James Comey probably wishes he'd called in sick Monday. After weeks of speculation and dribs and drabs of teasers, in a jolting upbraid of a sitting president, and with clearance from the Justice Department, the FBI director broke with bureau protocol to reveal an investigation not only into Russia's interference in the presidential election but into any possible collusion between members of Donald Trump's campaign and operatives from the nation-state.
"The FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election," the FBI director told members of the House Intelligence Committee at an open hearing. "And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts."
Comey probably knew what was coming next – suspicion tinged by a hint of derision from both sides of the aisle.
Democrats were riled up because, well, you know, the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Or rather Comey's last-minute announcement last fall that the emails uncovered by the FBI in a separate investigation (cue a photo of Anthony Weiner here) might bring new evidence to bear, followed quickly (in government terms) by a declaration that the emails did nothing of the sort. Trump detractors are still smarting from that one-two punch, which they widely believed to have damaged Clinton's candidacy and helped Trump massage a victory out of the electoral college, and peeved that Comey didn't disclose earlier the bureau's investigation into the collusion by the Trump campaign.
And the Republicans, well they're implying that Comey is soft on leakers who have fed the press a steady of sensitive, even classified, information about the activities and machinations of Trump operatives, including the “unmasking” of Gen. Mike Flynn, the new administration's “blink-and-you-missed-him” national security adviser who was forced to resign ostensibly for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his dealings with Russia.
To his credit, Comey remained cool even while the seat below him most certainly threatened to sear his britches as Congress grilled him on everything from Trump Adviser Roger Stone's assertions that he'd been in touch regularly with Guccifer 2.0, widely believed to be a persona for Russian hacking groups, to who's responsible for “unmasking” Americans under investigation.
Comey deftly navigated the fine line between what he could reveal and what he couldn't, citing classified information or bureau policy to refrain from comment about its investigatory activities.
The hearing, which heard both Comey and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers testify on allegations of Russia meddling and Donald Trump's March 4 tweets that former President Barack Obama “wiretapped” him during the campaign, was like watching a mashup of too different hearings – one into the Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election and possible collusion between Trump administration people and the nation-state; the other a probe of how information on said investigations and other interactions was leaked to the press and to the public.
Both sides, knowing that Comey would likely stick to his guns, still pressed him for answers in an attempt to pack information into “the record.”
Gowdy, known best for his relentless pursuit of Clinton on Benghazi, attempted to put a finer point on the feloniousness of leaking the information and got names – like Susan Rice, tk, and tk – on the record, presumably implying that one (or more) of them could be the source(s) of leaks that as the panel noted, sometimes seemed to appear hours, or even minutes, after a private briefing.
“It would be nice to know the universe of people who have the power to unmask a U.S. citizen's name. Because that might provide something of a roadmap to investigate who might've actually disseminated a masked U.S. citizen's name,” Gowdy said.
And Comey agreed, stressing that "leaks are terrible and taken very seriously," by the FBI.
The South Carolina congressman indicated, too, that journalists might be culpable and face consequences for revealing classified information passed to them by anonymous sources, but Comey noted that's not so clear cut in the eyes of the Justice Department.
Ranking Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) laid out, in painstaking detail, the different parts and pieces of a growing puzzle – from Flynn and Attorney Jeff Sessions prevaricating on their interactions with Russians to revelations that Clinton Campaign Manager John Podesta's emails would be leaked -- that may or may not add up to nefarious – and potentially treasonous – actions on the part of some affiliated with Team Trump.
“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated, and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible,” Schiff said in his opening statement. “But it is also possible, maybe more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated, and that the Russians used the same techniques to corrupt U.S. persons that they have employed in Europe and elsewhere. We simply don't know, not yet, and we owe it to the country to find out.”
Despite the lawmakers' posturing, this is not an either/or situation, nor is it, as a popular meme about another issue, says, pie. Investigators must get to the heart of both Russia's meddling (and any ties to the administration) and the leaks that seem to drip from government these days.
Both pose an ongoing threat to security and both demand the BIPARTISAN attention of Congress – and, increasingly more likely, a special prosecutor.
Whistleblowing plays an important role in the checks and balances that prevent or at least minimalizes government overreach. And many leakers have the best of intentions when they release information that government would not like for us to see. But when government leaks like a sieve, it's not taking the proper steps to secure data – and that leaves us open and vulnerable to all sorts of threats.
It goes without saying that any hint of treason, through collusion with a foreign power, should be thoroughly probed. And our lawmakers must, on whole, give priority to cyber threats by nation-states. We don't want a repeat of the 2016 election...or worse. The consequences – from attacks on infrastructure to the dismantling of democracy – can be devastating.
Comey didn't call in sick, Congress shouldn't either.