WASHINGTON — Most members of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee pressed FBI Director James Comey on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether there was collusion with President Donald Trump’s campaign.
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., however, used his allotted time Monday to chase another thread: what the Justice Department can do to hold government employees accountable for leaking classified information to news reporters, and ferreting out the guilty parties.
“Whether Russia attempted to influence our Democratic process is incredibly important,” said Gowdy. “(But) one thing you and I agree on is felonious dissemination of classified material is indeed a crime.”
He added, “I would humbly ask you to seek authority from whomever you need to seek authority from (to investigate).”
Gowdy, who showed the clipped and confrontational demeanor he more often reserves for cross-examining witnesses during congressional hearings, said he wasn’t “all that interested in motives.”
But, Gowdy, a former South Carolina prosecutor, made it clear he has some ideas of who might have leaked classified information and why: Former members of President Barack Obama’s administration seeking to besmirch members of the incoming administration.
Gowdy also intimated that reporters who wrote about classified information could be guilty of some crime. He asked Comey, dryly, whether journalists received an exception from felony charges if they were printing sensitive material “to break a story.”
In this case, Gowdy was referring to disclosures by anonymous sources to The New York Times and The Washington Post that members of Trump’s inner circle communicated with Russian officials. The disclosures were made by those who would have had access to transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations.
The act of passing such names and details to the media is considered by some to be a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Comey wouldn’t answer specific questions but conceded that Obama’s Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Sally Yates — a holdover from the Obama administration who was serving as acting Attorney General in the first few weeks of the Trump administration — would indeed have known the names of individuals included in classified wiretapped transcripts.
The FBI director also wouldn’t say whether news reporters could be charged with a felony for published stories based on information obtained illegally by their sources. He did concede it was a question the FBI has consistently “struggled” with.
Gowdy made it clear congressional support for some of the federal surveillance programs established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks could hinge on whether the Justice Department can promise more safeguards against leaks and proper punishments of those who do the leaking.
Several of these controversial programs are up for reauthorization later this year.
“We are going to give you the tools to keep us safe even if it it infringes on our privacy some,” Gowdy said. “In turn, you promise to safeguard the privacy of U.S. citizens. When that deal is broken, it jeopardizes American trust in surveillance programs.”