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At This Hour

FBI Director James Comey Testifies Before House Intelligence Committee. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 20, 2017 - 11:00   ET


REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: In February of this year, the Washington Post reported nine, nine current and former officials who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the call, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters and that officials began poring over intelligence reports, intercepted communications, and diplomatic cables.


In February of this year, the New York Times reported a U.S. citizen, whose name I will not use, discusses sanctions with the Russian ambassador in a phone call according to officials who have seen a transcript of the wiretapped conversation. And again in February of this year, the New York Times reported on a phone call involving a U.S. citizen including significant discussions of phone records, intercepted calls, intercepted communications, and reported the NSA captured calls and then asked the FBI to collect as much information as possible.

My time is up so I will say this for this round. I thought it was against the law to disseminate classified information. Is it?

JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: Yes, sir. It's a serious crime. I'm not going to comment on those particular articles because I don't want to, in any circumstance, compound a criminal act by confirming that it was classified information but in general, yes, it's a serious crime and it should be for the reasons you said.

GOWDY: We'll take it back up next round, Mr. Chairman.


I'll now yield 15 minutes to Mr. Schiff.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Director Comey, I want to begin by attempting to put to rest several claims made by the president about his predecessor, namely that President Obama wiretapped his phones. So that we can be precise, I want to refer you to exactly what the president said and ask you whether there is any truth to it.

First, the president claimed, quote, "Terrible. Just found out that Obama had my wires tapped in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism," unquote.

Director Comey, was the president's statement that Obama had his wires tapped in Trump Tower a true statement?

COMEY: With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.

SCHIFF: The president accused Mr. Obama and presumably the FBI of engaging in McCarthyism. As you understand the term McCarthyism, do you think President Obama or the FBI was engaged in such conduct?

COMEY: I'm not to try and characterize the tweets themselves. All I can tell you is we have no information that supports them.

SCHIFF: Were you engaged in McCarthyism, Director Comey?

COMEY: I try very hard not to engage in any isms of any kind, including -- including McCarthyism.

SCHIFF: The president second stated quote "Is it legal for a sitting president to be wiretapping a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by a court earlier, a new low," unquote.

Director Comey, can you answer the president's question? Would it be legal for present Obama to have ordered a wiretap of Donald Trump?

COMEY: I'm not going to characterize or respond to the tweets themselves.

I can tell you in general, as -- as Admiral Rogers and I were just saying, there is a statutory framework in the United States under which courts grant permission for electronic surveillance either in a criminal case or a national security case based on a showing of probable cause, carefully overseen. It's a rigorous, rigorous process that involves all three branches of government, and it's one we've lived with since the late 1970s. That's how it works.

So no individual in the United States can direct electronic surveillance of anyone, it has to go through an application process, ask a judge, the judge can I make the order.

SCHIFF: So President Obama could not unilaterally order a wiretap of anyone?

COMEY: No president could.

SCHIFF: Mr. Trump also asserted in that tweet that he was -- that the application -- or the president's order was turned down by a court. Was there any request made by the FBI or Justice Department to wiretap Donald Trump turned down by a court? COMEY: That's one of those subjects I can't comment on one way or another. Please don't interpret that in any way other than I just can't talk about anything that relates to the Pfizer process in an open setting.

SCHIFF: Third, the president stated, I bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October just prior to the election.


Director Comey, you're a good lawyer. Can you make out a great case that president Obama wiretapped Mr. Trump's phones just prior to the election in light of the fact you've said there is no evidence of that?

COMEY: All I can say is what I said before, that we don't have any information that supports those tweets.

SCHIFF: Well, in my view then, you would not be a great, but very unethical lawyer to make up such a case. And finally, the president made the following accusation. How low has president Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process? This is Nixon- Watergate. Bad or sick guy.

Director Comey, the president has compared Mr. Obama to Nixon and purported wiretap of Trump phones as another Watergate. What was the gravamen of the offense by Nixon and his operatives during Watergate? A lot of people who may be watching may be too young.

