Digital security and its discontents—from Hillary Clinton’s emails to ransomware to Tor hacks—is in many ways one of the chief concerns of the contemporary FBI. So it makes sense that the bureau’s director, James Comey, would dip his toe into the digital torrent with a Twitter account. It also makes sense, given Comey’s high profile, that he would want that Twitter account to be a secret from the world, lest his follows and favs be scrubbed for clues about what the feds are up to. What is somewhat surprising, however, is that it only took me about four hours of sleuthing to find Comey’s account, which is not protected.
Last night, at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance leadership dinner, Comey let slip that he has both a secret Twitter and an Instagram account in the course of relating a quick anecdote about one of his daughters.
Who am I to say no to a challenge?
As far as finding Comey’s Twitter goes, the only hint he offered was the fact that he has “to be on Twitter now,” meaning that the account would likely be relatively new. Regarding his Instagram identity, though, Comey gave us quite a bit more to work with:
... I care deeply about privacy, treasure it. I have an Instagram account with nine followers. Nobody is getting in. They’re all immediate relatives and one daughter’s serious boyfriend. I let them in because they’re serious enough. I don’t want anybody looking at my photos. I treasure my privacy and security on the internet. My job is public safety.
Both a noble sentiment and an extremely helpful clue for tracking down the FBI director’s social media accounts. Because, presumably, if we can find the Instagram accounts belonging to James Comey’s family, we can also find James Comey.
Unfortunately, Instagram isn’t exactly conducive to custom searching, and there was no way any of his five children or his wife would be using their full names. Twitter, however, gives us a little more leverage.
After some trial and error, I found that his 22-year-old son, Brien Comey, seemed to have the largest online presence as a basketball star at Kenyon College. Go Lords.
It wasn’t easy to find Brien Comey on Twitter, though, because his first name is also the middle name of his father, who more people than you might think call “James Brien Comey” on Twitter.
After a few frustrated attempts, I tried the following Twitter search on a whim:
This would bring up any mentions of the younger Comey while leaving out any references to his father.
That led me to this tweet from the Twitter account of the Kenyon College basketball team, on which the younger Comey played as an undergraduate. It showed Comey teaching basketball to some schoolkids, and @-mentioned the now-dead Twitter account “@twittafuzz.” That account, if you search through its mentions, appears to have been previously owned by Brien Comey—if you believe the folks on Twitter congratulating @twittafuzz for his dad’s ascension to the head of the FBI.
The trail ultimately led me here:
Click through to the linked photo, and you’ll find that a well-wisher has left a comment in which none other than Brien Comey is tagged. Now, our FBI Director has trained his son well. His Instagram account is locked down. Instagram itself, however, offers a little loophole that is terrible for user privacy but wonderfully helpful for our purposes today.
Using the fake Instagram account I keep for the sole purpose of tracking Donald Trump Jr. and Newt Gingrich, I requested access to Brien Comey’s account. As soon as I did, this popped up:
The suggestions were algorithmically selected based on the account I requested to follow, a significant number of which bore the last name “Comey” (Patrice is his wife). Among the various Comeys, only two of the suggested accounts lacked both real names and profile photos. And only one of these had anywhere near the “nine followers” that James Comey claimed to have. That account was reinholdniebuhr.
I still wasn’t sure that this was, in fact, James Comey. But a quick Google search turned up this article on Comey’s time at the College of William and Mary, and my doubts were assuaged:
By senior year, Comey was a double major in religion and chemistry, writing a senior thesis on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and televangelist Jerry Falwell and on his way to the University of Chicago Law School
With Instagram solved, it was time to move back to Twitter. Though there is an @ReinholdNiebuhr, based on the tweets alone I was pretty sure that he was not our guy.
But fortunately for us, there are only seven accounts on Twitter currently using some variation of “Reinhold Niebuhr” as a user name.
And only one that seemed to be operating in stealth: @projectexile7.
But how to be sure? There is only one person currently following the account: Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare. Wittes is no Twitter neophyte. He is an active user with more than 25,000 followers, and he only follows 1,178 accounts—meaning he is not a subscriber to the “followback” philosophy. If he is following a random egg—and is the only account following it—there is probably a reason.
That reason could be the fact that, as Wittes wrote here, he is a personal friend of James Comey. (We’ve reached out to Wittes for comment but have yet to hear back.)
Project Exile happens to be a federal program that James Comey helped develop when he was a U.S. attorney living in Richmond. And then, of course, there are the follows.
ProjectExile7 follows 27 other accounts, the majority of which are either reporters, news outlets, or official government and law enforcement accounts. The New York Times’ Adam Goldman and David Sanger and the Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima and David Ignatius, all of whom have been aggressively covering the FBI investigation into Trump’s contacts with Russian agents, made the list, as did Wittes and former Bush Administration colleague Jack Goldsmith. Donald Trump is on there, too, but @projectexile7 seems to have begun following him relatively recently (its first follow was @nytimes).
And of the 39 total tweets the account has liked thus far, eight refer directly to the FBI or James Comey himself:
One deals with an active FBI investigation:
And four refer to the Trump administration in general:
Of course, none of this is definitive proof @projectexile7 is FBI Director James Comey, but it would take a nearly impossible confluence of coincidences for it to be anyone else. Take what you will from the fact that the director of the FBI appears to have liked a tweet from the New York Times about Mike Flynn and Jared Kushner meeting a Russian envoy in December.
We’ve reached out to the FBI for comment, and will update if and when we hear back.
In the meantime, @projectexile7, I would love a follow.
Update 3:56 p.m.:
Benjamin Wittes has responded with the following:
I actually commented earlier today on Comey’s Twitter account—on Twitter, no less.
Beyond that public statement, I have nothing to say.
Update 5:14 p.m.:
The FBI has officially weighed in:
We don’t have any comment.
FBI National Press Office
This story was produced by the Special Projects Desk of Gizmodo Media Group.