FBI Director James Comey’s decision to comment on a new development in the Clinton e-mail server investigation—one which has not yielded any new specific wrongdoing but merely speculates about the possibility of what may or may not be in unreviewed e-mails—shows a stunning lack of regard for fairness, sense, and political reality, while the media’s coverage of the revelation is just more of the same sensationalism and lack of context and nuance that has plagued coverage of this election from the very beginning; in the end, this may damage the country and has the possibility of altering the election’s outcome in a way that may empower the terrifying candidacy of Trump or weaken any mandate Clinton may have been able to claim.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse October 29, 2016
Michael Conroy/AP, Cliff Owen/AP
AMMAN — James Comey, the FBI, and the media have failed to be fair to Hillary Clinton and to the country and its politics with what amounts to a ridiculous decision to pour gasoline onto a fire that may not even have any wood left burning, and we have a news media that is generally unable to note this when it does its reporting on the subject.
Another Dreadful News Media Fail
Friday it was revealed that e-mails of Huma Abedin—Clinton’s longtime right-hand woman—were found on a laptop of her disgraced separated husband Anthony Wiener in the course of an FBI investigation into this sexual outreach to a 15-year-old girl: FBI Director James Comey that day revealed he had learned a day earlier of “the existence of emails pertinent to the investigation” of Clinton’s e-mails and her server in a short letter of three small paragraphs that he sent to the relevant committee leaders in Congress, 11 days before Election Day.
The New York Times utilized one of its rarer BIG fonts for the headline of its story on this, which was the first headline on its website when it broke yesterday and for much of today (succeeded by related articles). So this means it’s “really important.” Yet, from said article:
Mr. Comey’s letter said that the F.B.I. would review the emails to determine if they improperly contained classified information, which is tightly controlled by the government. Senior law enforcement officials said that it was unclear if any of the emails were from Mrs. Clinton’s private server. And while Mr. Comey said in his letter that the emails “appear to be pertinent,” the F.B.I. had not yet examined them.
But that doesn’t stop the drama queens in the media and in the Republican Party from making as much out of this as possible to either bring in viewers/readers or hurt Clinton politically (or both). Supposedly biased-for-Clinton outlets like The New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC all led with this as THE major story; Trump and Republicans exuded glee and relished the chance to go on offense on this familiar ground once again. Thankfully, Newsweek today leads with a sensible take that cuts right to the chase, starting with the article’s first paragraph:
The disclosure by the Federal Bureau of Investigation late on Friday, October 28 that it had discovered potential new evidence in its inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s handling of her personal email when she was Secretary of State has virtually nothing to do with any actions taken by the Democratic nominee, according to government records and an official with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke to Newsweek on condition of anonymity.
The revelation that the FBI has discovered additional emails convulsed the political world, and led to widespread (and erroneous) claims and speculation…
It then continues:
The truth is much less explosive. There is no indication the emails in question were withheld by Clinton during the investigation, the law enforcement official told Newsweek, nor does the discovery suggest she did anything illegal. Also, none of the emails were to or from Clinton, the official said*. Moreover, despite the widespread claims in the media that this development had prompted the FBI to “reopen” of the case, it did not; such investigations are never actually closed, and it is common for law enforcement to discover new information that needs to be examined.
*(Another leak confirmed this to The Los Angeles Times, but a leak to The Washington Post contradicts this and another in The New York Times leaves it an open question, highlighting why it is imperative more information come out ASAP directly through official FBI channels to clear up any confusion)
A Dud of a Bombshell
Newsweek here is more the exception. Its article goes to explain how Abedin had four e-mail accounts: one official account at state.gov that contained the vast majority of e-mails relevant to the FBI Clinton investigation; a second clintonemail.com one she used for assisting Clinton with issues related to Clinton’s private life; a third Yahoo one (presumably Abedin’s personal account?); and a fourth linked to her husband’s e-mail, which she used in support of his work as a congressman. Abedin occasionally used the second of third accounts to print material Clinton needed to have when it was not practical or possible to use her state.gov account. Having seized Weiner’s devices that he shared with Abedin, in all likelihood, the FBI will have probably only have come across her e-mails from that fourth account linked to her husband, and if that is the case, the overwhelmingly likely situation is that only a small portion or even none of these e-mails are going to be relevant to the FBI investigation. If there are any other e-mails related to the case, it is probable that many or all are duplicates of previously reviewed material because Abedin would send the material to be printed from her state.gov account to her other accounts, because they would have been captured in the sweeps of the state.gov accounts and Clinton’s personal server, or because of everyone else’s accounts having Abedin’s e-mails they sent to or received from her preserved on their ends. I would be shocked if anything particularly shocking occurs, and the worst that is likely to happen is that some e-mails which contained information that was classified at the time but had absolutely no classified markings in their subject lines or in them are found and that a few may even be new material, virtually certainly nothing that would have endangered American lives or national security. And officials are unsure if or how many of these e-mails may be duplicates of previously reviewed material.
So this story is a big fat nothing.