SCHIFF: To understand what Watergate was about, what was the gravament of that offense?

COMEY: Well, as I recall it then, I was a kid, but I've studied it quite a bit in school. The gravament of it was an abuse of power including break-ins, unlawful wire taps, obstruction of justice, sort of the cycle of criminal conduct.

SCHIFF: There was a break-in of the democratic headquarters by operatives of the president, was it not?

COMEY: That's my understanding is that's how it began -- the investigation began.

SCHIFF: It also involve the cover up by the president.

COMEY: Yes, as I said.

SCHIFF: Now here, I think you've said there's been no evidence of an illegal wiretap by president Obama, is that right?

COMEY: I've said the FBI and the Department of Justice have no information to support those tweets.

SCHIFF: But there is evidence, is there not, of a break in of the democratic headquarters by a foreign power using cyber means? COMEY: Yes there was, as the -- as the intelligence community report, the un-class report, said in January, the Russian intelligence services hacked into a number of enterprises in the United States, including the Democratic National Committee.

SCHIFF: And there was an effort by the Russians to cover up their break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters, by using cutouts like WikiLeaks to publish the stolen material, isn't that right?

COMEY: Certainly to cover up their -- that they were the ones releasing it.

SCHIFF: Director Rogers, in an effort to explain why there was no evidence supporting the president's claim that Obama had wiretapped him, the president and his spokesman, Sean Spicer, have suggested that British intelligence through its NSA or GCHQ wiretapped Mr. Trump on President Obama's behalf.

Did you ever request that your counterparts in GCHQ should wiretap Mr. Trump on behalf of President Obama?

ADMIRAL MICHAEL S. ROGERS, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY: No sir, nor would I, that would be expressly against the construct of the Five Eyes agreement that's been in place for decades.

SCHIFF: And the Five Eyes are some of our closest intelligence partners and Britain -- Britain is one of them?

ROGERS: Yes, sir.

SCHIFF: Have you seen any evidence that anyone else in the Obama administration made such a request?

ROGERS: No sir, and again, my view is the same as Director Comey, I've seen nothing on the NSA side that we engaged in any such activity, nor that anyone ever asked us to engage in such activity.

SCHIFF: And if you were to ask the British to spy on America, that would be a violation of U.S. law, would it not?

ROGERS: Yes, sir.

SCHIFF: Our relationship with British intelligence is one of the closest we have with any foreign services, isn't that true?

ROGERS: Yes, sir.

SCHIFF: Now, the British allies -- our British allies have called the president's suggestion that they wiretapped him for Obama nonsense and utterly ridiculous. Would you agree?

ROGERS: Yes, sir.

SCHIFF: Does it do damage to our relationship with one of our closest intelligence partners for the president to make a baseless claim that the British participated in a conspiracy against him? ROGERS: I think it clearly frustrates a key ally of ours.

SCHIFF: Certainly wouldn't endear the British intelligence services to continue working with us, would it? ROGERS: I believe that the relationship is strong enough, this is something we'll be able to deal with.

SCHIFF: But it's not helpful...

ROGERS: Yes, sir...

SCHIFF: ... you would agree?

ROGERS: ... that -- that...

SCHIFF: Director Rogers, President Trump recently met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a joint press conference, the president suggested that they both had something in common, that they had both been wiretapped by President Obama.

Director Comey has just demonstrated why the claims by the president about his being wiretapped by Obama were unsupported by any evidence. But the claim he made about wiretapping directed at Merkel referred to something that came up in the context of the Snowden disclosures.

I'm not going to ask you to comment on whether the Chancellor was the subject of any eavesdropping. But I would like to ask you whether the Snowden disclosures did damage to our relationship with our German ally and whether the Chancellor herself expressed her concern at the time.


ROGERS: Yes, sir.

