To quote the famous ethicist Rahm Emanuel: You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Faced with a serious crisis in Hillary Clinton’s use of a secret and unauthorized use of a private e-mail system to transmit classified data, the FBI took action to, er … benefit the State Department? A newly released series of e-mails unveiled by a Judicial Watch FOIA action confirms that the FBI proposed allowing more legal attachés from State as a trade for changing the basis for withholding a classified Clinton e-mail:
Newly released internal FBI emails showed the agency’s highest-ranking officials scrambling to answer to Hillary Clinton’s lawyer in the days prior to the 2016 presidential election, on the same day then-FBI Director James Comey sent a bombshell letter to Congress announcing a new review of hundreds of thousands of potentially classified emails found on former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s laptop.
The trove of documents turned over by the FBI, in response to a lawsuit by the transparency group Judicial Watch, also included discussions by former FBI lawyer Lisa Page concerning a potential quid pro quo between the State Department and the FBI — in which the FBI would agree to downgrade the classification level of a Clinton email in exchange for more legal attache positions that would benefit the agency abroad. There was no indication such a quid pro quo ever took place. …
“Jason Herring will be providing you with three 302s [witness reports] of current and former FBI employees who were interviewed during the course of the Clinton investigation,” Page wrote. “These 302s are scheduled to be released to Congress in an unredacted form at the end of the week, and produced (with redactions) pursuant to FOIA at the beginning of next week.
Page continued: “As you will see, they describe a discussion about potential quid pro quo arrangement between then-DAD in IOD [deputy assistant director in International Operations Division] and an Undersecretary at the State Department whereby IOD would get more LEGAT [legal attaché] positions if the FBI could change the basis of the FOIA withhold re a Clinton email from classified to something else.”
This offer emerged almost two and a half years ago, but at the time the report suggested that the offer went in the other direction. The release last night confirms that the offer went from the FBI to the State Department, which the FBI acknowledged at the time. This makes more sense than the original narrative floated in October 2016, since the FBI has no authority to declassify material that it does not itself produce. In order to declassify State Department material, State would have to take that action itself. And if they did that, they wouldn’t need to bargain with the FBI to make it happen.
But this still raises the question as to why investigators at the FBI would want to have it declassified, especially in light of the FOIA request. It doesn’t appear that the FBI wanted to make the e-mail subject to the FOIA demand, but just that the agency didn’t want the refusal to be on the basis of classification. Why? James Comey had staked out a no-crime position in July, a position that the Weiner laptop threatened in a big way. The timing certainly suggests that some in the FBI found it in their interest to keep Hillary from coming up again at the end of the election, which a FOIA refusal on the basis of classification would certainly do.
However, there’s another timing issue in play here too. These e-mails started on October 13th and ended on October 16th, prompted by an inquiry from Fox’s Catherine Herridge, but it wasn’t until the 28th that Comey told Congress that Hillary’s e-mails had been found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. At the time, no one outside the FBI knew about Weiner’s connection to the e-mail scandal. They may have also wanted to keep the e-mail scandal from popping up again in order to cover their new Weiner problem. Getting State to change its basis for FOIA denial would have been handy in that regard.
As it turns out, Comey never wavered from his July 2016 position despite finding classified e-mails on Weiner’s server. That’s not because the FBI didn’t find more classified material and more new material on the laptop, but perhaps because Hillary’s lawyer David Kendall did a full-court press to shut it down. In another newly released e-mail, FBI general counsel James Baker proposed a meeting with Kendall and his team. A few days later, Comey told Congress that the FBI had found nothing new or interesting on Weiner’s laptop, but that turned out to be false:
However, at least 18 classified emails sent from Abedin’s account were found by the FBI on the Weiner laptop. And, despite Strzok’s apparent claim, FBI officials later conceded they had not manually screened all of the nearly 700,000 emails on the laptop, but instead used computer technology to prioritize which emails to screen as Election Day rapidly approached.
“It is big news that, just days before the presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s personal lawyer pressured the top lawyer for the FBI on the infamous Weiner laptop emails,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement. “These documents further underscore that the fix was in for Hillary Clinton. When will the Justice Department and FBI finally do an honest investigation of the Clinton email scandal?”
Never, probably. That won’t remove the smell from it, but it’s water under the bridge now that the election is in the past. Jeff Sessions didn’t want to take it on, and it seems doubtful that William Barr will start off his tenure at Justice by launching a divisive probe into a partisan minefield.
However, at least we unearthed this nugget of humility from the former FBI director:
And, in the face of mounting criticism aimed at the FBI, the documents revealed that Comey quoted the 19th century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson by assuring his subordinates, “To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Not when to be understood is to be embarrassing.