July 7, 2016
Unclassified E-mails- FBI censures Hilary Clinton
The New York Times Editorial
James Comey (above), the Director of the F.B.I., may have relieved Hillary Clinton of a legal burden on Tuesday, but he left her with a substantial political one. While announcing that the bureau would not recommend criminal charges against Mrs. Clinton for her handling of classified material on nonsecure personal email servers, Mr. Comey issued a strong rebuke of her practices, which he called “extremely careless” — and for which she has never given the public a full explanation. He was right on both points.
Mr. Comey explained that there was no clear evidence Mrs. Clinton or her colleagues had intentionally broken any federal laws on classified information, and he said that “no reasonable prosecutor” would pursue an indictment in the case.
This legal decision is undoubtedly correct. The F.B.I. investigation, which began a year ago, examined tens of thousands of emails sent to and from Mrs. Clinton during her leadership of the State Department. It found that eight email threads contained information that was classified “top secret” at the time, the highest classification level. Several dozen more contained information that was either “secret” or “confidential,” the lowest level.
For at least two reasons, Mr. Comey said, this did not amount to criminal wrongdoing. First was the lack of evidence that Mrs. Clinton or her colleagues had intended to break any laws. Second, prosecutions of similar cases in the past have relied on some combination of elements that were missing in this case: the intentional mishandling of classified information, indications of disloyalty to the United States, and efforts to obstruct justice.
But Mr. Comey was clear that while these email habits weren’t criminal, Mrs. Clinton and her staff were “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” He added that “any reasonable person” in Mrs. Clinton’s position should have known that she was playing with fire.
Mr. Comey’s remarks also contradicted Mrs. Clinton’s repeated assertion that she didn’t send or receive material that was “marked classified” at the time. She did.
He went on to say, “None of these emails should have been on any kind of unclassified system, but their presence is especially concerning because all of these emails were housed on unclassified personal servers not even supported by full-time security staff.”
Perhaps more troubling was the F.B.I.’s finding that Mrs. Clinton “also used her personal email extensively while abroad, including sending and receiving work-related emails in the territory of sophisticated adversaries,” adding that “it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal email account.”
Mr. Comey’s conclusions — legal recommendation aside — can be seen as nothing less than a censure of Mrs. Clinton’s judgment. Of course, his recommendation was met with howls from the right, and particularly from Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, who wasted no time trying to delegitimize the F.B.I.’s work by claiming it was only more proof that “the system is rigged.” But to assume that the F.B.I. somehow worked on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf betrays a basic misunderstanding of the way the agency functions, and views its own mission. Led by Mr. Comey, who also served as deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush, the F.B.I. appears to have worked as comprehensively and expediently as it could to investigate a problem that is entirely of Mrs. Clinton’s making.
Mrs. Clinton’s desire to shield her private communications from public scrutiny may be understandable to supporters of her presidential campaign. But in leading one of the most sensitive departments in the federal government, she did little to improve what Mr. Comey called “the security culture of the State Department in general, and with respect to use of unclassified email systems in particular,” that “was generally lacking in the kind of care for classified information found elsewhere in the government.”
As Mrs. Clinton said in the past, and her campaign reiterated on Tuesday, her decision to use private email was a mistake. She remains, far and away, the most experienced and knowledgeable candidate for the presidency, particularly when compared with Mr. Trump. But she has done damage to her reputation by failing to conform to the established security policies of the department she ran and by giving evasive or misleading answers about her actions and motivations. If there was ever a time that Mrs. Clinton needed to demonstrate that she understands the forthrightness demanded of those who hold the nation’s highest office, this is that moment.
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A version of this editorial appears in print on July 6, 2016, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: Legal, Not Political, Clarity on Emails. Today’s Paper|Subscribe