James Comey

Image courtesy of C-Span

FBI Decision on Clinton Emails
Sparks Two Stories

| published July 6, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The dueling narratives began within minutes of the FBI director’s remarks.

Campaign spokespersons and top staff of Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, naturally, took the high road, pointing to the fact that the FBI—after its long, exhaustive investigation into the former Secretary of State’s use of a private server and a private email account during her tenure as top diplomat—concluded that it had no compelling reason to proceed with criminal charges against Clinton.

This came after FBI agents spent some four hours interviewing Clinton over the holiday weekend—a meeting scrupulously described by Clinton’s press people as “strictly voluntary.” The outcome: no indictments, no criminal charges. Game over.

And now, after nearly 18 months of scandal surrounding the email fiasco, Clinton surrogates and strategists say it is time to move on, especially with the business of pivoting toward the general election and presumed GOP nominee Donald Trump.

Many Republicans, however, don’t see it that way. And neither do hundreds of thousands of supporters of Clinton’s longtime Democratic rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Trump, never one to mince words, calls the system rigged. Sanders’ legion of followers and fans have expressed similar outrage, calling the FBI and the Justice Department’s decision to not issue an indictment an example of wealth and power at work in the justice system.

Republicans, especially, along with hundreds of mainstream reporters—very few of them the sorts to find themselves in alignment with the GOP or its talking points—also question the outcome of the FBI’s probe into Clinton’s email issues. After all, FBI Director James Comey didn’t sugar-coat his words either.

On Tuesday, Comey addressed the country via a room filled with journalists on the matter of the FBI’s investigations into Clinton’s email and server, and he did not offer kind words for Hillary Clinton. Right up front, Comey acknowledged that his public statement would be “unusual,” and one which would include commentary of the sort not typically offered as the Bureau reaches the conclusion of a major project.

“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton and her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information,” Comey said this week, “there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Comey cited what the FBI found: at least seven email chains—a chain being the original email followed-up by all responses and counter-responses, often to some or all of the original recipients—which included information or data deemed classified or sensitive at the time. In all, according to the FBI, some 110 emails contained information clearly marked “classified” or “highly classified” among the thousands of email threads. Comey also said the Bureau found correspondence and information described by U.S. intelligence agencies as “top secret” at the time the original email chain began. This means that the FBI’s conclusions are sharply at odds with Clinton’s longstanding explanation to the press: these emails were not “reclassified” after the fact, as Clinton claims in her defense, but were clearly classified as “secret” or “top secret” at the time each set of correspondence began.

“There is evidence supporting a conclusion,” Comey said for emphasis, “that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position, or in the positions of those government employees with whom she was corresponding about these matters, should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.”

Republicans—and especially candidate Trump—have latched tenaciously onto the last of Comey’s points. Democrats—and the Clinton campaign in particular—will move onward, stressing that the FBI is now declining to take this case any further forward.

Comey stresses that there is no evidence that anyone decisively, deliberately or wantonly violated U.S. security or American secrets, but he also opens the door to the possibility of intrusion by outside parties or hackers with foreign governments. Comey says that there is no clear-cut evidence of hacking of Clinton’s email or her now infamous homebrew server—the one she has insisted was secure by dint of the fact that there were Secret Service agents in and around the property of the Clinton’s home in Chappaqua, New York. But Comey does point out that many of those with whom Hillary Clinton had routine correspondence have had their personal email accounts hacked—meaning that second-tier levels of exposure were not only possible but highly likely.

Comey also adds the all-important caveat regarding the Clinton server, which also spent time at a computer shop in New Jersey and in a small ante-room at a Denver-based IT firm: such cases of hacking rarely leave a discernible trail of breadcrumbs, and only through the most intense and exhaustive forensic work will any digital fingerprints ever be found. In Romania, a rogue hacker known as Gucifer 2.0 claims to have long ago hacked into Clinton’s server and her emails; meanwhile, Wikileaks claims to have already gained access to a massive trove of Clinton’s correspondence, some of which it says it will soon release for the public to see.

