The FBI is under fire for its handling of investigations into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It’s being accused of stirring up suspicions about her actions without any new evidence that she actually did something wrong. And it’s being accused of violating a norm within the Department of Justice — that agencies shouldn’t release information that could sway a presidential election within 60 days of Election Day.
Then today, someone at the FBI decided it was a good time to release a bunch of files about a 15-year-old Clinton Foundation scandal.
William J. Clinton Foundation: This initial release consists of material from the FBI's files related to the Will... https://t.co/Y4nz3aRSmG— FBI Records Vault (@FBIRecordsVault) November 1, 2016
The FBI “vault” is where the agency posts documents online that have been released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. But government agencies have a lot of flexibility in when (and whether) to honor FOIA requests, so it’s not exactly like they had to release these documents a week before the presidential election — and after several days of being hammered for hyping supposed Clinton misdeeds.
The documents in question are about the Clinton Foundation and the pardon of Marc Rich — which was a famously controversial pardon granted by Bill Clinton right before leaving office in 2001.
Rich had never actually been convicted of wrongdoing — he’d been living abroad since being indicted in the 1980s — which made the pardon unusual, and the fact that his wife had given $1 million to the Democratic Party certainly made the pardon look even sketchier.
But federal investigators ultimately concluded that the Clintons hadn’t done anything wrong. That federal investigation, incidentally, was supervised by then-US Attorney James Comey — the current head of the FBI.
The problem is that the documents the FBI just released don’t actually establish that there wasn’t any wrongdoing — because they don’t cover the end of the investigation. This is “part 1” of the document dump (presumably other parts will be released later).
Instead, what we get are 64 entirely redacted pages, followed by 100 heavily redacted pages — with the exception of passages outlining Clinton’s pardon of Rich, and saying “it appears that the required pardon standards and procedures were not followed.”
Someone at the FBI decided that the public ought to know that the FBI was holding on to documents about the Clinton Foundation — even though the public wouldn’t be able to gain any new information from those documents. They decided it was important to remind the public that the Clintons had been investigated for sketchy Foundation activity since the last time they were in the White House, even though they’d already been investigated and cleared for that activity. And by releasing heavily redacted documents, they opened up the possibility that people would assume the worst.
And they did this with a week to go before the election.
In other words, the FBI just made all the mistakes it’s been accused of making in the Clinton email case — but with even less of an excuse to do so. James Comey could reasonably argue that the fact that he’d testified before Congress about the emails compelled him to update them on the investigation; he could certainly believe that if he didn’t tell Congress about the new emails, someone in his agency would leak it to them anyway.
But those rationales don’t apply to 15-year-old documents about a minor Clinton administration scandal that had been investigated and closed by Comey himself.
The conclusion here isn’t that the FBI is trying to elect Donald Trump. Indeed, the FBI vault has posted Trump-related documents recently as well. (They were about Trump’s father, and the description of them doesn’t focus on a single scandal.) And while the FBI vault’s Twitter account doesn’t usually post new document dumps, it tweeted about both the Trump and Clinton dumps.
If we’ve learned anything from the last week, it’s that “the FBI” isn’t a single entity trying to do a single thing — it’s rife with internal disagreements and power struggles playing out through leaks to the press. The non-revelation of the Marc Rich documents shows that the FBI’s lack of control and self-discipline is total.
It would have been so easy to delay this vault upload for two weeks — or, if the FOIA request couldn’t have been put off any longer, to anticipate that development and post all Trump- and Clinton-related records before the 60-day pre-election window. It would have been so easy to post the documents with a more anodyne description, like the one given to Fred Trump.
It would have been so easy for the FBI to exercise a little more discipline to keep itself from becoming the story yet again.