There will be a whole lot more to say about the Justice Department Inspector General’s (IG’s) 500-page report on how the FBI handled the Hillary Clinton emails investigation. Tonight I will focus on just one point.
The point crystallizes in a passage that starts on page 328 of the report. Immediately preceding this passage, the IG discusses reasons offered by FBI headquarters personnel for the delay in processing the Anthony Weiner laptop for evidence related to the Clinton emails “matter.”
FBI officials had been aware of the laptop’s potential significance since around 28 September 2016, at the latest, but it took until the end of October for the Bureau to decide to reopen the Clinton matter because of the laptop. Announcing that they were reopening the case, only days before the November election, couldn’t help looking political, and having potential political consequences.
One of the chief reasons offered by FBI officials for this timeline was that the Russia-Trump investigation took priority. If you’re looking for reasons to excuse the FBI for its behavior, that might sound superficially plausible.
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But the IG report doesn’t just leave it there. In the passage starting on page 328, it goes on to make – in mild, precise language – a very telling point. The FBI is a big organization, and there were plenty of options for processing both cases with adequate attention and manpower for each one. Yet the FBI didn’t do that.
As a reminder, the FBI could have assigned a field office to do much of the work on either case – something that a number of former FBI officials have pointed out is more typical anyway.
But the IG also notes that the headquarters staff seemed to get plenty of work done on the Clinton emails case when it needed to, in spite of the Russia-investigation workload.
The IG’s conclusion is that the excuses for inaction on the Weiner laptop were “unpersuasive.”
Of course, the point that Peter Strzok’s motives could not be deemed “free from bias” is getting all the oxygen in the infosphere right now. But I see a more important point, and it’s implied – but not directly indicated – by the staffing decision the report alludes to briefly in the main text. Here’s a more expansive discussion of that topic in footnote 181 at the bottom of page 328.
The important point is not what the footnote does say, but what it doesn’t. It doesn’t say that it’s surprising from every professional standpoint – and not just from the appearance of potential bias by specific agents – for the same small team of headquarters personnel to be assigned exclusively to work these very large, very high-profile cases.
The IG’s charter wasn’t to question that decision about case assignment and staffing. So it didn’t, or at least not in the main text. The IG’s charter was to look for potential bias in the execution of procedure, so that’s what it commented on.
But the real story here, in my view, is the bigger picture point that both of the cases – Clinton’s emails and the Russia investigation – were being very tightly controlled by the same small group of individuals.
That’s a big tell. It’s a tell that the priority driving everything was political. Tight control of information and investigative discretion, by the same individuals, means politics. It’s how you arrange things when you don’t want neutral, good-government priorities to accidentally kick in.
It almost certainly would have been no strain on capabilities or resources to run the Hillary investigation in New York, or to run the Russia investigation from the Washington Field Office (which has a long history of handling such cases). From some routinely-considered standpoints, it would have been better. The FBI and DOJ headquarters offices would have had more objectivity in a supervisory role (and certainly more credibility as witnesses afterward, if they weren’t policing themselves in the observance of their rules for things like receiving foreign human intelligence, and processing FISA requests).
But that’s not how the cases were handled. They weren’t handled as if the priority was to reach good-faith conclusions and end up with actionable evidence, if such evidence existed. They were handled as if the tools of law enforcement could, and probably would, have political impact — and as if that, itself, was the point.
Doing that was a choice, and the case assignment and staffing merely demonstrate that it was a choice made in advance. Forget Strzok and Page. In terms of the FBI’s major muscle movements — its most basic procedural decisions — the question of whether it was acting from political motives in 2016 is settled at this point.
The next questions are how high up that started, who else in government was involved, and most importantly, what the real end-game was. Because it obviously wasn’t using the tools of law enforcement to pursue evidence and procure a rule-of-law outcome.
No, the end-game was something else. Answer any one of those three questions sufficiently, and it’s a good bet the rest will fall into place.