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James Comey Is No Mastermind

He might be unsavory, but he's not a threat to the republic.
August 29, 2019
James Comey Is No Mastermind
BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 19: Former FBI Director James Comey talks backstage before a panel discussion about his book "A Higher Loyalty" on June 19, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. Comey is in Berlin at the invitation of the American Academy in Berlin. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Former FBI director James Comey did not break the law by mishandling classified information, according to a report released by the Justice Department’s inspector general. The report faults “Comey for acting unilaterally and inconsistent with Department policy,” and says he “merits criticism,” but does not say he broke the law.

For those who focused on Comey as a hate object for his role in the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia interference in the 2016 campaign, the IG report is a letdown. It amounts to a slap on the wrist of a former employee without any real ramifications. More importantly, it falls far short of providing evidence of a deep-state conspiracy.

The IG report criticizes Comey’s handling of several memos he wrote detailing his interactions with President Trump. One of them he gave to a friend with instructions to leak them to the news media, while others he shared with is personal attorneys – all without notifying the FBI. The IG found that handling “sensitive information” in a self-serving fashion broke Justice Department and FBI policies (which are distinct from criminal laws) and set a poor example for other federal law enforcement personnel.

At the same time, it denied that Comey had committed any crimes. One of the memos he wrote was later determined by the FBI to have “confidential” information – the lowest level of classification. The Justice Department has already decided not to charge Comey with a crime based on the contents of the IG report.

Most of the information Comey had was “sensitive” – an unofficial designation which indicates that special care should be made to protect it, but no specific information security processes apply. “Classified” information is legally secret, and Comey may have mishandled some classified information, but not in a way that amounted to a crime.

By comparison, Hillary Clinton was accused of mishandling “Top Secret-Sensitive Compartmented Information” (TS-SCI), which is several rungs of secrecy up the ladder from “Confidential.”

There’s no doubt Comey’s actions fell somewhat short of the best traditions of the Justice Department and the FBI. He may be selfish, reckless, overly political, and slightly vain, but he’s no deep-state conspiracy mastermind.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.