On October 19, 1973, Nick Akerman and his fellow Watergate investigators began hoarding whatever documents they could from the office of the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. They knew that the next day, Cox planned to disobey President Richard Nixon and announce before a clutch of reporters at the National Press Club that he would pursue taped recordings from inside the Oval Office; they also knew that in doing so, Cox was risking his job and the fate of the investigation.
“We took everything we could possibly take so we would know exactly where we were in the investigation,” Akerman, a former assistant special Watergate prosecutor, remembers. “The concern was we’d all be fired by the end of it.”
Nixon never fired Akerman, but he did fire Cox in a scandal now known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” It was the last time a sitting president fired the lead investigator in a case involving him until this week, when President Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey in the midst of an ongoing probe into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Critics of Trump’s decision have been quick to compare Comey and Cox. And they’ve raised the question: What becomes of all of Comey’s records? Some former intelligence officials have gone so far as to wonder whether it was any coincidence that the decision to can Comey came when he was in Los Angeles, thousands of miles from his Washington office and its trove of secrets.
But anyone looking to secret away documents from today’s FBI would have a much tougher time. For all of the talk of parallels between Comey and Cox, there are major differences between then and now. For starters, electronic records technology has come a long way since 1973. Back then, it was all paper records, Akerman says. In 2017? Not so much.
“People think maybe there’s a box with a bunch of files in it that only Jim Comey has,” says Leo Taddeo, a former special agent in charge of the special operations and cyber division of the FBI’s New York office. “That doesn’t exist.”
Today, every single official FBI document gets uploaded to a central government database. The FBI logs every time a document has been viewed, printed, or deleted, and agents conduct regular audits to verify that every document is in its rightful place. All email records are also stored on a government server (unless of course you set up a private server in your bathroom, which, well, you know). All of those documents are eventually subject to the Federal Records Act, which requires the preservation of government records.
“Nothing ever really disappears,” Taddeo says. “I can’t even conceive of a strategy where a small group of people could go in and remove a record.”
And while not every conversation an FBI agent has is automatically considered part of the official record, the directors’ conversations are. “Everything the director does is official,” he says.
The FBI declined to comment for this story, but in his sworn testimony Thursday, Acting Director Andrew McCabe told members of Congress he was confident Comey’s files and devices had been stored securely to preserve any evidence involved in the ongoing investigation.
The FBI has more going for it than the ability to securely store records, however. It also has the entire institution of the FBI. Back in 1973, Akerman says, the Watergate investigation was an “ad hoc force,” a sort of pop-up investigation with no processes or protocols to back it up. The FBI, by contrast, is an institution of tens of thousands of employees. Akerman says it’s doubtful there’s anything Comey had access to that other members of the bureau couldn’t also access.
“The director’s not indispensable,” Akerman says. “What if the guy dropped dead?”
Taddeo says that fears Comey may be the only one with access to critical conversations about the Russia investigation are wholly unfounded, given that, typically, it’s his assistants documenting those conversations. “The director doesn’t put pen to paper,” Taddeo says. “The director has conversations, people create notes, and they create the official documents.”
The key to understanding what happens next, Taddeo says, is first understanding that Comey’s aides weren’t actually Comey’s aides; they were the aides to the director of the FBI, whoever holds the position. “That’s an important distinction,” he says. “Whether or not it’s Jim Comey in that chair, they do their jobs to preserve those records.”