James B. Comey isn't one to abuse the term “fake news.” Just doesn't seem like his style. But there are concrete reasons the FBI director does not scream, yell or tweet about inaccurate reports — reasons he explained Monday in a congressional hearing.
“I've read a whole lot of stuff, especially in the last two months, that's just wrong,” Comey said. “But I can't say which is wrong.”
“We'll give information to our adversaries that way,” he said. Also: “We can't because where do you stop on that slope? 'Cause then, when I don't call the New York Times and say, 'You got that one wrong,' bingo; they got that one right. So it's just an enormously complicated endeavor for us. We have to stay clear of it entirely.”
Comey was responding to questions from Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), who expressed his own frustration at reading news reports, based on unnamed government individuals, that he said he knows to be flawed.
“What is the obligation of the intelligence community to correct such falsehoods?” Turner asked.
“We not only have no obligation to correct that; we can't,” Comey replied. “It's very, very frustrating,” he added, “but we can't start down that road.”
This “enormously complicated endeavor” is not just a hypothetical one. The White House last month asked Comey's agency to publicly shoot down a New York Times report about contact between Donald Trump campaign aides and Russian intelligence officials. The FBI refused.
As I wrote at the time, if the FBI had countered the Times's report, as the White House requested, its silence on future stories could have been viewed as tacit confirmations of their accuracy. Comey made clear Monday that this is exactly why the FBI does not want to be in the business of refereeing news reports.