SCHIFF: In light of this, is it helpful to our relationship with the Chancellor or our relationship with German intelligence, to bring this up again in a public forum?

ROGERS: It certainly complicates things. But again, I'd like to think that our relationship is such we're gonna be able to deal and keep moving forward.

SCHIFF: So our relationships with the British and the Germans, you hope, are strong enough to withstand any damage done by these comments?

ROGERS: By anything in general, sir. We have foundational interest with each other, we need to keep working together.

SCHIFF: This time, Director Comey, let me ask you a few questions you may or may not be able to answer. Do you know who Roger Stone is?

COMEY: Generally, yes.

SCHIFF: Are you aware that he was a partner of Paul Manafort? COMEY: Mr. Schiff, I'm worried we're going to a place I don't want to go, which is commenting on any particular person. And so I -- I don't think I should comment. I'm aware of public accounts but I don't want to talk more than that.

SCHIFF: Are you aware that he has publicly acknowledged having directly communicated with (inaudible), someone that the intelligence community has assessed was a person of Russian intelligence?

COMEY: I've read media accounts to that effect. I don't wanna hurt anybody's feeling in the media. I don't know whether that's accurate or not.

SCHIFF: If Mr. Stone acknowledged Mr. Podesta's time in the barrel was coming in August 2016, would that have been prior to the public release of stolen e-mails of Mr. Podesta's?

COMEY: I believe that's the correct chronology.

SCHIFF: Do you know how Mr. Stone would've known that Mr. Podesta's e- mails were going to be released?

COMEY: That's not something I can comment on.

SCHIFF: Do you know that Mr. Podesta has said that at the time he was not even aware whether his e-mails had been stolen would be published?

COMEY: That's nothing something I comment on.

SCHIFF: At this point Mr. Chairman, I'm going to yield to Mr. Himes.

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Thank you to the ranking member. And gentlemen, thank you for being with us today.

Let me -- when I get my own time I'll -- I'll -- I'll have some follow-up questions. But let me start with a point that the chairman brought out I think very specifically which is that there's no evidence that votes were technically changed in any of the jurisdictions that he named.

Admiral Rogers, thanks for confirming that, but am I correct, that the -- when we say Russian hacking what we are referring to is the fact that the intelligence community believes that the Russians penetrated the networks of the DNC, of John Podesta, and other individuals, stole information and then disseminated that information. Is that a fair characterization of the -- of the conclusions of the intelligence community?

ROGERS: Yes sir.

HIMES: And did the intelligence community ever do an analysis as to whether the dissemination of that adverse information in a closely fought election had any effect on the American electorate?

ROGERS: No sir. The U.S. intelligence community does not do assessments ... HIMES: Of course not. (CROSSTALK)

ROGERS: ... U.S. opinion.

HIMES: That's -- that's -- that's not your job.

ROGERS: No sir.

HIMES: The fact is, those of us who go through campaigns know that's actually something we probably have a little bit more understanding of. Let me just ask this question then. Was there any equivalent dissemination of adverse information stolen from the RNC or individuals associated with the Trump campaign?


HIMES: Thank you.

Director Comey, in -- in the remaining minutes here. I appreciate your frankness on the topic of an ongoing investigation and appreciate your inability to go too much further than you went. But I do want to ask you a question to try to clear up some confusion.

This committee, of course, is engaged in investigation about links, as you said, between the Trump campaign and the Russians, should there be any possible collusion. We've had a number of statements very early in the investigation that there was no evidence of collusion. This is still very early in our investigation, is it fair to say that you're still relatively early in your investigation?

COMEY: It's hard to say because I don't how much longer it will take. But we've been doing this -- this investigation began in late July, so for counterintelligence investigation that's a fairly short period of time.

HIMES: So, you used the word coordination which to me suggests that you are in fact investigating whether there was coordination between U.S. persons and the Russians.


Is it fair for me to assume that we shouldn't simply dismiss the possibility that there was coordination or collusion between the Russian efforts and U.S. persons as an investigatory body?

