James Comey On The Investigation Of Hillary Clinton

After getting a copy of James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty, I couldn’t resist skipping past the material from earlier in his career and get to the sections on Clinton and Trump. His views of Trump and his reasons for his statements on Clinton have been dealt with in many media interviews over the past week, but I did find some selections worth quoting from Chapter 10, which deals with his investigation of Hillary Clinton.

The first section I’m quoting lays out the reasons for the investigation. This is important as Clinton apologists often claim that the lack of an indictment exonerates Clinton. The first problem with this is that the inclusion of classified material investigated by the FBI is only one aspect of the email scandal. The bigger scandals in terms of Clinton being unfit for the presidency were over her violating rules designed to promote transparency (after she accused members of the Bush administration who did far less of shredding the Constitution), her frequent lies to the press and the public over her email, and the question of whether the email which was destroyed contained evidence of her influence peddling at the State Department.  This section also notes that Colin Powell’s use of his AOL account was not relevant to the investigation, despite Clinton trying to use his actions as an excuse:

Though much has been made since of Hillary Clinton’s emails and the FBI’s investigation, the focus of the Bureau’s investigation is often lost. The criminal investigation was not centered on the fact that Secretary Clinton decided to use nongovernmental email to do her work. In an attempt to blur the seriousness of the case, her defenders often cite the fact that one of her predecessors, Colin Powell, also used nongovernmental email, in his case AOL, as if that were relevant to the investigation. In fact, it entirely misses the point. I have never seen any indication that Powell discussed on his AOL account information that was classified at the time, but there were numerous examples of Secretary Clinton having done so.

Our investigation required us to answer two questions. The first question was whether classified documents were moved outside of classified systems or whether classified topics were discussed outside of a classified system. If so, the second question was what the subject of the investigation was thinking when she mishandled that classified information.

Information is classified based on its potential for harm to the United States if it is disclosed. Information marked at the lower classification level of “Confidential” refers to information that can cause some damage to the security of the United States if released. Information labeled “Secret” refers to material expected to cause “serious” damage to national security. “Top Secret” information is material that, if disclosed, could be expected to cause “exceptionally grave” damage to the security of the United States. This system is enforced by a variety of possible administrative punishments, including possible loss of a person’s security clearance or loss of their job. For the most serious cases, criminal prosecution is a possibility. A variety of espionage statutes make it a felony to steal or to disclose national security information to people not permitted to receive it. Those statutes are used most often when someone is a spy or gives classified information to journalists for publication. More commonly used is a statute making it a misdemeanor—punishable by up to a year in jail—to mishandle classified information by removing it from appropriate facilities or systems. Even with the misdemeanor, the Department of Justice has long required that investigators develop strong evidence to indicate government employees knew they were doing something improper in their handling of the classified information.

In Secretary Clinton’s case, the answer to the first question—was classified information mishandled?—was obviously “yes.” In all, there were thirty-six email chains that discussed topics that were classified as “Secret” at the time. Eight times in those thousands of email exchanges across four years, Clinton and her team talked about topics designated as “Top Secret,” sometimes cryptically, sometimes obviously. They didn’t send each other classified documents, but that didn’t matter. Even though the people involved in the emails all had appropriate clearances and a need to know, anyone who had ever been granted a security clearance should have known that talking about top-secret information on an unclassified system was a breach of rules governing classified materials. Although just a small slice of Clinton’s emails, those exchanges on top-secret topics were, by all appearances, improper. Put another way, there were thirty-six email chains about topics that could cause “serious” damage to national security and eight that could be expected to cause “exceptionally grave” damage to the security of the United States if released. The heart of the case, then, was the second question: What was she thinking when she did this? Was it sloppy or was there criminal intent? Could we prove that she knew she was doing something she shouldn’t be doing?

It makes sense that Comey did not recommend prosecution–if you go by this standard. While Clinton did mishandle classified information (and had previously lied about this), I would agree that she did not intend to compromise the security of the United States. However, people lower than Clinton who had treated classified information in this manner would be far less likely to receive such consideration if investigated.

Further in the chapter there was more on his rational for not recommending prosecution:

Her actions in regard to her emails seemed really sloppy to us, more than ordinary carelessness. At one point the draft used the term “grossly negligent,” and also explained that in this case those words should not be interpreted the way a hundred-year-old criminal statute used the term. One part of that 1917 law made it a felony if a person “through gross negligence permits [classified material] to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed.”

The history of that provision strongly indicated that Congress in 1917 meant the statute to apply only to conduct that was very close to willful—that is, driven by bad intent—and members of Congress who voted for it back then were very concerned that they not make merely careless behavior a felony. I was told that the Department of Justice had only charged one person under this statute since 1917—a corrupt FBI agent whose conduct was far worse than gross negligence—and no one had ever been convicted under it. This context strongly reinforced my sense that the statute simply did not apply in the Clinton email case and made use of the term “grossly negligent” inappropriate and potentially confusing, given the old statute. So I directed our team to consider other terms that more accurately captured her behavior. After looking at multiple drafts, I settled on “extremely careless” as the best way to describe the conduct.

