Sasse: "A free and independent press is critical to our democracy and Julian Assange is an enemy of that democracy."

Today, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse questioned FBI Director James Comey about Congress’ cybersecurity, Russia’s influence operations, and WikiLeaks' role as an independent and hostile intelligence agency. 

"Let’s get this straight: a free and independent press is critical to our democracy and Julian Assange is an enemy of that democracy," said Sasse afterward. "If Assange was truly the free speech champion he claims to be, he wouldn’t be collaborating with a Russian thugocracy that murders journalists."  

A transcript of the Senator’s questioning is found below: 

SASSE: Given the expertise and cyber intelligence and investigations, how likely do you think it is that the Senate IT systems have been targeted by foreign intelligence services? 

COMEY: I would estimate it's a certainty. 

SASSE: Inside the IC, who would talk about that problem and who at the Senate would they inform? 

COMEY:  Well, I don't want to talk about particular matters, but it often is the FBI alerting a U.S. Government institution or private sector. DHS might come across it or other parts of the intelligence community, especially NSA. 

SASSE: When we talk about things like cyber investigations so often on cable TV it becomes a shirts and skins exercise. So, without asking you to comment about anything that’s retrospective about 2016, do you think it’s likely that in 2018 and beyond you’re going to see more targeting of public discourse and elections?  

COMEY: I do. I think one of the lessons that the Russians may have drawn from this is that this works and so as I said a month or so ago, I expect to see them back in 2018, especially in 2020. 

SASSE:  You regularly testify and correct me if I've misheard you, but I think you've regularly testified that you don't think the Bureau is short of resources. You don't come before us and make big increased appropriations requests, and yet those of us who are very concerned about cyber look at the U.S. Government at large and think we are not at all prepared for the future. Can you tell us what the FBI is doing to prepare for the 2018 and 2020 circumstance for the vision? 

COMEY: Without giving too much detail, we have an enormous part of the FBI in the counterintelligence division that focuses on just that threat in making sure that we do everything we can to understand how the bad guys might come at us and as I talked about earlier to equip the civilian agencies for hardening the infrastructure with all of the information we have about how they're going to come at us. 

SASSE: And if you had international security domain increased resources, how would you spend another marginal dollar beyond what you would expect to receive now? 

COMEY:  I would probably have a tie between investing more and upgrading our systems to make sure we're keeping pace with the bar of excellence and probably to hire additional cyber agents and analysts. 

SASSE:  And if you had your druthers, what kind of increased funding request would you make? 

COMEY: I wouldn't make any sitting here. 

SASSE:  I'd like to talk a little bit about WikiLeaks. In January, the FBI contributed to an IC assessment that concluded that WikiLeaks was a known outlet for foreign propaganda. Do you stand by that assessment? 

COMEY: Yes.

SASSE: Do you believe that WikiLeaks has released sensitive and classified information? 

COMEY: Yes. 

SASSE: Do you believe any of WikiLeaks disclosures have endangered American lives and/or put at risk American interests? 

COMEY: I believe both have been the result of some of their releases.

SASSE: Can you help me understand why Julian Assange has not been charged with a crime? 

COMEY: Well, I don't want to comment on the particular case because I don't want to confirm whether or not there are charges pending. He hasn't been apprehended because he is inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London. 

SASSE: I sent a letter to the Attorney General a number of weeks ago asking questions about the status of the investigation and it seemed pretty clear, though individuals were polite and kind and responsive to our requests, it seemed that across the I.C. there wasn't much deliberation about Wikileaks and about Julian Assange and this question. Is the FBI participating in any interagency dialogue about whether or not Assange has committed crimes? 

COMEY: I don't know where you got that impression, but WikiLeaks is an important focus of our attention. 

SASSE: I intentionally left almost half of my time for you to sort of wax broadly for a minute. There is room for reasonable people to disagree about at what point an allegedly journalistic organization crosses a line to become a tool for foreign intelligence. There are Americans, well-meaning thoughtful people, who think WikiLeaks might be a journalistic outfit. Can you explain why that is not your view? 

COMEY: I want to be careful I don't prejudice any future proceeding. It's an important question because all of us care deeply about the First Amendment and the importance of a free press to get our work and publish it. 

To my mind it crosses a line when it moves from being about trying to educate a public and instead it becomes intelligence porn, frankly, just pushing out information about sources and methods without regard to interest, without regard to the First Amendment values that normally underlie press reporting and simply becomes a conduit for the Russian intelligence services or some other adversary of the United States just to push out to damage the United States. And I realize reasonable people, as you said, struggle to draw a line and but surely there is conduct so far to the side of that line that there's nothing that smells journalist about some of this conduct. 

SASSE: So, if you could map that continuum, there are clearly members of the IC that have at different points in the past leaked classified information. That is an illegal act, correct? 

COMEY: Correct. 

SASSE: When American journalists court and solicit that information, have they violated any law by asking people in the IC to leak information that is potentially classified? 

COMEY: That conduct is not treated by the U.S. Government as criminal conduct. I've been asked in other contexts, isn't it true that the espionage statute has no carve out for journalists, that's true, but in my life time, the Department of Justice’s has been news gathering and legitimate news covering is not covered and it will not be investigated or prosecuted as a criminal act. That's how it's thought of. 

SASSE: So, an investigative reporter taking advantage of and celebrating the liberties we have under the First Amendment at the Washington Post or at the Omaha World Herald or at the Lincoln Journal Star, the New York Times, trying to talk to people in the IC and get the maximum amount of information they possibly can out of them to inform the public, it is not the burden of an American journalist to discern whether or not the member of the IC is leaking information that might be classified. The journalist can legitimately seek information and it's not their job to police it. The member of the US IC that leaks classified information has broken the law. 

COMEY: The obligation rests on those people who are in the government in possession of intelligence and classified information. It's not the journalist's burden.   

SASSE: Okay. 

COMEY: Our focus is and should be on the leakers and not those that are obtaining it as a part of legitimate news gathering. 

SASSE: So, I want to hear this part one more time and I know the chairman has indulged me, and I'm at and past time. The journalist seeking this information differs from Assange and WikiLeaks how? 

COMEY: In that there's at least a portion, and people can argue that maybe there is conduct WikiLeaks has engaged in the past that's closer to regular news gathering, but in my view a huge portion of WikiLeaks' activities has nothing to do with legitimate news gathering, informing the public, commenting on important public controversies, but is simply about releasing classified information to damage the United States of America. People sometimes get cynical about journalists - American journalists do not do that. They will almost always call us before they publish classified information and say, is there anything about this that would put lives in danger? That’s going to jeopardize government people, military people, or innocent civilians anywhere in the world? And then work with us to accomplish their important First Amendment goals while safeguarding those interests. This activity I am talking about, WikiLeaks, involves no such considerations whatsoever. It's what I said - intelligence porn -  just push it out in order to damage. 

SASSE: Thank you.