Former FBI Director James Comey's revelation that he provided memos recounting his meetings with President Trump to a friend who then read parts of it to a New York Times reporter, has reignited a debate in Washington about leaks.
There are three distinct questions being debated here, and it's important to deal with them separately. One is whether what Comey did was illegal. One is whether what Comey did was justifiable. And the other is whether what Comey did should be defined as a leak.
On the question of legality, I don't know enough about the law and have not seen the full contents of the memos, so I am not in a position to offer a flash judgment beyond saying that I'm highly skeptical what Comey did violated any laws.
On the question of whether the manner in which Comey distributed information was justifiable, that's debatable. Trump's behavior during their meetings as described by Comey was a completely inappropriate effort to lean on a law enforcement official to go easy on a former close aide who was under investigation. It's a good thing for the public, and Congress, to know that their president is behaving so deplorably and, in the most charitable interpretation, that he has no sense of the propriety required for his powerful position. So, there is certainly an argument to be made that by going about things as he did, Comey helped shed light on this behavior and force the deputy attorney general to hire a special counsel who will be able to act with more independence.
Of course, there is also an argument that if Comey really felt, as he testified, that "I needed to get that out into the public square," there were a number of other options open to him. He could have easily released the full memos, written an article describing his meetings that relied on the memos, or even gone on the record in the initial story reporting on the contents of his memos. Instead, he gave memos to a friend that he withheld from Congress, and had his friend give only snippets to the media.
Again, this much can be argued both ways.
But on the question of whether what he did constituted a leak, I'd say unequivocally, by any operating definition of a leak employed by journalists for decades, the answer is yes.
There seem to be two main arguments journalists are making as to whether this constitutes a leak. One is that the memos were unclassified. Another is that the memos were written by him and thus his to share. This perspective can be seen in a Twitter exchange between Politico magazine editor Blake Hounshell and Politico writer Jake Sherman. "Dear confused people: It's not a ‘leak' if you are a private citizen sharing unclassified recollections," Hounshell tweeted, to which Sherman replied, "Right – for example: when a former cabinet secretary writes a book, it's not a leak."
In reality, there has never been a standard under which only unclassified disclosures have been described as "leaks." When an early draft of the Republican healthcare bill came out earlier this year, it was widely referred to as a "leaked" draft – including in Politico's headline. The same was true when the Washington Post obtained audio of a closed-door meeting in which House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy joked about Trump getting money from Russia. Nobody would argue that either of those stories involved classified info. Washington media frequently talks about "White House leaks" which often involve gossip and embarrassing details about the administration that stop well short of being deemed classified.
The argument that it wasn't a leak because it was Comey's info to share would be more convincing if, as described by Sherman, Comey were writing his account in a publicly released memoir for all the world to see. Even if Comey directly gave the information to a reporter, one would be on stronger ground arguing that it wasn't a leak. But Comey handing over information to his friend, so that his friend could anonymously give nuggets of it to a reporter, while keeping the memos from Congress, is in no way equivalent. It is a leak.
Now, this isn't to let Trump off the hook, either. By tweeting Friday morning, "WOW, Comey is a leaker!" Trump was clearly trying to discredit Comey by conflating his leaks with the much more serious leaks involving classified information provided to the media by individuals who were not in a position to share it. Clearly, what Comey did was not in any way the same, and even those who would criticize his actions would have to acknowledge that.
The most accurate way to put things is that not all leaks are created equal, and James Comey did not leak classified national security information, but what he did was still a leak.