The idea that the FBI’s late October decision to inform Congress that it had renewed investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of email might have affected the outcome of the presidential election makes Director James Comey “slightly nauseous,” he told a Senate committee Tuesday.
But Comey, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, defended his decision, saying that when faced with what he saw as two choices – speak or conceal – speaking out was the least damaging. “Lordy that would be really bad,” Comey recalled thinking when considering alerting Congress so close to an election that additional emails had been found on a computer belonging to disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner, husband to Clinton aid Huma Abedin. But to conceal renewed interest in Clinton’s email, he said, would have been “catastrophic” to the bureau.
“It was a hard choice, I still believe in retrospect the right choice,” Comey said.
The wide-ranging hearing touched on the unmasking U.S. persons, the potential for corruption posed by shell corporations, 702 targets, “going dark” when encryption is employed and the obstacles Comey believes it poses to FBI investigations, of course, Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
While Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) opened the hearing, part of the committee’s annual oversight of the agency, touching on a broad array of topics, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat, said the hearing came at a unique time, in the aftermath of a contentious presidential that found members of the Trump Administration accused of colluding with Russian operatives to exert influence on the outcome.
Feinstein pressed Comey on why the FBI handled the revelation of its investigation of Clinton and a probe of Trump’s team differently. That the FBI had been looking into the actions of Trump associates who had been caught up in incidental data collection during another investigation since last summer was only recently revealed.
“Why didn’t you just do the investigation [of Clinton] as you would normally, with no public announcement?” Feinstein said.
The FBI director said that after initially informing Congress that the agency had found nothing prosecutable, “to restart in a hugely significant way, potentially finding the emails that would reflect on her intent from the beginning and not speak about it would require an act of concealment in my view.”
When Comey told the House Intelligence Committee in March that the FBI was investigating Russia’s interference in the presidential election and any ties to Donald Trump’s campaigns, he said he broke with agency protocol of not confirming ongoing investigations in the “public interest.”
Feinstein said she couldn’t “imagine how an unprecedented big and bold hacking interference in our election” didn’t merit earlier disclosure to Congress and the public.
Comey confirmed to the senators that he stood by previous assertions that Russia had hacked the election and that there was no evidence that former President Barack Obama had “wiretapped” Trump Tower, as the current president has claimed.
When questioned about the source of recent intelligence leaks, the FBI director said he’d never been an anonymous source. “Never,” said Comey. Nor, he added, had he authorized anyone in the FBI to be an anonymous source to the press. “No,” he said, adding that to his knowledge no information related to Donald Trump had been declassified and leaked to the media.
But he refused to say whether the leaks were being investigated. “I don’t want to answer for reasons I think you know,” he said. “I don’t want to confirm in an open setting that there are any investigations open; don’t have authorizations from the [Justice] Department.”