James Comey’s letter to Congress was extremely careless.

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The Director of the FBI, James Comey. 

 

On 5 July, the Director of the FBI James Comey released his statement regarding the end of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. Although Comey said that he was not recommending criminal charges, he did rebuke Clinton for being “extremely careless” in her handling of “very sensitive, classified information”.

Given the furore of Clinton’s use of a private email server, it’s hard to argue that her actions were quite careless. By this I mean that you would think that this scenario could have been easily avoided by Clinton and her team. However, given that no criminal charges were recommended by the FBI, then it seems fair to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt. Throughout this election, it has seemed that although the email controversy has harmed Clinton’s favourability somewhat, it hasn’t harmed it enough to stop her winning the election. For she has the divisiveness of Republican candidate Donald Trump to thank. Had the Republicans nominated a candidate which the whole party were united around, then it may have been harder for her to prosper under the shadow of the email controversy. However, up to now, she has managed to do just this.

However, on Friday, James Comey intimated in a letter to Congress that he would be re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s use of private email server, after emails deemed to be pertinent to the investigation were found during a separate investigation into former Congressman Anthony Weiner. I would argue that this letter from Comey was just as careless as Clinton using a private email server in the first place, but for rather different reasons.

The real problem with this letter to Congress was the opacity of the statement given by Comey. In his letter Comey wrote the following:

In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation. I am writing to inform you that the investigative team briefed me on this yesterday, and I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.

Although the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant, and I cannot predict how long it will take us to complete this additional work, I believe it is important to update your Committees about our efforts in light of my previous testimony.

From this letter, it is clear that the FBI has little or no idea of the content of the emails found during the investigation into Anthony Weiner — the emails in question are believed to have been exchanged between Hillary Clinton and her closest confidant, Weiner’s estranged wife Huma Abedin.

Indeed, at the time of sending the letter the Justice Department had yet to obtain a warrant to even look at Abedin’s emails (a warrant was only granted yesterday). This means that the FBI hadn’t read the emails, and so had no idea at all of their content.

Given the already extensive investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server, the chances are that the FBI will have already read the emails in question, which would mean that the FBI’s recommendation would once again be that Clinton and her aides face no charges.

The likelihood of this discovery simply comprising emails that the FBI have already seen, means that the public disclosure that the investigation was both unnecessary and careless, especially just eleven days before a Presidential Election. The FBI do not routinely inform Congress about the status of ongoing investigations and so it makes no sense that they should do so now, particularly when the stakes are so high.

It leaves Clinton in a position where she can’t really fight back, because she has no idea what the FBI have discovered. Donald Trump can attack her and claim the new discovery constitutes anything he chooses, and because no one has any idea what the emails contain, Trump can’t face any sort of scrutiny. As for the public, they also naturally have no idea what this new discovery contains. This means that they are extremely vulnerable to the cascade of leaks which have come from the FBI in recent days. When the re-opening of the investigation was announced, it seemed that every news organisation had a different idea of what the new findings comprised. This leaves the public in a very difficult situation, in the absence of any semblance of factual knowledge about the ongoing investigation, where do they go for information?

This shows just how dangerous Comey’s letter was. The sheer opacity of his statement causes real problems. This is because the re-opening the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton could well influence the result of the presidential election. It could then be revealed that the new findings were not at all significant. What it clear is the investigation will not be completed until well after the election is over. Therefore, why reveal now that the investigation has been re-opened?

There is good reason for the Justice Department having a formal policy of avoiding public law-enforcement activity on the eve of elections. In an article for The New Yorker, Jane Mayer states that a Justice Department official has stated that the reason for this is that, “it impugns the integrity and reputation of the candidate, even though there’s no finding by a court, or in this instance even an indictment.” This is clearly true, as we have seen with the ongoing Clinton emails controversy. It was announced back in July that Clinton hadn’t done anything illegal, and although she has clearly been less than transparent, the number of people who retain the view that she is corrupt is astonishing. It seems clear to be that the very public investigation into her affairs, tainted her reputation hugely, and the public re-opening of the investigation threatens to do the same at a time when the stakes are much higher — just a week and a half before election day.

For this reason Comey, to use his own words, was ‘extremely careless’ in writing to Congress in the way he did on Friday. He should have known the effect that this could have had, and should have refrained from doing so in order to avoid influencing the outcome of the election. He should make a public statement as soon as possible in order to clarify the situation, to ensure that the public know exactly what it going on. Failing to do this, could have disastrous effects.

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