Elise Stefanik, a Republican lawmaker who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, introduced legislation Wednesday that would require the FBI director to promptly inform Congress when investigations of candidates for federal office are undertaken by federal law enforcement or intelligence authorities.
Two years ago, when then-FBI Director James Comey finally notified Congress that he’d opened up a counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign the previous year, some members were deeply troubled. Not only was the FBI director not supposed to hide his counterintelligence work from a key group of congressional members who receive his briefings, he was supposed to notify them in particular about politically sensitive probes.
The legislation from Stefanik, a three-term representative from New York, addresses a loophole in current law that allowed Comey to unilaterally withhold that information from key congressional oversight bodies. In a March 2017 hearing, Comey admitted to Stefanik that he did not follow the typical protocols or procedures regarding notifying Congress about the opening of a counterintelligence investigation in part because he was not required to do so.
Pressed to explain why he waited nine months to brief the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees, he admitted he was supposed to provide quarterly updates but had refused to do so regarding the Trump-Russia probe for the same reason many thought he should have done so. “I think our decision was, it was a matter of such sensitivity that we wouldn’t include it in the quarterly briefings,” he said.
Comey suggested in testimony that he did not make the decision to hide the information from Congress, placing the blame on the “head of our counterintelligence division.” But Bill Priestap, the former assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, told a joint congressional committee it was Comey himself who made the decision to hide the existence of the anti-Trump spy operation from Congress.
“Mr. Comey was involved in those notifications. I was not,” Priestap told lawmakers. “I don’t instruct Mr. Comey, nor did I ever instruct him to do anything.” When Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, asked him point-blank “Who made the decision not to brief Congress in this particular instance?” Priestap said, “Mr. Comey.”
Stefanik’s legislation would formalize the requirement of quarterly updates on counterintelligence briefings. In addition, it would require the FBI director to “promptly notify” the committees if the agency was investigating any candidate for federal office, any candidate’s campaign, or any individual known to be affiliated with a campaign.
The Trump-Russia probe from the 2016 campaign touched off a massive scandal that included wiretaps of private citizens, weaponization of campaign-funded opposition research, the deployment of overseas intelligence assets against American citizens, and allegations that America’s top law enforcement and intelligence officials were attempting a soft coup of the duly-elected president of the United States. That probe, thanks to strategic leaks from intelligence officials, then folded into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling two-year-long investigation. It resulted in zero charges related to collusion or conspiracy with Russia to steal the election from Hillary Clinton.
Attorney General William Barr acknowledged the spy operation before the Senate Wednesday, and said he is reviewing the origins of the probe.