Washington (AFP) - When FBI Director James Comey teased that he had joined the world of social media with secret Instagram and Twitter accounts, tech writer Ashley Feinberg took the dare.
After four hours of FBI-level sleuthing, she was pretty sure she had the answer: On both he was using the name of US Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Embarrassing: He had only one Twitter follower.
All it took, Feinberg said on the Gizmodo website where she is a senior reporter, was for Comey to tell an audience of security professionals Wednesday night that he had very cautiously joined the social networking age to keep up with family.
"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," Comey let slip.
Feinberg's interest was piqued.
"Who am I to say no to a challenge?" she wrote. She tracked down Comey's family members, eventually discovering his son Brien's Instagram account by way of a photo of him with an Instagram tag.
That led to a potential dead end: A protected account which she could not view.
But when she asked to be invited by Brien Comey to view his account, Instagram popped up with offers to follow other accounts that included Brien's mother and a mysterious "Reinhold Niebuhr," who had just nine followers.
And a Google check easily showed that Niebuhr was the subject of James Comey's 1982 university thesis.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation chief, who carries the mammoth political burden of investigating the Trump administration's suspected links to Russia as both political parties eye him suspiciously, unsurprisingly also had a protected account.
But from there to Twitter was easy. Feinberg found seven Niebuhrs there, but only one with secretive identity: @projectexile7. That was the name of a program to battle gun-related crime that Comey helped develop.
That account had no tweets in three years, and followed only 27 other accounts. But those were reporters who cover the FBI, and law enforcement-related accounts. And Donald Trump.
And the one follower was a prominent expert in national security law and a friend of Comey's.
So much for secrecy. The FBI had no comment late Thursday, but the Twitter-verse was convinced. Hours after Feinberg's report, Comey had more than 8,000 followers. Pretty good for never tweeting.