Yes, Comey did leak classified information
The new report from the Justice Department inspector general proves beyond any doubt that fired FBI Director James Comey leaked sensitive law enforcement material in the Trump-Russia investigation. Doing so set a “dangerous example” for the bureau’s other employees, Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote.
Still, Comey’s supporters have claimed exoneration on one front: that Comey did not leak classified information. Some reacted angrily when President Trump tweeted that Comey had done so.
But Comey did, in fact, leak classified information. It’s right there in the report. It wasn’t much classified information, and it was perhaps not terribly important, and Justice Department officials concluded it was not worth prosecuting. But Comey leaked classified material.
Comey implicitly recognized as much even as he claimed vindication. In a tweet, Comey quoted the report, saying: “DOJ 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.’” To that, Comey added, “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.”
But the portion of the report Comey highlighted said he did not release classified information to members of the media. That’s true; Comey, through his friend and lawyer Daniel Richman, leaked sensitive but unclassified law enforcement material to the media. But it’s also true that Comey leaked classified information to his lawyers. Comey gave classified information to people who were not authorized to receive it.
Comey wrote seven memos about his interactions with Trump. In June 2017, the month after Comey was fired, the FBI checked the memos to see if any contained classified information. From the report: “The FBI determined that Memos 1 and 3 contained information classified at the ‘SECRET’ level, and that Memos 2 and 7 contained small amounts of information classified at the ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ level. The FBI designated Memos 4, 5, and 6 as unclassified ‘For Official Use Only.’”
Memo 4 was the one Comey leaked, through Richman, to the New York Times with the hope of setting off a firestorm that would result in the appointment of a special counsel. The inspector general concluded the leak violated Justice Department and FBI policy, as well as Comey’s terms of employment. But it had no classified material in it.
The problem for Comey was Memo 2, which he sent to Richman and to Comey’s two other lawyers, Patrick Fitzgerald and David Kelley. Of the memos Comey shared with his attorneys, Memo 2 contained six words that the FBI determined in June 2017 to be classified at the ‘CONFIDENTIAL’ level,” the inspector general report said. In a footnote, the report added: “Four of the six words in Memo 2 that the FBI determined were classified were the names of foreign countries being discussed by the president….The president referenced the countries when he conveyed his personal views on the relative importance of promptly returning telephone calls from the leadership of the named countries.”
Comey, who as director was something known as an OCA, or Original Classification Authority, had the power to classify material on his own. He did not classify Memo 2 at the time he wrote it, but an FBI team later determined it should be classified. When the document was released to the public, portions were blacked out to reflect that classification.
Another indication of the material’s status as classified was that the the FBI took extensive steps to remove it from the computers and devices of the three lawyers, Richman, Fitzgerald, and Kelley, who received it. After top bureau officials determined that there was classified material in what Comey had sent, in June 2017 the FBI dispatched agents to Richman’s home to take away his desktop computer. Nine days later, they returned the computer “after taking steps to permanently remove the memos from it,” the report said.
In later months, FBI agents “met with the individuals and IT professionals associated with [Fitzgerald’s and Kelley’s] accounts, and confirmed that the emails and copies of the memos were deleted from the computer systems that had received them.”
It was a lot of work. “The FBI wouldn’t have wasted time deleting copies of Memo 2 from Comey’s lawyers’ email accounts if it didn’t contain classified information,” a source familiar with the interactions between the FBI, the inspector general’s office, and oversight committees on the Hill about the classified clean-up efforts told me. “There is no doubt Comey leaked that classified memo to his counsel, and oversight committees have known about the clean-up operation since it first occurred.”
Comey’s defenders can argue that just a few words on Memo 2 were classified. They can argue, as Comey apparently believes, that even those words should not have been classified. But the fact is, they were classified, and Comey sent them to unauthorized recipients, and after the FBI learned about it, the bureau took steps to clean up what it called a “spill” of classified material.
So it’s true that Comey did not leak classified information to members of the media. But he still leaked classified information. The Justice Department decided that given the small amount of classified material involved, and given that it was formally classified after Comey sent it, and given the difference of opinion on whether it should be classified at all, prosecuting Comey was not warranted.
Finally, there is no doubt that Comey’s leak of sensitive law enforcement material was far more serious, and far more consequential, than his leak of classified information. That was the inspector general’s focus when he wrote that “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.” Comey’s rationale — that he was compelled to leak sensitive law enforcement information because he loved his country and loved the FBI — was not sufficient, the inspector general said. “Comey’s closest advisers used the words ‘surprised,’ ‘stunned,’ ‘shocked,’ and ‘disappointment’ to describe their reactions to learning what Comey had done,” the report noted.
Surprised, stunned, shocked. Comey’s FBI colleagues did not utter those words because they heard Comey had been exonerated. They uttered them when they heard the full extent of what Comey did, and that included leaking classified information.