FBI Director James Comey declined to say Monday whether his team has launched an investigation into the leaks that led to former White House national security advisor Mike Flynn's ouster.
Comey was pressed by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., to say whether he could confirm such an investigation is taking place, but Comey said he could not because it might confirm that classified information was leaked.
"I can't, but I hope people watching know how seriously we take leaks of classified information," he said during Monday's hearing on Russia's influence on the election. "But I don't want to confirm it by saying that we're investigating it."
Flynn was fired following leaks of intercepted phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The leaks showed that Flynn had discussed the sanctions imposed on Russia by then-President Barack Obama in retaliation for Russia's cyberattacks during the 2016 election — a revelation contrary to Flynn's public statements and his statements to Vice President Mike Pence.
While Democrats pushed Comey to discuss possible links between Trump's campaign and the Russians, Republicans emphasized the impropriety of the leaks and worried that it would create opposition to the federal government's surveillance authority.
Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, pushed for information about who might have known about Flynn's conversations with the Russian ambassador. Comey refused to say if he briefed Obama on the phone calls, although he confirmed that former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates — whom Trump fired for refusing to enforce his immigration executive order — would have had access to the information.
"What I don't ever want to do is compound what bad people have done and confirm something that's in the newspaper," Comey said. "Because sometimes the newspaper gets it right, [but] there's a whole lot of wrong information allegedly about classified activities that's in the newspaper — we don't call them and correct them, either. That's another big challenge. But we just don't go anywhere near it because we don't want to help and compound the offense that was committed."
Gowdy argued that he was wrong to stand on such ceremony under the circumstances, particularly given that a major NSA surveillance program is scheduled to expire this year unless Congress reauthorizes the program. Comey emphasized that the program, known as Section 702, has nothing to do with the Flynn scandal, but Gowdy argued that the storyline is still a threat to that program.
"You are 100 percent correct and I am 100 percent correct that that is a distinction that doesn't make a difference to most of the people watching television," Gowdy said. "What we are reauthorizing this fall has nothing to do with what we are discussing, other than it is another government program where the people consent to allow government to pursue certain things with the explicit promise it will be protected. So, you're right, they're different, but in the eyes of people watching, it is the U.S. government officials leaking the name of a U.S. citizen ... trust me, you and I both want to see it reauthorized. It is in jeopardy if we don't get this resolved."
• This article has been corrected to reflect that Comey refused to say if he briefed Obama on the phone calls.