Comey: 'Nobody' Uses 1917 Law Making Gross Negligence in Handling Classified Material a Crime

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2016 | 11:55 AM EDT

FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 7, 2016, before the House Oversight Committee to explain his agency's recommendation to not prosecute Hillary Clinton, now the Democratic presidential candidate, over her private email setup during her time as secretary of state. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(CNSNews.com) - FBI Director James Comey told Congress on Thursday that there is a law, passed in 1917, criminalizing gross negligence in handling classified material, but "nobody" ever invokes it, and he insisted that Justice Department prosecutors wouldn't, either.

He said the Justice Department has applied that 1917 law only once over the years; and knowing the Justice Department as he does, "No reasonable prosecutor would bring the second case in 100 years focused on gross negligence," Comey said.

"I know the Department of Justice, I know no reasonable prosecutor would bring this case. I know a lot of my former friends are out there saying they would. I wonder where they were in the last 40 years, because I'd like to see the cases they brought on gross negligence. Nobody would, nobody did."



In his opening statement to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Comey said he welcomed the opportunity to explain why the FBI reached the conclusion it did regarding Hillary Clinton's careless use of a personal email server.

He said the FBI was guided by the facts, the law, and how people have been treated in the past:

"There are two things that matter in a criminal investigation of a subject -- what did the person do, and when they did that thing, what were they thinking? When you look at the hundred-years plus of the Justice Department investigation and prosecution of the mishandling of classified information, those two questions are obviously present," Comey said.

Comey said it's important to know what people were thinking: "We don't want to put people in jail unless we prove that they knew they were doing something they shouldn't do. That is the characteristic of all the prosecutions involving the mishandling of classified information."

He pointed to the 1917 statute "that on its face, makes it a crime, a felony, for someone to engage in gross negligence. So that would appear to say, well maybe in that circumstance you don't need to prove they knew they were doing something that was unlawful. Maybe it's enough to prove that they were just really, really careless, beyond a resonable doubt."

But Comey noted that at the time Congress passed the law in 1917, "there was a lot of concern in the House and the Senate about whether that was going to violate the American tradition of requiring that before you're going to lock somebody up, you prove they knew they were doing something wrong. And so there was a lot of concern when the statute was passed.

"As best I can tell, the Department of Justice has used it once in the 99 years since, reflecting that same concern," he said.

"I know from 30 years with the Department of Justice, they have grave concerns about whether it's appropriate to prosecute somebody for gross negligence, which is why they've done it once that I know of, in a case involving espionage.

"And so when I look at the facts we gathered here, as I said, I see evidence of great carelessness, but I do not see evidence that's sufficient to establish that Secretary Clinton or those with whom she was corresponding both talked about classified information on email and knew when they did it that they were doing something that was against the law.

"So given that assessment of the facts, and my understanding of the law, my conclusion was and remains, no reasonable proseuctor would bring this case. No reasonable prosecutor would bring the second case in 100 years focused on gross negligence."

Comey told the committee, "That's just the way it is."

"I know the Department of Justice, I know no reasonable prosecutor would bring this case. I know a lot of my former friends are out there saying they would. I wonder where they were in the last 40 years, because I'd like to see the cases they brought on gross negligence. Nobody would, nobody did."

Comey said people can disagree, but he stands by his and his team's decision that the "appropriate resolution was not with a criminal prosecution."


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