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What James Comey’s Trump memo handling says about his approach to data security

What James Comey’s Trump memo handling says about his approach to data security
[Photo: Flickr user Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)]

In a report released Thursday, former FBI director James Comey was faulted by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General for how he handled memos about President Trump, some of which contained information deemed classified.

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“By not safeguarding sensitive information obtained during the course of his FBI employment, and by using it to create public pressure for official action, Comey set a dangerous example for the over 35,000 current FBI employees—and the many thousands more former FBI employees—who similarly have access to or knowledge of non-public information,” according to the report.

Comey kept copies of the memos in his personal safe and shared some of them with his personal lawyers, including working with one lawyer to share some of the information with the New York Times after he was fired by Trump. The memos detailed Trump’s comments on the investigation into Russian election meddling and his calls for “loyalty” from Comey, who arranged for some of the information to be shared with the Times in an effort to spark a special counsel investigation and the preservation of any recordings of his conversations with Trump. The information found to be classified related to the FBI investigation and to Trump’s dinner-table assessments of various foreign countries, but the report also found Comey should have returned all the documents to the FBI after being fired by Trump.

However, the report also shows something else: that Comey thought seriously about data security. He deleted digital copies of several of the memos after printing them, storing the hard copies in his home safe, and told the OIG that he was “obsessive” about deleting electronic documents amid hacking concerns and that he tries “to maintain almost a maniacal hygiene about records.”

While he was working for the FBI, the report reveals, his house also contained a secure room with “enclaves” for storing classified data. It wasn’t anything glamorous—it was a “windowless closet” in his basement that Comey called a “sweat box” since it was often sweltering—but it did contain a secure printer and a second safe. Material in the secure room was collected by the FBI when Comey left office, according to the report.

Arguably, the now-58-year-old Comey was firmly of a print-focused generation. The report mentions his thoughts on which copies of the memos constituted “originals,” referring to copies where he initialed and numbered pages by hand, a notion that’s a bit baffling to people from younger generations. When he redacted confidential information from the documents to share copies with his attorneys, he did so with a marker or by placing an index card over portions of the page as he made copies.

But, as Comey knew, paper is unhackable, and many of the issues the report found fault with arose from when he generated digital copies of the documents. The former FBI director, who will likely be forever remembered for the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email for official business, scanned and took cellphone photos of the memos to share with his lawyers. That ultimately necessitated FBI agents digitally erasing the documents from their hard drives and phones. He also “acknowledged it was possible” that a digital copy of one memo was still somewhere on an unclassified FBI system, even after he deleted it, according to the report.

Comey allegedly violated FBI rules by taking official memos home and sharing data with the press. But when it comes to data security, there are certainly practices a lot worse than locking paper in a safe.

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