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Did a Mutiny at the FBI Impel Comey to Send That Letter?

Eric Pianin
Did a Mutiny at the FBI Impel Comey to Send That Letter?

With now daily leaks about the FBI’s renewed probe of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of State Department emails casting a pall on her campaign against Republican Donald Trump, a nagging question for many is whether the long-venerated FBI is spinning out of control and splintering among various warring factions within the agency. 

FBI Director James B. Comey triggered the crisis last Friday with an extraordinarily vague, three paragraph letter to GOP and Democratic congressional leaders saying that more Clinton emails turned up in a separate investigation of disgraced former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner that may or may not be relevant to the Clinton email investigation. Weiner is the estranged husband of senior Clinton aide Huma Abedin, who apparently shared a laptop computer with Weiner before they parted. 

Related: Stream of Anonymous Leaks From FBI Intensifies

The letter touched off a firestorm of angry rejoinders from Clinton and her Democratic supporters, charging that Comey either intentionally or unintentionally put his thumb on the political scales and helped revive Trump’s flagging campaign just 11 days before the presidential election. Trump quickly capitalized on Comey’s revelation in campaign appearances across the country, and his campaign just released a new TV ad proclaiming, “Now the FBI has launched a new investigation.” 

The FBI’s Pandora’s Box of Grievances
Comey’s letter laid bare the simmering internal disputes within the agency and the Justice Department over the handling of the State Department email investigation and other Clinton related matters, including suspicions over potentially corrupt “pay to play” fund raising practices by the Clinton family’s global foundation and personal financial nest-feathering by Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton. 

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the FBI last summer conducted preliminary investigations into Hillary Clinton’s relationships with wealthy donors to her family foundation, as well as former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s secret business dealings in Ukraine. At the urging of senior Justice Department officials, however, the FBI agreed not to issue subpoenas or take other actions “that would make the cases public so close to the election,” the newspaper reported. 

But tensions between FBI agents in the field and Justice Department officials were manifest, according to The Wall Street Journal. Senior law enforcement officials “repeatedly voiced skepticism of the strength of the evidence in a bureau investigation of the Clinton Foundation, sought to condense what was at times a sprawling cross-country effort, and, according to some people familiar with the matter, told agents to limit their pursuit of the case,” according to The Journal. The investigation had been launched a year before, to determine whether there was evidence of financial crimes or influence peddling.

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Some career FBI agents, still fuming that Comey ruled against an indictment of Clinton in July for mishandling tens of thousands of government emails on her private server and risked being hacked by foreign governments, used the recent discovery of additional Clinton email on a laptop computer seized in the Weiner sexting investigation as a cudgel in pressing the FBI Director to reopen the case. 

Come Forward or Let It Leak?
In early October, FBI officials in New York notified Andrew McCabe, the bureau’s second-in-command, that while investigating whether Weiner broke the law by sending sexually suggestive texts to a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina, they had uncovered a laptop computer with 650,000 emails, including many from the account of Abedin. 

Agents subsequently concluded that at least 1,000 or more were communications that might shed more light on whether Clinton had violated the law in her use of a private email server. The findings were presented to Comey shortly before he sent his fateful message to congressional leaders. 

In deciding to notify Republican and Democratic lawmakers of the new email discovery, even before the agency could obtain a court order to investigate the contents of those emails, Comey disregarded the objections of Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other Justice Department officials. 

Related: Why a Growing Number of Republicans Are Criticizing the FBI’s Comey

The FBI director evidently believed he had no choice. 

Comey had promised lawmakers last summer that he would apprise them of any new information that might turn up in the Clinton case, and didn’t want to appear to be participating in a cover-up when the information finally was released after the November 8 election. He probably knew as well that unless he sent the letter to Congress, the information would be leaked to the press by disgruntled agents. 

Now current and former FBI agents are settling old scores against the Clintons and higher ups in the agency and the Justice Department who they believe protected the politically powerful couple from more aggressive investigations. 

In a remarkable radio interview reported by the New York Daily News on Sunday, the former head of the FBI’s New York City office in the mid-1990s denounced the FBI’s mishandling of the Clinton email probe and described Bill and Hillary Clinton as the heads of an influence-peddling “crime family” rife with corruption and deceit.

James Kallstrom, a former FBI official, said that Comey’s decision to reopen the email investigation was tantamount to an admission that the agency never did a “real investigation” in the first place. He told radio personality John Catsimatidis that it was a huge mistake for the Justice Department not to have empaneled a grand jury, which would have had the authority to issue subpoenas and issue serve search warrants.

“They left so much stuff on the table,” he said. “Cases of conspiracy and destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice and perjury,” he said.

Related: 9 Reasons Trump Needs Remedial Courses in the Constitution

Impact on the Election
Comey is under fire from both Democrats and Republicans for meddling in a critical national election – FBI agents are hurrying to analyze the latest batch of emails and determine whether they contain anything incriminating. Having been burned once for his letter to Congress, would the FBI Director dare disclose his agents’ preliminary findings – whether damning or exculpatory for Clinton – literally on the eve of the election? 

Comey has not addressed the issue since the storm of protest first broke, and his titular boss, Loretta Lynch, who recused herself from the Clinton email investigation after an impromptu meeting with Bill Clinton has been silent as well. She left it to Comey to make the final recommendation not to charge Clinton in the email probe.

Lynch reportedly strongly argued against Comey writing the letter to Congress, saying that it contravened Justice Department and FBI policies of steering clear of politically explosive investigations within 60 days of important elections.

“Americans now look at the FBI and see a political entity, not a non-partisan entity – and that has huge ramifications for the FBI and for the rest of us,” Matt Miller, a former spokesman for the Justice Department and a Hillary Clinton supporter, told The Washington Post. “It sows disbelief in our system of government and is hugely toxic.”

President Obama’s chief spokesman, Josh Earnest, on Monday defended Comey’s integrity and character and said Obama doesn’t believe that he’s secretly strategizing to benefit one candidate or one political party.” 

In an interview on Wednesday with NowThisNews, which was taped on Tuesday, Obama said, 

“When this was investigated thoroughly last time, the conclusion of the FBI, the conclusion of the Justice Department, the conclusion of repeated congressional investigations was she had made some mistakes but that there wasn’t anything there that was prosecutable.”

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