By Peter Elkind, special to ProPublica, May 8, 2017
FBI director James Comey generated national headlines last week with his dramatic testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, explaining his “incredibly painful” decision to go public about the Hillary Clinton emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop.
Perhaps Comey’s most surprising revelation was that Huma Abedin — Weiner’s wife and a top Clinton deputy — had made “a regular practice” of forwarding “hundreds and thousands” of Clinton messages to her husband, “some of which contain classified information.” Comey testified that Abedin had done this so that the disgraced former congressman could print them out for her boss. (Weiner’s laptop was seized after he came under criminal investigation for sex crimes, following a media report about his online relationship with a teenager.)
The New York Post plastered its story on the front page with a photo of an underwear-clad Weiner and the headline: “HARD COPY: Huma sent Weiner classified Hillary emails to print out.” The Daily News went with a similar front-page screamer: “HUMA ERROR: Sent classified emails to sext maniac Weiner.”
The problem: Much of what Comey said about this was inaccurate. Now the FBI is trying to figure out what to do about it.
FBI officials have privately acknowledged that Comey misstated what Abedin did and what the FBI investigators found. On Monday, the FBI was said to be preparing to correct the record by sending a letter to Congress later this week. But that plan now appears on hold, with the bureau undecided about what to do.
ProPublica is reporting a story on the FBI’s handling of the Clinton emails and raised questions with government officials last week about possible inaccuracies in Comey’s statements about Abedin.
It could not be learned how the mistake occurred. The FBI and Abedin declined ProPublica’s requests for comment on the director’s misstatements.
According to two sources familiar with the matter — including one in law enforcement — Abedin forwarded only a handful of Clinton emails to her husband for printing — not the “hundreds and thousands” cited by Comey. It does not appear Abedin made “a regular practice” of doing so. Other officials said it was likely that most of the emails got onto the computer as a result of backups of her Blackberry.
It was not clear how many, if any, of the forwarded emails were among the 12 “classified” emails Comey said had been found on Weiner’s laptop. None of the messages carried classified markings at the time they were sent.
Comey’s Senate testimony about Abedin came as he offered his first public explanation for his decision to reveal the existence of the emails on Oct. 28, days ahead of the 2016 election and before FBI agents had examined them.
When agents obtained a search warrant that allowed them to read the messages, they turned out to be mostly duplicates of emails the bureau had obtained earlier in the investigation. Comey announced just before Election Day that nothing had changed in the Clinton case, which had been closed four months earlier without criminal charges.
During his testimony, Comey said that part of the reason for revealing the existence of the messages was that some appeared to fill an eight-week gap in records from early in Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. Comey said the FBI viewed them as “the golden missing emails that would change this case” because they might provide insights into Clinton’s intent when she set up her private server.
Comey testified that investigators searching Weiner’s laptop in the days before the election also found that “somehow, her emails are being forwarded to Anthony Weiner, including classified information, by [Clinton’s] assistant, Huma Abedin.” Abedin, he later testified, “appears to have had a regular practice of forwarding emails to him, for him I think to print out for her so she could then deliver them to the Secretary of State.”
After Comey painted this troubling picture, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz demanded to know why Abedin and Weiner hadn’t been charged with mishandling classified information, calling the failure to do so “puzzling.”
“You said Ms. Abedin forwarded hundreds or thousands of classified emails to her husband on a non-government, non-classified computer,” said Cruz. “How is — how does that conduct not directly violate the statute?”
Comey offered a partial clarification, telling the Texas senator: “… if I said that, I misspoke. She forwarded hundreds and thousands of emails, some of which contain classified information.” Comey agreed both Abedin and Weiner “potentially” might have committed a crime, but said the FBI found no basis for concluding either had acted with criminal intent. Comey said the FBI had been unable to discuss the matter with Weiner “because he has pending criminal problems of other sorts.”
Abedin’s lawyer issued a statement after Comey’s Oct. 28 letter, saying Abedin had no idea how her exchanges with Clinton got on Weiner’s laptop, and no idea that they were there.
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“It could not be learned how the mistake occurred.” A masterful study in how the English language can be used to portray deliberate actions as taking place without agents or agency.