Like a teenage boy who just can’t control his hormones, the chance to lead with Weiner’s sex scandals being tied to the Clinton e-mail server scandal was just too great to pass up, despite the fact that there is no indication or reason to believe anything significant will come out of this given how mundane the vast majority of the e-mails reviewed earlier by investigators turned out to be.
Comey Crashes the Election Party
But the real problem here is in Director Comey’s choice to publicly release what he did when did.
Now, before I continue, I want to stress that I still believe Comey is a straight shooter and public servant of honesty and integrity; that doesn’t mean he is infallible, and I have already pointed out Comey was wrong in characterizing Clinton and her team as “extremely careless” in the handling of classified information, mainly because of three things: issues of overclassifcation and differences on what is classified between agencies, because only one e-mail chain out of many thousands was actually classified at the time and had any proper classification markings—a few small “(c)”s in the body, with none of the other proper, required markings in the headers or subject line to give any context to the “(c)” markings—and because Comey’s viewpoint as an FBI man failed to give proper weight to the unique challenges of a global and very fluid State Department and the distinct culture it has in terms of handling classified information as a result of all that and why this unique approach is necessary. Still, I think it is beyond question that overall, Comey oversaw a fair and thorough investigation of Clinton’s e-mails and server and that his decision not to prosecute her was the only rational or fair decision in the eyes of law.
But his releasing this information at this time is a colossal mistake on Comey’s part. In his letter, he wrote that “the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant.” If there is any significance to these newly discovered e-mails, then the American people deserve to know with all possible speed and before the election. But throwing a monkey wrench into this election 11 days before Election Day when it is entirely possible that there is both nothing new and nothing incriminating, when it is known that Clinton herself was not involved in any active way—sending, receiving, or otherwise—with any of these e-mails found on Weiner’s devices, when the FBI has not even begun reviewing these e-mails, creates the appearance of impropriety and wrongdoing when there is zero evidence that these e-mails are indicative of that.
In fact, it is therefore actually misleading.
The FBI needs to prioritize this as much as is humanly possible without setting back any cases where lives are at risk; the review should be round-the-clock and nonstop so the public can get as much information about this as possible before the election, and Clinton herself has called for all the information to be released as soon as possible, the opposite behavior of someone trying to hide something. And this review should have been happening and ideally completed before anything was said publicly but also before the election.
Because nobody knows what’s in these e-mails, the benefit of the doubt is warranted that until something incriminating is found, the privacy and good public standing of Clinton are also considerations that should outweigh such a hypothetical, speculative statement. And to release no information about how many e-mails are being reviewed in relation to Clinton, to leave that wide open for speculation, is also irresponsible and unfair to Clinton. There is a reason why it is standard procedure to not comment on an ongoing investigation: any partial release of information that does not provide the whole story in context risks prejudicing the public against someone in a way not merited by the full facts and risks hurting that person’s public standing, and that person is entitled in our system to the presumption of innocence; in other words, law enforcement, including the FBI, must take a “do no harm” approach to a person in an investigation until they are certain there is something incriminating or damaging, especially since many in the public are apt to assume guilt when they hear the FBI is investigating anyone in the first place.
The simple fact is that this is damaging to Clinton and yet there may be nothing improper in any of these just-discovered set of e-mails; we can’t know and we shouldn’t be given something so vague and unspecific just days before an election when anything can make a huge difference. If there was some sort of major discovery with evidence of something incriminating, even at this late stage in the election a public update from Comey would be justified and proper, but what has been discovered now is neither major nor incriminating nor even anything that constitutes hard evidence.
Once Comey has actual specific information to report—how many e-mails were classified or not—then it is fair to begin discussing with the public. But now he has done a great disservice to Clinton, the electoral process, and the American people. It may well be that Team Clinton deserves additional scrutiny because of what’s in these e-mails, but right now we have no idea and as such she does not at this point in time—this crucial point in time—deserve additional scrutiny. I do not think Comey intended this as a political move to harm Clinton, and I think he was just doing his job in the way he thought best. But he is 100% wrong here, and he has failed to take into account the realities of politics, the media, and voter psychology even if he thought he was. Some may say that his job is to ignore such things, but you cannot do something like this that damages a person and candidate just days before an election when there is not yet anything incriminating or any evidence of wrongdoing with what you are discussing.
And unlike the last time he issued a public statement on the investigation, after Clinton was interviewed, this time a number of his peers who aren’t engaged in current politicking—former federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials—are condemning his decision to release this information and to release it so close to the election, something generally unheard of in presidential elections; furthermore, this was a decision he was pressured not to make by both Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates because it violated longtime Justice Department and FBI rules that barred officials from commenting on politically sensitive investigations within 60 days of an election.
Conclusion: Another Precedent Shattered in a Year of Precedent-Shattering
In the end, Comey’s decision lacks moral, ethical, and practical grounds for being carried out and, as polls have already been tightening whereas before Clinton’s leads seemed safe, he may have done this country immense damage by helping to elect the worst ever major party candidate in American history and helping Republicans in down-ballot races. He may have also damaged the FBI as an institution. In all likelihood, the FBI will not finish its review in time before the election and this may be the last update the public has before then. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a tense few days between now and the election, that’s for sure, far tenser than it would have been without Comey’s monumental and ill-timed blunder.
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