Trey Gowdy Grills Comey: Who Has The Power To Unmask A U.S. Citizen's Captured Communications?

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Rep. Trey Gowdy attempts to question FBI director James Comey about how many people have the power to 'unmask' the name of a U.S. citizen in communications intercepted by the intelligence services. This information would serve as the basis for any investigation into who has been leaking classified documents.

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.

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