Rep. Gowdy Presses FBI Director on 'Felonious Dissemination of Classified Material' by Reporters

By Craig Bannister | March 20, 2017 | 3:44 PM EDT

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.)

FBI Director James Comey testified on Monday that he is unaware of any exception for “reporters who want to break a story” from laws prohibiting “felonious dissemination of classified materials.”

At a House hearing on Russian interference with U.S. elections, Comey told Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) that, while there’s no known exception for reporters, he doesn’t know of any who have been prosecuted for reporting classified information.

Still, Comey conceded that the relevant statute specifically prohibits classified information from being “published” and that the only way for a reporter to have knowledge of such information is if “somebody told them who shouldn’t have told them.”

Rep. Gowdy: “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?”

Rep. Gowdy: “Yes sir.”

Comey: “No.”

Rep. 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.”

Rep. 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.”

Rep. 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.”

Rep. 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?”

Rep. Gowdy: “Yes.”

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

Rep. Gowdy: “And assume none of those facts are at play, how would they know?”

Comey: “Someone told them who shouldn't have told them.”

Rep. Gowdy: “How would a reporter know about the existence of intercepted phone calls?”

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

Rep. Gowdy: “How would reporters know if a transcript existed of an intercepted communication?”

Comey: “Same answer. 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.”