Comey's FBI Initially Believed Clinton Was 'Grossly Negligent' in Handling Classified Emails

The FBI has released details from drafts of a statement that then-FBI Director James Comey, pictured here on June 8, gave in July 2016 about Hillary Clinton. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

During its investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a personal email server, the FBI initially wrote in a draft of a statement that the former secretary of state had been "grossly negligent" in her handling of classified information. About a month later, the draft instead said she had been "extremely careless." Then–FBI Director James Comey would use the language from the later draft in a July 5, 2016, press conference, during which he said he would not be recommending the Department of Justice pursue charges.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee first said in August they had obtained information indicating that the FBI began drafting the statement prior to interviewing several witnesses, including Clinton. In mid-October, the FBI released documents showing that on May 2, 2016, Comey emailed FBI officials about drafting the statement, and that on May 16, 2016, one of the officials wrote to several colleagues in response, "Please send me any comments on this statement so we may roll into a master doc for discussion with the Director at a future date." Content of the emails was redacted, but the FBI titled the release, "Drafts of Director Comey's July 5, 2016 Statement Regarding Email Server Investigation."

Related: Comey drafted Clinton statement, FBI confirms

In a letter to new FBI Director Christopher Wray on Monday, Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the bureau had provided new details about the drafts of the statement. Those details appear to for the first time include some of the content from drafts of the statement.

A draft dated May 2, 2016, the date of Comey's previously released email to colleagues, said, according to Grassley, "There is evidence to support a conclusion that Secretary Clinton, and others, used the private email server in a manner that was grossly negligent with respect to the handling of classified material." The draft also said, "Similarly, the sheer volume of information that was properly classified as Secret at the time it was discussed on email (that is, excluding the 'up classified' emails) supports an inference that the participants were grossly negligent in their handling of that information."

By June 10, 2016, the bureau had edited out the "gross negligence" line, according to the Grassley letter. The sentence instead said, "Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information."

As Grassley pointed out in his letter, "gross negligence" is a criminal act. "Although Director Comey's original version of his statement acknowledged that Secretary Clinton had violated the statute prohibiting gross negligence in the handling of classified information, he nonetheless exonerated her in that early, May 2nd draft statement anyway, arguing that this part of the statute should not be enforced," Grassley wrote.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is reviewing Comey's conduct while at the bureau, as well as his firing by President Donald Trump in May. On Monday, Grassley asked Wray to provide the files of the drafts in their original format so he could review the metadata for who made the changes and when the changes were made. The FBI reportedly recently began providing the committee with hundreds of pages of memos about the Clinton probe.

Some FBI and Justice Department analysts believe that the FBI's drafting of the statement in advance was unusual. "To me, this is so far out of bounds it's not even in the stadium," Chris Swecker, a former FBI assistant director for the criminal investigative division and acting executive assistant director for law enforcement services, told Newsweek in September, before the bureau released additional information. "That is just not how things operate.… It's built in our DNA not to prejudge investigations, particularly from the top."

Ron Hosko, who was an assistant FBI director under Comey until 2014, also told Newsweek in September, "I think the content of the statement is going to be important. Did it purport to essentially acquit her actions way prematurely, or was it simply a running statement of what they knew?"

Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman, tweeted in September following the first reports about the drafted statement, "The decision is never 'made' until the end, even when there's a 99% chance it is only going to go one way."