COMEY: Well all I can tell you is what we're investigating which includes whether there was any coordination between people associated with the Trump campaign and the Russians.

HIMES: OK. Thank you, I'll yield the remaining time to the ranking member.

SCHIFF: I will yield the remaining time this period to Representative Sewell.

REP. TERRI SEWELL (D), ALABAMA: Thank you. So, with respect to the coordination, Director Comey, I just wanted to continue this line of questioning, can you say with any specificity what kinds of coordination or contacts you're looking at in your investigation generally when confronted with something like this?

COMEY: I can't.

SEWELL: Can you discuss whether or not there was any knowledge by any Trump- related person and the Russians?

COMEY: I can't.

SEWELL: So with respect to any ongoing investigation, whether the specificity of the person, U.S. person or otherwise, you can't comment on any of that.

COMEY: Correct.

SEWELL: OK. Can you characterize what the nature of your investigation generally, wouldn't -- when you do an investigation of this sort, can you talk a little bit about the process, generally?

COMEY: Not a whole lot. I can tell you we use our great, great people, we coordinate with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the intelligence community to see what they may know from around the world that might be useful to us and we use all the different tools and techniques that we use in all of our investigations. That's probably the most -- I'm not sure that's useful to you, but that's the most I can say.

SEWELL: How long does a counterintelligence investigation like this usually take? You said that it started in July.

COMEY: There is no usually. It's hard -- it's impossible to say, frankly.

SEWELL: I yield back my time.

NUNES: Thank you, Ms. Sewell. We'll go back to -- I'll yield myself 15 minutes and we'll go back to Mr. Gowdy.

GOWDY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Director Comey, you and I were discussing the felonious dissemination of classified material during the last round. Is there an exception in the law for current or former U.S. officials who request anonymity?

COMEY: To release classified information?

GOWDY: Yes sir.


GOWDY: Is there an exception in the law for reporters who want to break a story? COMEY: Well that's a harder question as to whether a reporter incurs criminal liability by publishing classified information and one probably beyond my ken. I'm not as good a lawyer as Mr. Schiff said I used to be.

GOWDY: Well, I don't know about that but the statute does use the word published, doesn't it?

COMEY: It does, but that's a question I know the Department of Justice has struggled with through administration after administration.

GOWDY: I know the department struggled with it, the 4th Circuit struggled with it, lots of people have struggled with it but you're not aware of an exception in the current dissemination of classified information statute that carves out an exception for reporters.

COMEY: No, I'm not aware of anything carved out in the statute. I don't think a reporter's been prosecuted certainly in my lifetime though.

GOWDY: Well, there've been a lot of statutes that bore on this investigation for which no one's ever been prosecuted or convicted and that does not keep people from discussing those statutes, namely the Logan Act. In theory, how would reporters know a U.S. citizen made a telephone call to an agent of a foreign power?

COMEY: How would they know legally?


COMEY: If it was declassified and then discussed in a judicial proceeding or congressional hearing. Something like that.

GOWDY: And assume none of those facts are at play, how would they know?

COMEY: Someone told them who shouldn't have told them.

GOWDY: How would a reporter know about the existence of intercepted phone calls?

COMEY: Same thing. In a -- in a legitimate way, through a appropriate proceeding where there's been declassification. In any other way, in an illegitimate way.

GOWDY: How would reporters know if a transcript existed of an intercepted communication?

COMEY: Same answer. It -- it -- the only legitimate way would be through a proceeding -- appropriate proceeding, the illegitimate way would be somebody told him who shouldn't have told them.

GOWDY: What does the term mask mean in the concept of FISA and other surveillance programs?

COMEY: As Director Rogers explained, it's our practice, approved by the FISA court, of removing the names of U.S. persons to protect their privacy and their identity unless it hits certain exceptions. So masking means, as Mike Rogers said -- I'll often see a intelligence report from NSA that will say U.S. person number one, U.S. person number two, U.S. person number three and there's no further identification on the document.