Another section suggests that Comey handled Clinton with a different standard than the average person probably would have been treated:

By Clinton’s account, she was unsophisticated both about technology and security, used the personal account for convenience to avoid maintaining dual government and personal email accounts, and still didn’t consider the contents of the emails to be classified. Her lack of technological sophistication is evident in her memoir, What Happened, in which she seems to intimate that her private server in Chappaqua was protected from hacking because it was contained in a home guarded by the Secret Service. Hacking a server is done through the internet, not by breaking the glass in a basement window. She also said in her interview that she believed she and her staff had successfully “talked around” sensitive topics, a method of operating made necessary by the State Department’s poor communications infrastructure, which didn’t provide secure and reliable email and phone for her and her senior staff. There was some truth to this, but although frustrating to her team, it didn’t change the rules around classified information. Also in her interview, Clinton said she delegated the review and deletion of her emails to others, believed they were only deleting purely personal emails, and had no knowledge of any efforts to obstruct justice.

After discussion and careful review of her answers, there was nothing in her comments that we could prove was a lie beyond a reasonable doubt. There was no moment when investigators caught her in a lie. She did not at any point confess wrongdoing or indicate that she knew what she had done with her emails was wrong. Whether we believed her or not, we had no significant proof otherwise. And there was no additional work the investigators thought they should do. This case was done. Now the American people needed to know what the FBI had found.

We do know that the deleted email did contain non-personal material, such as discussions of Iraq and Libya, due to finding examples of deleted email from the other party involved. Imagine if you or I had email subpoenaed, reported that half was deleted because it was personal, and tried to explain this by saying we don’t understand computers and someone else had handled the deletions. I just don’t believe such excuses would be accepted from people not as powerful as Clinton.

Comey did not believe that Loretta Lynch was interfering with his investigation, but this passage shows she certainly did intercede to try to help Clinton’s reputation during the investigation (when she was also a candidate):

Attorney General Lynch agreed that it made sense to do that. But then she quickly added, “Call it ‘a matter.’”

“Why would I do that?” I asked.

“Just call it ‘a matter,’” came her answer.

It occurred to me in the moment that this issue of semantics was strikingly similar to the fight the Clinton campaign had waged against The New York Times in July. Ever since then, the Clinton team had been employing a variety of euphemisms to avoid using the word “investigation.” The attorney general seemed to be directing me to align with that Clinton campaign strategy. Her “just do it” response to my question indicated that she had no legal or procedural justification for her request, at least not one grounded in our practices or traditions. Otherwise, I assume, she would have said so.

The FBI didn’t do “matters.” The term means nothing in our language, and it was misleading to suggest otherwise. It was probably a mistake that I didn’t challenge this harder. But in that moment, I decided that her request was too frivolous to take issue with, especially as my first battle with a new boss. I also was confident the press, and the public, would totally miss the distinction between a “matter” and an “investigation” anyway. Maybe she knew that, too. I know the FBI attendees at our meeting saw her request as overtly political when we talked about it afterward. So did at least one of Lynch’s senior leaders. George Toscas, then the number-three person in the department’s National Security Division and someone I liked, smiled at the FBI team as we filed out, saying sarcastically, “Well, you are the Federal Bureau of Matters.”

I followed the attorney general’s direction at my regular quarterly press roundtable on October 1, 2015. When a reporter asked a question about the “investigation,” I replied that I was following it closely. I said I was confident we had “the resources and the personnel assigned to the matter, as we do all our work, so that we are able to do it in a professional, prompt, and independent way.”

I did what my boss ordered me to do. I said “matter.” As expected, the press uniformly missed the distinction and reported that I had confirmed the existence of an investigation. From then on, I called it by its true name—we had an open “investigation” and I wouldn’t comment on it any further. Until I had to, many months later.

Obama similarly tried to help Clinton:

Contributing to this problem, regrettably, was President Obama. He had jeopardized the Department of Justice’s credibility in the investigation by saying in a 60 Minutes interview on October 11, 2015, that Clinton’s email use was “a mistake” that had not endangered national security. Then on Fox News on April 10, 2016, he said that Clinton may have been careless but did not do anything to intentionally harm national security, suggesting that the case involved overclassification of material in the government. President Obama is a very smart man who understands the law very well. To this day, I don’t know why he spoke about the case publicly and seemed to absolve her before a final determination was made. If the president had already decided the matter, an outside observer could reasonably wonder, how on earth could his Department of Justice do anything other than follow his lead? The truth was that the president—as far as I knew, anyway—had only as much information as anyone following it in the media. He had not been briefed on our work at all. And if he was following the media, he knew nothing, because there had been no leaks at all up until that point. But his comments still set all of us up for corrosive attacks if the case were completed with no charges brought.

The other question commonly raised regarding the investigation is whether Clinton is justified in using the statements from Comey as an excuse for losing the election. While I am not getting into excerpts from Comey regarding his statements in this post, I did recently discuss why Clinton and not Comey is to blame for Clinton losing the election here.

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    KP says:

    How can this be so clear to some of us while others continue deny reality.

    My guess is that there is the lack of candor the FBI discusses when referring to some.  

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