Does Comey deserve an apology? Not if you read the IG’s report
In July 2017, the Department of Justice’s inspector general (IG) began an investigation into whether former FBI Director James Comey improperly handled and shared government memos, including some containing classified information.
The IG’s now-issued report found Comey guilty of multiple violations and referred him for possible prosecution. The Justice Department declined to prosecute.
After the IG report was issued, Comey declared exoneration and asked for apologies via Twitter: “I don’t need a public apology from those who defamed me, but a quick message with a ‘sorry we lied about you’ would be nice.”
However, almost the entirety of the IG’s report consists of harsh criticism and denouncements of Comey’s violations of Justice Department, intelligence community and FBI policies, an executive order, and his own FBI employment agreement.
So why did Comey really do wrong? According to the IG:
- Outside of the FBI office, Comey improperly used his personal safe and personal devices — including his laptop and printer — to create, revise, store and transmit memos about his conversations with President Trump.
- These memos are government documents that belong to the public and require special handling. Some contained classified information. Comey improperly treated them as if they were personal memos.
- Comey used his personal devices even though the FBI outfitted his home with a secure, controlled-access room — a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF — designed for such purposes. The SCIF at Comey’s home contained a secure printer and a safe.
When asked why he failed to use the SCIF, Comey told the IG he “wasn’t thinking about [the memos] … [belonging to the] Government — [he] thought … this is for me” so he used his “personal unclass system.” Comey also described the SCIF as a “sweatbox … a very, very small” windowless closet in his basement that “was always about 110 degrees.”
The IG, however, said that Comey never told anyone he considered his memos about President Trump to be his personal property rather than government documents until the IG questioned him about the violations.
The IG’s report found Comey’s argument — that the memos were “personal records” — was “not reasonable,” given statements he had made to the IG and others in which he recognized the memos were work-related, and given the “clarity of relevant provisions of law, policies and Comey’s Employment Agreement.”
- Despite knowing at the time that at least one memo contained classified information, Comey did not appropriately mark it with classification banners, portion markings or a classification authority block. This violated an executive order as well as policies of the intelligence community, Justice Department and FBI.
- When President Trump fired Comey on May 9, 2017, Comey failed to follow requirements to surrender the FBI documents stored in his personal home safe and did not tell the FBI about them.
As the IG’s report stated: “We found it particularly concerning that Comey did not tell anyone from the FBI that he had retained copies of the Memos in his personal safe at home, even when his Chief of Staff, the FBI’s Associate Deputy Director, and three [Supervisory Special Agents] came to Comey’s house on May 12, 2017, to inventory and remove all FBI property.”
- The IG found that Comey committed multiple violations by releasing the government memos to third parties without required authorizations. After he was fired, Comey improperly transmitted 12 copies of the memos to his personal attorneys — four memos to each of three lawyers.
- Comey also gave a copy of one memo to his friend and FBI colleague, Columbia Law School professor Daniel Richman, with instructions for Richman to leak the information to the New York Times in order to achieve Comey’s stated personal goal: the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Trump-Russia collusion and obstruction of justice allegations.
- After Comey was fired, FBI officials handling his departure obtained copies of the memos from FBI offices where Comey had distributed and stored them. These FBI officials did not know that Comey retained copies in his home safe. They also did not know he had leaked to the New York Times or given copies to his attorneys.
On June 7, 2017, the FBI gave Comey copies of all the memos to review before he testified about them to Congress. During this review, Comey saw markings indicating the FBI had classified additional material in one of his memos. However, he failed to alert the FBI that he had given copies of it to his attorneys.
- On June 8, 2017, the FBI finally learned that Comey had shared with the Times — through an intermediary, Professor Richman — the contents of one memo, when he admitted it in his congressional testimony.
Comey told the IG he believed his leak to the Times would “change the game” by creating “extraordinary pressure on the leadership of the Department of Justice, which [Comey did] not trust,” to appoint a special counsel.
The IG found Comey’s leak to the Times “made public sensitive investigative information related to an ongoing FBI investigation.”
As the IG’s report stated: “Members of Comey’s senior leadership team used the adjectives ‘surprised,’ ‘stunned,’ ‘shocked’ and ‘disappointment’ to describe their reactions to learning that Comey acted on his own to provide the contents of Memo 4, through Richman, to a reporter. The unauthorized disclosure of this information — information Comey knew only by virtue of his position as FBI director — violated the terms of his FBI employment agreement and the FBI’s Prepublication Review Policy.”
- Comey was not fully forthright in his congressional testimony on June 8, 2017, either. Although he admitted to the Times leak, he omitted that he had transmitted 12 additional copies to his personal attorneys without the required authorization. The FBI only learned this information when officials talked to Richman.
Again, from the IG’s report: “By not safeguarding sensitive information obtained during the course of his FBI employment, and by using it to create public pressure for official action, Comey set a dangerous example for the over 35,000 current FBI employees — and the many thousands more former FBI employees — who similarly have access to or knowledge of non-public information.”
And what is Comey’s response to all of this?
Comey told the IG he was compelled to take the actions he took “if I love this country … and I love the Department of Justice, and I love the FBI.”
Comey also said he believed he was “uniquely situated” to leak the information to the Times as a private citizen, but that he chose to do this through an intermediary — Richman — because he did not want to respond to follow-up questions from reporters.
The IG concluded that if current or former FBI employees were to follow Comey’s example and disclose sensitive information in service of their own strongly held personal convictions, the FBI would be unable to dispatch its law enforcement duties.
As the IG’s report declared: “Comey had several other lawful options available to him to advocate for the appointment of a Special Counsel, which he told us was his goal in making the disclosure. What was not permitted was the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive investigative information, obtained during the course of FBI employment, in order to achieve a personally desired outcome.”
In the end, Comey was correct when he tweeted that the IG “found no evidence that Comey or his attorneys released any of the classified information contained in any of the memos to members of the media.” But it’s hard to consider that sub-sub-subfinding by the IG much consolation amid what reads like a sea of documentation about Comey’s wrongdoing.
With that in mind — and considering that others have been prosecuted for similarly mishandling or leaking government documents, or for allegedly misleading the FBI — does James Comey deserve an apology? You can decide for yourself.
Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”
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