The FBI director tries to explain to Congress his pre-election letters about the missing Clinton emails.
Why did FBI Director James Comey tell Congress he was
“re-opening” the Clinton email investigation just nine days before the
election? Metadata and a misunderstanding.
That’s what Comey told lawmakers on Wednesday, explaining
his momentous decision for the first time. He said that the FBI team looking
into Clinton’s lost emails became very excited about the discovery of Anthony
Weiner’s laptop, upon which was stored metadata that pointed to various
messages, and the possibility — false, as it turns out — that it would show
criminal intent. The team also told Comey that it would take a long time to go
through the data, which also proved untrue.
Bottom line, Comey said: he did not know how much
evidence they had or how long it would take to examine it, and he decided on
Oct. 28 to send a letter telling lawmakers that the investigation was open
Here’s how it went down: On the morning of Oct. 27, the
FBI investigative team met with Comey in his conference room.
“They laid out what they could see from the metadata on
this fellow Anthony Weiner’s laptop,” Comey told the Senate Judiciary
Committee. ”What they could see was that
there were thousands of Secretary Clinton’s emails on that device, including
what they thought were the missing emails from her first three months as
Secretary of State.”
The metadata on Weiner’s device pointed to emails from
Clinton’s Verizon Blackberry, a device she used during her first three months
as Secretary of State, Comey said.
“That’s obviously very important because if there was
evidence she was acting with bad intent that’s where it would be,” he told a
somewhat agitated Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “We never found any emails
from her first three months.”
After the investigators said that they would need a
search warrant to go further, Comey verified that with the Justice Department,
then granted his team permission to seek it.
Comey told lawmakers that once he had given permission to
obtain a search warrant, he would have two choices. He could either conceal or
reveal that he had given permission for the agents to continue their
investigation. Concealing it would have been “catastrophic,” to public trust in
the FBI, he said.
As well, Comey told lawmakers, his team had informed him
that searching the 650,000-plus emails could not be completed before the Nov. 8
election. That proved untrue.
Instead, he said, “They found thousands of new emails and
they called me the Saturday night before the election and said, ‘Thanks to the
wizardry of our technology, we’ve only had to personally read 6,000. We think
we can finish tomorrow morning, Sunday.’”
At the time, some observers and political players, such
as disgraced former National Security Advisor and former Defense Intelligence
Agency director Michael Flynn, said that a thorough review of emails in that
timeframe would be impossible.
There R 691,200 seconds in 8 days. DIR Comey has
thoroughly reviewed 650,000 emails in 8 days? An email / second? IMPOSSIBLE RT
— General Flynn (@GenFlynn) November 6, 2016
But former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, among others,
surmised that it might take no more than an afternoon once you filtered out the
copied and blind-copied (the so-called CC and BCC) recipients.
@jeffjarvis Drop non-responsive To:/CC:/BCC:, hash both
sets, then subtract those that match. Old laptops could do it in
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) November 7, 2016
That’s without using any fancy tricks.
“We’d routinely collect terabytes of data in a search.
I’d know what was important before I left the guy’s house,” one former FBI
forensics analyst told WIRED’s Andy Greenberg.
Shouldn’t Comey have known better? There are any number
of methods or software tools available for searching enormous corpuses of data
quickly…if you know what you are looking for. While there are tags and other
indicators that can quickly show that a message contains classified
information, the object of Comey’s obsession was a bit more vaporous: a clear
indication of criminal intent on behalf of Hillary Clinton. Even so, it proved
easy to eliminate a large majority of emails that definitely contained no such
proof, leaving a much smaller pile to go through more carefully.
Comey told the committee that the investigators came back
to him the Saturday before the election.
“They said, ’We found a lot of new stuff. We did not find
anything that changes our view of her intent. We’re in the same place we were
What effect did Comey’s letter have on the election?
Sam Wang at the Princeton Consortium did a quick analysis
on the prevalence of Hillary Clinton’s email as a voting issue in the final
days before the election. Unsurprisingly, there was a spike.
“The big change does coincide well with the release of
the Comey letter. Opinion swung toward Trump by 4 percentage points, and about
half of this was a lasting change. This was larger than the victory margin in
Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. Many factors went into this
year’s Presidential race, but on the home stretch, Comey’s letter appears to
have been a critical factor in the home stretch,” Wang wrote.
Statistician Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight found that
Clinton’s support waned whenever Comey talked about her emails, as he did in
July when he first closed the investigation.
At very least, Comey’s letter of Oct. 28 certainly
changed the optics and themes of the campaign in its final days. “It got Trump
out of the spotlight for vulgar comments on the Access Hollywood video and back
on offense. He and his allies used word of a new FBI investigation and an
erroneous report on Fox News to argue that Clinton was about to be indicted,”
USA Today’s Susan Page observed.
Still, pinning a specific perception change in the minds
of millions of voters on a single event is an ambitious feat with even the best
data. But had Comey simply called his own forensic experts or consulted someone
with expertise in parsing big data, rather than rely entirely on the judgment
of agents whose expertise was elsewhere, he might have sent a better letter to
lawmakers. That might have changed history.
**Patrick Tucker is technology editor for Defense One.
He’s also the author of The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That
Anticipates Your Every Move? (Current, 2014). Previously, Tucker was deputy
editor for The Futurist for nine years.