GOWDY: Admiral Rogers said there are 20 people within the NSA that are part of the unmasking process. How many people within the FBI are part of the unmasking process?

COMEY: I don't know for sure. As I sit here, surely more, given the nature the FBI's work. We come into contact with U.S. persons a whole lot more than the NSA does because we may be conducting -- we only conduct our operations in the United States to collect electronic surveillance -- to conduct electronic surveillance, so I don't -- I can find out the exact number, I don't know it as I sit here.

GOWDY: Well, I think, Director Comey, given the fact that you and I agree this is critical, vital, indispensable, a similar program is coming up for reauthorization this fall with a pretty strong head wind right now. 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.

COMEY: Sure. The number is relevant but what I hope the U.S. -- the American people realize is the number's important, but the culture behind it is in fact even more important. The training, the rigor, the discipline. We are obsessive about FISA in the FBI for reasons I hope make sense to this committee but we are -- everything that's FISA has to be labeled in such a way to warn people this is FISA, we treat this in a special way.

So we can get you the number, but I want to assure you the culture of the FBI and the NSA around how we treat U.S. person information is obsessive and I mean that in a good way.

GOWDY: Director Comey, I am not arguing with you and I do agree that culture is important, but if there are 100 people who have the ability to unmask and the knowledge of a previously masked name, then that's 100 different potential sources of investigation and the smaller the number is, the easier your investigation is.

So the number is relevant. I can see the culture is relevant. NSA, FBI, what other U.S. government agencies have the authority to unmask a U.S. citizen's name?

COMEY: I think all agencies that collect information pursuant to FISA have what are called standard minimization procedures, which are approved by the FISA court that govern how they will treat U.S. person information. So I know the NSA does, I know the CIA does, obviously the FBI does. I don't know for sure beyond that.

GOWDY: How about the department of -- how about Main Justice? COMEY: Main Justice, I think does have standard minimization procedures.

GOWDY: All right, so that's four. The NSA, FBI, CIA, Main Justice. Does the White House have the authority to unmask a U.S. citizen's name?

COMEY: I think other elements of the government that are consumers of our products can ask the collectors to unmask. The unmasking resides with those who collected the information.

And so if Mike Rogers's folks collected something and they sent it to me in a report and it says U.S. person number one and it's important for the FBI to know who that is, our request will go back to them. The White House can make similar requests of the FBI or of NSA but they can't on their -- they don't own their own collect and so they can't on their own unmask. I got that about right? ROGERS: No, that's correct.

COMEY: Yeah.

GOWDY: I guess what I'm getting at, Director Comey, is you say it's vital, you say it's critical, you say it's indispensable. We both know it's a threat to the reauthorization of 702 later on this fall. And by the way, it's also a felony punishable by up to 10 years.

So how would you begin your investigation, assuming for the sake of argument that a U.S. citizen's name appeared in the Washington Post and the New York Times unlawfully. Where would you begin that investigation?

COMEY: Well, I'm not gonna talk about any particular investigation...

GOWDY: That's why I said in theory.

COMEY: You would start by figuring out, so who are the suspects? Who touched the information that you've concluded ended up unlawfully in the newspaper and start with that universe and then use investigative tools and techniques to see if you can eliminate people, or include people as more serious suspects.

GOWDY: Do you know whether Director Clapper knew the name of the U.S. citizen that appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post?

COMEY: I can't say in this forum because again, I don't wanna confirm that there was classified information in the newspaper.

GOWDY: Would he have access to an unmasked name?

COMEY: In -- in some circumstances, sure, he was the director of national intelligence. But I'm not talking about the particular.

GOWDY: Would Director Brennan have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen's name?

COMEY: In some circumstances, yes. GOWDY: Would National Security Adviser Susan Rice have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen's name?

COMEY: I think any -- yes, in general, and any other national security adviser would, I think, as a matter of their ordinary course of their business.

