US Justice Department investigates FBI's pre-election decisions on Clinton email case

US FBI Director James Comey participates in a session at the third annual Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington, US on Sept 8, 2016.
US FBI Director James Comey participates in a session at the third annual Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington, US on Sept 8, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - The Justice Department inspector general will review broad allegations of misconduct involving FBI Director James Comey and how he handled the probe of Mrs Hillary Clinton’s email practices, the inspector general announced on Thursday (Jan 12).

The investigation will be wide-ranging, encompassing Mr  Comey’s various letters and public statements on the matter and whether FBI or other Justice Department employees leaked non-public information, according to Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

His announcement drew praise from those on both sides of the political aisle and again put a spotlight on Mr Comey, who emerged as a controversial figure during the 2016 race. Democrats, including Mrs Clinton, have blamed the FBI director for the Democratic candidate’s loss, arguing that the renewed email inquiry and Mr Comey’s public missives on the eve of the election blunted her momentum.

Mr Comey has also been criticised for months by former Justice Department officials for violating the department’s policy of avoiding any action that could affect a candidate close to an election. President-elect Donald Trump has notably declined to commit to keeping the FBI director.

Mr Brian Fallon, a former Clinton campaign spokesman, praised the investigation on Thursday.“This is highly encouraging and to be expected given Director Comey’s drastic deviation from Justice Department protocol,” Mr Fallon said. “A probe of this sort, however long it takes to conduct, is utterly necessary in order to take the first step to restore the FBI’s reputation as a non-partisan institution.” 

Lawmakers and others had called previously for the inspector general to investigate the FBI’s actions regarding the Clinton probe ahead of the election, alleging that Mr Comey violated long-standing policies with his communications about the case and that information seemed to have leaked inappropriately – perhaps to former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Trump supporter.

Mr Horowitz said on Thursday that he will explore the circumstances surrounding the actions of Mr Comey and others, though he will not relitigate whether anyone should have faced charges.

“The review will not substitute the OIG’s judgment for the judgments made by the FBI or the Department regarding the substantive merits of investigative or prosecutive decisions,” Mr Horowitz said in his statement, using an abbreviation for the Office of the Inspector General.

Mr Comey said in a statement: “I am grateful to the Department of Justice’s IG for taking on this review. He is professional and independent and the FBI will cooperate fully with him and his office. I hope very much he is able to share his conclusions and observations with the public because everyone will benefit from thoughtful evaluation and transparency regarding this matter.” 

The FBI’s probe into whether Mrs Clinton mishandled classified information by using a private email server when she was secretary of state has long been controversial and politically charged.

Perhaps most notably, Mr Comey on Oct 28 – after previously announcing publicly that he was recommending no charges in the case – sent a letter to congressional leaders telling them that agents had resumed the Clinton probe after finding potentially relevant information in an unrelated case. That investigation involved disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin.

The day before, senior Justice Department leaders had warned Mr Comey not to send the letter, because it violated two long-standing department policies – discussing an ongoing investigation and taking any overt action affecting a candidate so close to an election.

Mr Comey has notably declined to talk about any possible investigations of Mr Trump or his campaign, as recently as this week rebuffing requests from legislators to confirm that agents were looking into any such matters.

“I don’t – especially in a public forum, we never confirm or deny a pending investigation,” he said this week.

The inspector general did not say he would investigate Mr Comey’s comments on Mr Trump or any matters related to Russian interference in the election.

Mr Comey sent a second letter to Congress on the Clinton case, just days before the election, declaring that the investigation was complete and that he was not changing the decision he had made in July to recommend no charges. But the damage – in the minds of Clinton supporters, at least – had been done.

Mr Horowitz wrote that he will explore “allegations that Department or FBI policies or procedures were not followed” in connection with both letters. When he is finished, his office will probably issue a lengthy report detailing what it has found, as it has done in other high-profile matters, though it is also possible he could recommend criminal charges for anyone found to have broken the law. The probe could take a significant amount of time.

Mr Horowitz wrote that his inquiry will extend back to at least July – when Mr Comey announced he was recommending the Clinton case be closed without charges. He wrote that he will explore “allegations that Department and FBI employees improperly disclosed non-public information” - potentially a reference to Mr Giuliani, who seemed to claim at one point he had insider FBI knowledge. 

Mr Horowitz also said he would explore whether FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe should have been recused from the case. 

Mr McCabe’s wife Jill ran for a Virginia Senate seat and took money from the political action committee of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a fierce Clinton ally.

The FBI asserted at the time that Mr Andrew McCabe had checked in with ethics officials and followed agency protocols. And, when his wife was first recruited to run, he was not yet deputy director. He was elevated to that post in February 2016, after his wife was out of politics.

Efforts to reach Mr McCabe were not immediately successful. Mr Giuliani has previously said he would cooperate with an inspector-general investigation, though he said he had talked to only former FBI officials and was not the recipient of any leaks. He did not return a message Thursday.

Mr Horowitz wrote that he would delve more deeply into the FBI publishing, just days before the election, 129 pages of internal documents from a years-old probe into former president Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive Democratic donor Marc Rich. 

He said he would also probe whether Mr Peter Kadzik, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, “improperly disclosed non-public information to the Clinton campaign and/or should have been recused from participating in certain matters.” 

Mr Kadzik used to be the lawyer for Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and WikiLeaks released hacked emails showing communications between the two men about the State Department’s review of Clinton emails for Freedom of Information Act purposes.

In an interview, Mr Kadzik, who said he was speaking in his personal capacity, called the inspector general’s investigation “disheartening.” He noted that the information he gave Mr Podesta about a hearing and a court document already was public and that it came before the FBI opened its criminal investigation.

On whether he should have recused himself from any involvement in that criminal probe, Mr Kadzik said, “It’s not as if I had any decision-making authority or role in the criminal investigation.” 

He declined to say whether he would cooperate with the inspector general’s probe.“My answer is, I wish the inspector general would have talked to me first,” he said.

Notably absent from the list of matters being considered is Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s controversial meeting in June with former President Bill Clinton aboard Ms Lynch's plane on the tarmac of the Phoenix airport. The half-hour conversation, which Ms Lynch has said she regrets, created the appearance to some that the attorney general was politically compromised.  

Some officials say it left a leadership vacuum and probably prompted Mr Comey to give his controversial July news conference, at which he announced he was recommending no charges for Mrs Clinton but criticised her and her aides as “extremely careless.” 

The tarmac meeting could be encompassed in the investigation of possible leaks of information, and Mr Horowitz wrote that his investigators would consider “other issues that may arise during the course of the review.” 

Republican Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, took note of the omission.

“It’s good to hear that the Inspector General agreed to my request to look at multiple concerns that I raised throughout the investigation,” Mr Grassley said in a statement. “Conspicuously absent, though, is any specific reference to the Attorney General’s failure to recuse herself from the probe, particularly after her meeting with former President Clinton. It’s in the public interest to provide a full accounting of all the facts that led to the FBI and Justice Department’s decision-making regarding the investigation.”