FBI’s big test: Clinton email probe raises political doubts

WASHINGTON — The FBI’s handling of its Hillary Clinton email probe has undercut the bureau’s carefully crafted image as unquestionably outside the political fray.

The yearlong investigation thrust the FBI into the thick of an already fractious presidential race, entangled in a way that strained its vaunted independence and cracked its prized reputation for silence about its work. Even after today’s election, FBI Director James Comey is sure to face second-guessing over his public statements that opened the curtain on normally secret investigative details.

“This has been a very difficult election process. Unfortunately, the FBI has been drawn into it,” said Leo Taddeo, a retired FBI supervisor.

Although Comey signaled a conclusion to the Clinton email matter with a letter to Congress on Sunday, the discussion continues. Lawmakers demand answers to questions left unresolved by two vague and ambiguous Comey letters. Clinton and her aides feel wronged by the disclosure of “new” emails less than two weeks before Election Day. And ex-prosecutors of both parties are concerned the bureau’s actions strayed from its mandate to steer clear of politics.

If Clinton should win today, could the investigation follow her into the White House? Comey said Sunday that agents had finished reviewing all newly found emails to and from her while she was secretary of state and had found nothing to change his conclusion from July — no charges.

A senior law enforcement official said the letter meant an end to the email review, rather than a simple status update. There was no suggestion any of Clinton’s aides were being scrutinized, indicating the investigation was again closed.

The speed with which agents reviewed the trove of emails — found on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of Huma Abedin, a close Clinton aide — suggested investigators encountered many duplicates of messages they had already seen.

It’s hard to gauge the political impact of Comey’s recent announcements. In the nine days between Comey’s initial statement that he was looking at more emails and his all-clear announcement on Sunday, nearly 24 million people cast early ballots — about 18 percent of the expected total votes for president.

The controversy, coupled with leaks that laid bare internal squabbling, suggests a tough road ahead for FBI leaders regardless of who wins today.

After a referral from the intelligence community inspector general, the FBI began investigating Clinton for the potential mishandling of classified information as secretary of state. Comey has said the investigation was done without regard to politics, but he also never lost sight of political sensitivities, receiving regular briefings but refusing to comment in public.

When the FBI decided in July it wouldn’t recommend charges, he broke from protocol and delivered an unusual public statement chastising Clinton and her aides as “extremely careless.”

There was plenty of Republican pushback to that announcement, but it was nothing compared to what Comey has faced — from officials on both sides of the political divide — the past two weeks. That started with his Oct. 28 notification to Congress that the FBI would review newly discovered emails potentially connected to the email investigation.

The statement provoked outrage from Clinton and other Democrats who said it needlessly placed her under suspicion when the FBI didn’t even know if the emails were relevant.

Then came Sunday’s statement, in which Comey effectively cleared the Democratic presidential nominee by saying the new review had done nothing to change the FBI’s July recommendation that she not face charges. Though a relief to Democrats and Clinton, the news also raised skepticism among Republicans and questions among others why the issue had been raised again in the first place.

Comey has said he felt obligated to alert Congress after having previously testified that the investigation had been closed. Supporters say had he kept silent until after the election, he would have faced partisan allegations of stifling a bombshell announcement and perhaps given fuel to allegations of a “rigged” election. He also would have risked the chance of the news leaking out.

“Do I sit quietly and do nothing for 10 days and let the election quietly go by, pregnant with the knowledge that we have thousands of new emails?” said Ron Hosko, a retired FBI assistant director. “Or do I tell the same Congress that I’ve been committed to being transparent with?”

The bureau has been further roiled by leaks that hint at discord over the handling of a separate inquiry involving the Clinton Foundation and agents from the New York field office, the FBI’s largest. The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that FBI agents seeking an investigation met this year with public corruption prosecutors to present allegations they wanted to pursue, but that the lawyers did not see a basis for moving forward.

Thomas O’Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, said in a statement that FBI agents conduct investigations with “integrity and professionalism” and that it was wrong to imply that they don’t respect the confidential nature of their work.

The latest turmoil poses a unique challenge for a venerable law enforcement organization and for a director who talks often about his desire to be accountable to the American people and transparent.

Depending on who wins Tuesday, Comey will have to co-exist with either a Republican president who has challenged his organization’s integrity or a Democrat whose email practices were the subject of a criminal investigation. He’ll also probably have to explain his decision-making to Congress.

“Rest assured, Jim Comey’s not afraid of creating controversy,” Taddeo said. “He is determined to do the right thing.”

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Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.

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