Updated | 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. Many Republicans proclaimed that the discovery suggests Clinton may have broken the law, while Democrats condemned FBI Director James Comey for disclosing this information less than two weeks before the election, claiming he did it for political purposes.
Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, said the development showed his opponent had engaged in corruption “on a scale we have never seen before,’’ while Clinton called for the FBI to release all of the information it has, saying the American people have a right to know everything.
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” 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.
As of Friday night Comey had only said the bureau is seeking to determine whether these newly discovered emails involved classified material.
The FBI found the new evidence during an unrelated inquiry into former Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner regarding an allegation that he sent illicit, sexual text messages to an underage girl in North Carolina. In the course of that investigation, agents seized a laptop computer Weiner shared with his wife, Huma Abedin, a longtime Clinton aide who has already been questioned by the FBI during its investigation. The bureau found the emails now being examined on this shared device, which agents obtained some time ago.
This new evidence relates to how Abedin managed her emails. She maintained four email accounts—an unclassified State Department account, another on the clintonemail.com domain and a third on Yahoo. The fourth was linked to her husband’s account; she used it to support his activities when he was running for Congress, investigative records show. Abedin, who did not know Clinton used a private server for her emails, told the bureau in an April interview that she used the account on the clintonemail.com domain only for issues related to the Secretary’s personal affairs, such as communicating with her friends. For work-related records, Abedin primarily used the email account provided to her by the State Department.
Because Clinton preferred to read documents on paper rather than on a screen, emails and other files were often printed out and provided to her either at her office or home, where they were delivered in a diplomatic pouch by a security agent. Abedin, like many State Department officials, found the government network technology to be cumbersome, and she had great trouble printing documents there, investigative records show. As a result, she sometimes transferred emails from her unclassified State Department account to either her Yahoo account or her account on Clinton’s server, and printed the emails from there. It is not clear whether she ever transferred official emails to the account she used for her husband’s campaign.
Abedin would use this procedure for printing documents when she received emails she believed Clinton needed to see and when the Secretary forwarded emails to her for printing. Abedin told the FBI she would often print these emails without reading them. Abedin printed a large number of emails this way, in part because, investigative records show, other staff members considered her Clinton’s “gatekeeper” and often sent Abedin electronic communications they wanted the Secretary to see.
This procedure for printing documents, the government official says, appears to be how the newly discovered emails ended up on the laptop shared by Abedin and her husband. It is unclear whether any of those documents were downloaded onto the laptop off of her personal email accounts or were saved on an external storage device, such as a flash drive, and then transferred to the shared computer. There is also evidence that the laptop was used to send emails from Abedin to Clinton; however, none of those emails are the ones being examined by the FBI. Moreover, unless she was told by Abedin in every instance, Clinton could not have known what device her aide was using to transmit electronic information to her.
If the FBI determines that any of the documents that ended up on the shared device were classified, Abedin could be deemed to have mishandled them. In order to prove that was a criminal offense, however, investigators would have to establish that Abedin had intended to disclose the contents of those classified documents, or that she knew she was mishandling that information.
If the documents were not classified, no crime was committed. But either way, this discovery has embarrassed Clinton, even though there is no evidence at this point suggesting she has been implicated in any potential wrongdoing.
According to a letter Comey sent to the chairs of several Congressional committee on Friday, he learned of these new emails on Thursday, October 27.
His decision to immediately reveal this discovery was not a partisan act, although it was a horribly mishandled one. Arguably, he had to issue his letter because of previous statements he had made to Congress. In September, he testified that the bureau had completed its review of the evidence in the case and found no crimes had been committed. With the discovery of the information on the laptop shared by Weiner and Abedin, that sworn statement was no longer true, and there was new evidence that needed to be examined. As a result, Comey felt he was obligated to inform the committees as quickly as possible that his previous statement was now incorrect.
However, the letter he sent could well damage the reputation of the FBI as an apolitical organization for years to come. Given that Comey also testified that his agents would examine any new evidence that emerged, Democrats will undoubtedly argue that issuing a letter repeating that point was unnecessary.
In a communication to bureau employees, Comey described his letter to Congress as an attempt to thread a needle – amend his testimony while not disclosing details of an ongoing investigation. The combination, however, created a circumstance where politicians are filling in the blanks, creating a storyline of corruption that was not justified by the evidence developed by the bureau. Making it worse, the communication to the bureau employees is far more detailed than what Comey issued to Congress.
“There is a significant risk of being misunderstood,” Comey told the bureau employees in the communication, explaining why he was so vague in his letter to Congress. “It would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record. At the same time, however, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression.”
Unfortunately, by trying to have things both ways – revealing the change in circumstances while remaining vague about what the agents know – Comey has created that misleading impression that could change the outcome of a presidential election, an act that, if uncorrected, will undoubtedly go down as one of the darkest moments in the bureau’s history.
This article was updated to reflect James Comey's communication with bureau officials about his letter to Congress.