FBI Director James Comey made a big deal of publicly announcing — "I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm ..." — that his agents are investigating Trumpworld over allegations of collusion with Russia in the 2016 campaign. But until asked specifically at Monday's House Intelligence Committee hearing, Comey said nothing about his decision to keep the investigation secret from Congress, the White House (via the National Security Council), the Justice Department and even from his colleagues in the intelligence community.
In the course of questioning, Comey revealed that the investigation began in July 2016. Then, late in the hearing, Comey admitted he kept the existence of the investigation a secret from the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate intelligence committees until the past month.
And then, Comey hinted — just a hint, nothing definitive — that he kept Congress in the dark as part of his effort to keep the White House in the dark.
The revelation came in response to questions from Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik. Comey told Stefanik that there is a "practice" of the FBI briefing the top two members of each intelligence committee, plus the director of national intelligence, the Justice Department, and "some portion of the National Security Council at the White House" quarterly on "sensitive cases." Since the Trumpworld investigation began in July 2016 — eight months ago — the FBI should have briefed senior congressional leadership at least twice on the progress of the investigation.
Comey conceded he had not done that.
"When did you notify the DNI, the White House or senior congressional leadership?" Stefanik asked.
"It's a good question," replied Comey. "Congressional leadership, some time recently."
What was "some time recently"? Stefanik revealed that Comey's first briefing of congressional intelligence committee leadership was in "the past month."
"If the open investigation began in July and the briefing of congressional leadership only occurred recently, why was there no notification prior to the recent — to the past month?" asked Stefanik.
"I think our decision was it was a matter of such sensitivity that we wouldn't include it in the quarterly briefings."
Of course, in Comey's own words, the practice exists for the FBI to brief on "sensitive cases." But this case, apparently, was too sensitive for the sensitive cases briefing.
"Why was the decision made not to brief senior congressional leadership until recently when the investigation had been open since July?" Stefanik asked again. "A very serious investigation — why was that decision to wait months?"
"Because of the sensitivity of the matter."
That's as far as Comey would go. At the end of her questioning, Stefanik admonished the FBI director to keep Congress updated in the future. "I think moving forward, it seems that the most severe and serious investigations should be notified to the senior congressional leadership," she said.
"That's good feedback, Ms. Stefanik," Comey said. "The challenge for us is sometimes we want to keep it tight within the executive branch, and if we're going to go brief congressional leaders, the practice has been, then we brief inside the executive branch. And so, we have to figure out how to navigate that in a good way."
Comey didn't elaborate, and it's impossible to say with complete confidence what he meant. But it seems fair to read his comment as saying this: If we kept to our practice, when we briefed congressional leaders, we would also have to brief the White House. We didn't want to brief the White House, so we didn't brief anybody.
By saying he wanted to keep the investigation "tight within the executive branch," Comey actually meant tight within the FBI — never mind that the White House is the head of the executive branch. Thus, Comey kept the fact of the investigation secret from the congressional overseers who certainly had a right to know what was going on.
Comey's secrecy may have had wide-ranging repercussions. Even though there were leaks from inside the investigation, the fact that the FBI, for so many months, would not acknowledge the existence of the probe led to widespread public doubt — and wild debate — about what was happening.
Even people who should have known what was going on — say, the chairman of the House or Senate intelligence committee — couldn't say. And, if Comey kept the director of national intelligence in the dark as well, then his public statements were to some degree uninformed, as well. Just a few weeks ago, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made news when he said that, as of his departure from office on Jan. 20, he knew of no evidence of Trumpworld collusion with the Russians.
Many lawmakers and journalists cited Clapper's statement to support the argument that there's no there there in the Trumpworld collusion allegation. But for all the public knows, James Comey kept Clapper in the dark, too.
The problem with all the spy-vs.-spy secrecy is that on an issue of the utmost public importance — remember that some opponents hope to use the Russia issue to drive President Trump from office — people who should know something, and thus be able to speak authoritatively, in fact knew even less than we thought they did. And all, apparently, so James Comey could keep his secret.