GOWDY: Would former White House Advisor Ben Rhodes have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen's name?

COMEY: I don't know the answer to that.

GOWDY: Would former Attorney General Loretta Lynch have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen's name? COMEY: In general, yes, as would any attorney general.

GOWDY: So that would also include Acting AG Sally Yates?

COMEY: Same answer.


GOWDY: Did you brief President Obama on -- well, I'll just ask you. Did you brief President Obama on any calls involving Michael Flynn?

COMEY: I'm not gonna get into either that particular case that matter, or any conversations I had with the president. So I can't answer that.

GOWDY: Well, Director Comey, there's been some speculation this morning on motive. I'm not all that interested in motive -- first of all, its really hard to prove.

Secondarily, you never have to prove it. But I get that people wanna know, I get the jury all wants -- always wants to know why. I think you and I can agree there are a couple of reasons that you would not have to unlawfully, feloniously, disseminate classified material. It certainly wasn't done to help an ongoing criminal investigation, because you already had the information, didn't you?

COMEY: Again, I can't answer in the context of this particular matter.

GOWDY: How about in theory? Is -- is -- is there something a reporter would have access to that the head of the FBI would not?

COMEY: It's hard for me to answer, I would hope not when it relates to the FBI...

GOWDY: I would hope not too, since its part of our surveillance programs. I would hope that you had access to everything as the head of the world's premier law-enforcement agency. I would hope that you had it all. So if you had it all, the motive couldn't have been to help you, because you already had it. And Admiral Rogers, the motive couldn't have been to help you, because you already had it.

So in the universe of possible motives for the felonious dissemination of classified material, we could rule out wanting to help the intelligence and the law enforcement communities. Those are two motives are gone now. That leaves some more nefarious motives. Is the investigation into the leak of classified information -- has it begun yet?

COMEY: I can't say because I don't want to confirm that that was classified information.

GOWDY: Well, I'm -- I don't want to quarrel with you Director Comey and I -- I do understand that you cannot ordinarily confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. But you did it this morning, citing DOJ policy given the gravity of the fact pattern. Would you not agree that surveillance programs that are critical, indispensable, vital to our national security, some of which are awful reauthorization this fall, that save American lives and prevent terrorist attacks also rises to the level of important?

COMEY: I think those programs are vital and leaks of information collected pursuant to court order under those programs are terrible. And as I said in my opening statement should be taken very, very seriously.

What I don't ever want to do is compound what bad people have done and confirm something that's in the newspaper. Because sometimes newspaper get it right, there's a whole lotta wrong information about -- 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: I understand that Director Comey. And I'm trying really hard not to get you to discuss the facts at bar (ph). But some of the words that appeared in this public reporting, include the word transcript which has a very unique use in the matters that you and I are discussing this morning. That is a very unique use of that word, wiretap has a very specific meaning. The name of a U.S. citizen that was supposed to statutorily be protected, is no longer protected.

So some of this reporting -- let's assume 90 percent of it is inaccurate, that other 10 percent is still really, really important. And to the extent that you can rely on the dates in either the Washington Post or the New York Times, we are talking about February of this year is when the reporting first took place. So we are -- we're a month and a half or two months into something that you and I agree, is incredibly important and also happens the felony.

So I'm just simply asking you to assure the American people, you've already assured them you take it really seriously. Can you assure them that it is going to be investigated?

COMEY: I can't but I hope -- I hope people watching know how seriously we take leaks of classified information. But I don't want to confirm it by saying that were investigating it. And I'm sorry I have to draw the line, I just think that's the right way to be.

GOWDY: Well I'm not argue with you Director Comey but it is -- we're going to discuss a lot of important things today. Whether Russia attempted to influence our democratic process is incredibly important.


Whether they sought to influence it as a separate analysis, incredibly important.

The motive behind that interference and influence, incredibly important. Our U.S. response, incredibly important.