citizen whose identity normally would be disguised.
Comey testified that the number of officials at the FBI with that authority likely would be higher than that. But he said he did not know the exact number.
“It would be nice to know the universe of people who have the power to unmask a U.S. citizen, because that might provide something of a road map to investigate who actually might have disseminated and unmasked a U.S. citizen’s name,” Gowdy said.
Comey testified that, generally speaking, there was only way a reporter could print classified material he was unauthorized to have.
“Someone told them who shouldn’t have told them,” he said.
Gowdy said reporting the leaks could not aid in a criminal investigation because Comey, as head of the FBI, already would have the information. It also could not advance national security because any leaks appearing in the press would be information that Rogers already possessed, Gowdy said.
“We could rule out wanting to help the intelligence communities and the law enforcement communities,” he said. “Those are two motives that are gone now. That leaves some more nefarious motives.”
Comey said leaks of that nature are troubling and would be a “serious crime.” But he declined to assure the American people that his agents would investigate.
“I can’t, but I hope people watching know how seriously we take it,” he said. “But I don’t want to confirm it by saying that we’re investigating it.”
Gowdy noted that a similar surveillance program is coming up for renewal in Congress later this year.
“We the American people give certain powers to government to keep us safe,” he said. “And when those powers are misused and the motive is not criminal investigation or [national] security, then I’ll bet you my fellow citizens are rethinking their side of the equation.”