January 1, 2003: An FBI agent is charged with gross negligence but pleads guilty to lesser charges.

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Ex FBI agent James J. Smith (Credit: The Associated Press)

James Smith is an FBI agent for more than 20 years, running counterintelligence operations against Chinese spies. In 2003, three years after retiring from the FBI, he is arrested by the FBI and charged with gross negligence. He had a sexual relationship with a longtime source, Katrina Leung. He is alleged to have carried classified documents in a briefcase and sometimes left the case open and unattended while he visited her. Leung was believed to be a double agent working for the Chinese government but loyal to the FBI. However, she copied some of the documents, which were found in her safe. Smith is also charged with wire fraud for submitting false reports on Leung’s activities as an FBI asset.

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Katrina Leung makes the front cover of U.S. News & World Report on November 2, 2003. (Credit: public domain)

The original charges against Smith are later dropped in a plea deal whereby he pleads guilty to a single felony count of making false statements by failing to mention his affair with Leung. He is sentenced to three months of home confinement, three years of probation, and a $10,000 fine. It is alleged there was no damage to national security because the classified information never got further than Leung when she was arrested at the same time he was.

Leung is charged with obtaining and keeping classified documents in violation of the Espionage Act, but without an explicit charge of espionage. She also strikes a plea deal, pleading guilty to making a false statement and filing a false tax return. She is sentenced to probation.

In July 2016, FBI Director James Comey will announce he is not going to charge Clinton with gross negligence, claiming only one other person, Smith, has been charged with it in 100 years. (Politico, 7/7/2016)

July 7, 2016: Comey says he didn’t recommend Clinton be charged because he couldn’t prove intent, despite the gross negligence law.

In Congressional testimony, FBI Director James Comey essentially argues that Clinton was guilty of gross negligence, which doesn’t require proof of intent, but he was only willing to indict her on intent-related charges, and there wasn’t enough evidence for that. He says: “Certainly, she should have known not to send classified information. As I said, that’s the definition of negligent. I think she was extremely careless. I think she was negligent. That, I could establish. What we can’t establish is that she acted with the necessary criminal intent.” (CNN, 7/7/2016)

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Representative William Hurd (Credit: Alchetron)

Representative William Hurd (R) asks, “What does it take for someone to misuse classified information and get in trouble for it?”

Comey answers, “It takes mishandling it and criminal intent.” He admits that Clinton mishandled the information by having it on a private server, but he doesn’t see evidence of criminal intent. (CNN, 7/7/2016)

He further comments, “There’s not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that she knew she was receiving classified information or that she intended to retain it on her server. There’s evidence of that, but when I said there’s not clear evidence of intent, that’s what I meant. I could not, even if the Department of Justice would bring that case, I could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt those two elements.” (CNN, 7/7/2016)

At another point in the hearing, he argues, “The question of whether [what she did] amounts to gross negligence frankly is really not at the center of this because when I look at the history of the prosecutions and see, it’s been one case brought on a gross negligence theory.” (CNN, 7/7/2016)

The law criminalizing gross negligence in national security lapses was enacted in 1917. Comey says, “I know from 30 years there’s no way anybody at the Department of Justice is bringing a case against John Doe or Hillary Clinton for the second time in 100 years based on those facts.”

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James Smith (Credit: CNN)

The FBI later confirms to Politico that James Smith is the one case Comey is referring to. Smith, a longtime FBI agent, was arrested in 2003 and charged with gross negligence. However, he later pleaded guilty in return for having the charges reduced to one count of making false statements. (Politico, 7/7/2016)

But Comey’s claim that gross negligence has only been used once in recent decades is true only if one looks at cases brought by the Justice Department. Cases have also been brought in the military justice system.

Additionally, Politico points out, “Comey’s universe was also limited to cases actually brought, as opposed to threatened. The gross negligence charge is often on the table when prosecutors persuade defendants to plead guilty to the lesser misdemeanor offense of mishandling classified information.” (Politico, 7/7/2016)

Later in the hearing, Representative Blake Farenthold (R) says, “So Congress when they enacted that statute said ‘gross negligence.’ That doesn’t say ‘intent.’ So what are we going to have to enact to get you guys to prosecute something based on negligence or gross negligence? Are we going to have to add, ‘and oh by the way, we don’t mean — we really do mean you don’t have to have intent there?'”

Comey replies, “That’s a conversation for you all to have with the Department of Justice. But it would have to be something more than the statute enacted in 1917. Because for 99 years, they’ve been very worried about its constitutionality.” (CNN, 7/7/2016)

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Representative Tim Walberg (Credit: Twitter)

Representative Tim Walberg (R) asks him, “Do you believe that the — that since the Department of Justice hasn’t used the statute Congress passed, it’s invalid?”

Comey responds, “No. I think they are worried that it is invalid, that it will be challenged on Constitutional grounds, which is why they’ve used it extraordinarily sparingly in the decades.” (CNN, 7/7/2016)

During the hearing, it is pointed out several times that felony crime based on negligence and not intent are common at both the state and federal level, for intance manslaughter instead of murder, and their consitutionality has never been successfully challenged. At one point, Comey admits other negligence cases have been sustained in the federal system: “They’re mostly, as you talked about earlier, in the environmental and Food and Drug Administration [FDA] area.” (CNN, 7/7/2016)

But he is adamant about not indicting any cases without being able to prove intent. At one point, he even suggests he is philosophically opposed to any laws based on negligence when he mentions, “When I was in the private sector, I did a lot of work with the Chamber of Commerce to stop the criminalization of negligence in the United States.” (CNN, 7/7/2016)