Clearly, Clinton’s troubles are not over, though just as clearly, she and her top campaign people will now attempt—finally—to make a good college try at moving the political discussion forward without any further talk of emails, servers, and what constitutes “top secret” or “classified” in the world of digital correspondence.

Comey referenced the 30,000 plus emails deleted by Clinton, her staff or her attorneys, just as he discussed the 29,500 or more released by the State Department during the second half of 2015 and early 2106. Clinton said that the deleted emails were dumped because they contained nothing work-related. Some were deleted by Clinton’s most trusted colleagues, some by her attorney who had reviewed the material via copies given to him on a flash drive.

Clinton has said all along that she used the private email account and the privately-built server as matter of convenience, and at the height of the scandals last year she conceded to reporters that her choices in this arena were unfortunate. And despite Clinton’s contention that the whole brouhaha was merely politics-as-usual by bitter, ham-fisted GOP members of Congress, it was, after all, the Associated Press and the New York Times that first reporterd that while serving as Secretary of State, Clinton has circumvented federal guidelines and State Department rules by insisting on a non-secure email account. And it was a lawsuit filed by the AP that forced those emails into the public consciousness, and revealed the fact that tens of thousands of emails had already been deleted, or were in the process of being dumped.

That was in late 2014 and early 2015. Fast-forward.

Comey’s blistering rebuke of the former Secretary of State comes just weeks before the start of the Democratic National Convention—a moment of maximum visibility for the presumed nominee at the end of a long and bitter primary and caucus fight with Sanders. Comey’s remarks, and the apparent conclusion of the FBI’s probe into the matter, also come only weeks after a particularly scathing report by the Inspector General. The IG’s report called Clinton’s behavior “reckless” and cringe worthy, but the IG went further, exposing what was apparently a highhanded attempt by Clinton’s top staffers at State to squelch any internal concerns about the use of the private email account—despite clear cut email conversations questioning why Clinton was opting out of using the government managed and secured email accounts required of all other federal employees.

The FBI director’s remarks—coupled with the words used by the IG in its report—will almost certainly find their way into the campaign trail talking points of the Republicans. In yet another odd confluence of political narrative, Trump’s words this week have been echoed almost verbatim by the legions of Sanders supporters who also subscribe to the notion of a rigged system.

Many Sanders’ supporters have lamented the fact that their candidate did not take his broadsides against Clinton a step further during the debates and during the primaries; instead, Sanders sought to distance himself from the email controversy, famously ejecting it from his debate points late last year. His most loyal and ardent backers, however, never wanted the subject dropped—they saw it as evidence of what Sanders had been saying all along: Clinton is part of the system, not a reformer, and she exists in world framed by rules established by her own set of moral parameters, which can at times differ radically from the standards applied to everyone else. It is an old axe grinded relentlessly over decades by those who distrust the Clintons.

Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign has a couple of weeks to bury the issue once and for all. Trump can be expected, and almost certainly will, use Bill Clinton’s poorly considered private meeting with the Justice Department’s Loretta Lynch as direct, even inescapable evidence, that the Clinton’s will use maximum power to leverage the outcome of events to their favor, even when the optics of such behavior would seem dangerous and self-destructive to the average viewer of politics. The fracas over that private meeting also remnds us of Hillary Clinton's most persistent political problem: the recurring polling data which shows she is not trustworthy in the eyes of the average American voter.

Two questions now loom. Will Sanders’ loyal minions use this talking point to disrupt what Clinton had finally concluded might be a bloodless coronation when the Democratic delegates meet later this month? And can Clinton put the issue behind her once and for all, and turn her formidable campaign skills toward Trump in what will no doubt be a bloody general election campaign already begun in the media and on social media.

Related Thursday Review articles:

FBI Dropping Further Inquiry Into Clinton Emails?; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; July 3, 2016.

Email Controversy Expands for Clinton; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; May 27, 2016.