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FBI Affirms July Decision Not To Charge Clinton After Additional Email Reviews


Days after he upended the presidential race, the FBI director has reached the same conclusion as he did in July. James Comey says he sees no cause to pursue criminal charges over Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. He came to that conclusion and said so in a letter to Congress after reviewing newly discovered emails. Yet again, the FBI and the wider Justice Department are way more involved in electoral politics than would normally be expected. And NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is covering this story. Hi, Carrie.


INSKEEP: Thousands of emails here - why did they leave Clinton in the clear?

JOHNSON: Well, the FBI used software to go through this new batch of emails. They found few if any classified documents. And, in fact, Steve, sources are telling me most of what they found were duplicates of emails they already reviewed in that earlier investigation or personal communications, nothing that would change the analysis by the FBI director, that it's rare to charge someone with mishandling government secrets, unless they're betraying the country, they're lying to agents or obstructing of justice. And none of that happened with Hillary Clinton.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to figure this out because Donald Trump has raised the question of, how could you possibly know so quickly? Many, many, many thousands of emails - how could you possibly analyze them so quickly? But you said something about software there. What was done?

JOHNSON: So what we know is Donald Trump doesn't normally use email. And while he's on Twitter, he may not be familiar with some of the more advanced software programs that big law firms use every day to go through huge volumes of information. The FBI did create two software programs - one to search for material that could be classified, another that would help it look for things that were duplicates of what it had already reviewed.

INSKEEP: Oh, so it can - it can - it can compare a newly found email with something that's already in a database. It could check and see, are they sent to State Department email addresses? There are a lot of different keys you could look for there.

JOHNSON: Yeah, Steve. This is, like, a search of the metadata, as we talked about so much during the Edward Snowden leak time.

INSKEEP: OK, so does this and the investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private server?

JOHNSON: Well, authorities are doing some wrap-up, but for - for the most part, it's done. They left open the possibility of other people being in legal jeopardy, but that would take a lot for the FBI to proceed. And sources are signaling that this may be close - close to conclusion.

INSKEEP: Carrie, how comfortable - if that's even the word - has this episode been for people in the FBI.

JOHNSON: Steve, this has been a very bad move for morale. Over the weekend, somebody vandalized the FBI headquarters here in Washington. "Saturday Night Live" made fun of the agency over the weekend, and the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Tim Kaine, called the FBI a leaky sieve in an interview. Now, the FBI director, James Comey, has nearly seven years left in his term. So he and the next president are going to need to find a way to work together here.

INSKEEP: Somebody that I know saw the graffiti that you referred to when you said vandalized the FBI headquarters. They said it was the word corrupt spray-painted on the side of the building.

JOHNSON: Yeah, there were a number of protesters here in Washington for Guy Fawkes Day, and someone has been taken into custody for that incident of vandalism.

INSKEEP: How unusual is it really that the FBI director would weigh in not once but twice right before a presidential election?

JOHNSON: It's been extremely unusual, and that accounts for some of the strong reaction. Vandalism aside, both Democrats and Republicans who'd served in the Justice Department had signed a letter saying this was damaging to democracy. There are rules in place that require or suggest that authorities not take any steps to close to an election to avoid the appearance that they're putting their finger on the scale. And the Justice Department and confidence in the Justice Department is so important that those rules are in place for a reason. A lot of people feel Jim Comey meant well, but he broke those rules, and it's had a bad effect.

INSKEEP: Let's remember, he commented over the summer about the investigation, said there was no cause to pursue a prosecution, although he said Hillary Clinton had been extremely careless. Then when he commented 11 days before the election, he said he had to update that testimony. He'd given testimony. He'd commented before Congress and elsewhere and felt he needed to correct the record. Did he then have to comment yet again here on Sunday because he'd commented before?

JOHNSON: What I was hearing late last week was the FBI would come out and say something if it could say something definitive. It wasn't going to do a half-step or a half measure. But if they had reached some key conclusion, as they did, that Hillary Clinton would not face any criminal charges yet again, the authorities felt they needed to do that.

Now, the complicating thing here, Steve, is that Jim Comey did come out and do that press conference in July in which he ruled that no reasonable prosecutor would charge Hillary Clinton. But then he said a lot of things about her, like that she was extremely careless. Then he promised in congressional testimony that he would update lawmakers. And a lot of people who used to work in the Justice Department say he never should have made that promise.

INSKEEP: Do you believe that Comey is desperately trying to keep credibility within his department, where there may be many critics of Hillary Clinton?

JOHNSON: Well, we - we have heard from Rudy Giuliani, who's close to the Trump campaign, and others that they are in touch with retired FBI agents who may be in touch with current FBI agents. Now, the FBI Agents Association, which is a member group that represents something like 13,000 current and former agents, felt the need on Friday to issue a public statement to me saying, we do our jobs, we are independent, and we respect confidentiality.

So clearly there's some pushback to this idea of the entire FBI is leaking and clearly the FBI is not leaking or is not politically motivated. But that's now become a perception problem for both the attorney general and the FBI director.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about a former attorney general now. Janet Reno, who was attorney general under President Clinton in the 1990s, has died at the age of 78. How vividly is she remembered at the Justice Department?

JOHNSON: You know, very vividly, Steve. She was a person not of Washington. She really learned on the job. And the number of people who surrounded her who have become legal stars in their own right is truly remarkable - former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, who went on to become the first black man to serve as attorney general, Merrick Garland, a judge on the federal appeals court and President Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court, Lisa Monaco, who's one of the chief advisers to President Obama and national security. Those people all recall Janet Reno with great affection and fondness.

INSKEEP: Weren't there a lot of political controversies in her time, too?

JOHNSON: Oh, boy, Steve. The independent counsel law was still in effect in those years, and Janet Reno was constantly fighting her FBI director. She was fighting the White House, which wanted her to shut down some of these investigations. And she was constantly fighting members of Congress who were hauling her up to testify and explain herself in all of these controversial decisions.

INSKEEP: And yet she ended up a popular figure.

JOHNSON: In part, Steve, because she was tough. Unlike a lot of people in Washington, she showed up, and she took the heat. She took questions from reporters on a weekly basis, which doesn't happen anymore, and she took questions from Congress, too.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks very much, as always.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson on this day before the election. Remember, NPR and reporters from stations across this country will be live tomorrow night and Wednesday morning with the election results. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.