FBI Director James B. Comey said Tuesday that his agency will not recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server as secretary of state but called Clinton and her staff “extremely careless” in handling sensitive material.
The announcement means that Clinton will not have to fear criminal, legal liability as her campaign moves forward, though Comey leveled sharp criticism at the past email practices of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and called into question many of the defenses she has raised in recent weeks.
The FBI director said those who acted as Clinton and her staffers did were “often subject to security or administrative sanctions,” though in comparing her case with similar investigations in the past, the bureau did not find any of the aggravating factors that typically lead to the filing of criminal charges.
“Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case,” Comey said.
He said that while the ultimate decision would be left up to the Justice Department, the FBI was expressing its view “that no charges are appropriate in this case.”
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, whose prosecutors are involved in the case, declined to comment.
Hillary for America campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement: “We are pleased that the career officials handling this case have determined that no further action by the Department is appropriate. As the Secretary has long said, it was a mistake to use her personal email and she would not do it again. We are glad that this matter is now resolved.”
The announcement — which came only about 72 hours after FBI agents interviewed Clinton, and only about a week after former president Bill Clinton had an impromptu meeting with U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch aboard her plane — immediately sparked criticism that the outcome of the high-profile probe was a foregone conclusion, influenced heavily by political considerations.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump tweeted, “The system is rigged,” and asserted that former general and CIA director David H. Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information, “got in trouble for far less.”
Petraeus was accused of turning over highly classified information to a woman with whom he was having an affair, and agents believe he lied to the FBI, though he was never charged with that particular crime.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Comey’s announcement “defies explanation.”
“No one should be above the law. But based upon the director’s own statement, it appears damage is being done to the rule of law,” Ryan said. “Declining to prosecute Secretary Clinton for recklessly mishandling and transmitting national security information will set a terrible precedent.”
While he recommended no criminal charges, Comey nevertheless systematically dismantled the public explanations Clinton has offered to reassure the public about her email system for the past 15 months.
When it was first revealed that Clinton used a personal email account during her years in office, Clinton first said she had never sent or received classified material through the account. She later amended those statements to say that her emails contained no information that was clearly marked as classified.
Her supporters also insisted that a finding of sensitive material by the State Department and other government agencies was retroactive, a judgment by bureaucrats after the fact to “upgrade” material to a classified level.
Comey said that a careful analysis by officials from multiple agencies found there was classified material and that in 110 emails, the information was sensitive enough to be classified at the time it was sent, not just after the fact.
Eight email chains included information that was properly classified as “top secret” dealing with “special access programs,” the very highest level of classification.
He confirmed that Clinton authored some of the most concerning emails and that the conversations were sufficiently sensitive that a person in her job should have known they contained classified material.
“There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position, or in the position of those with whom she was corresponding about these matters, should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation,” Comey said.
He said that while only a very small number were properly marked as classified, “even if information is not marked classified in an email, participants who know or should know that the subject matter is classified are still obligated to protect it.”
Clinton has insisted that she submitted to the State Department all of her work-related correspondence from her time as secretary. Comey said the FBI had recovered thousands of work-related emails that had not been turned over, though he added that investigators found no evidence of misconduct in their deletion.
New York members of Congress had varied reactions to Comey’s remarks.
“Secretary Clinton’s conduct was more than merely ‘careless,’ it was gross negligence — if not worse,” said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford). “While I believe that there could well have been sufficient evidence for a criminal indictment, I have a high regard for Director Comey’s professionalism and respect his judgment in this case.”
“No one is above the law. Today, exceptions were made for Hillary Clinton,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). “Every day, Americans are prosecuted in criminal courts for so much less.”
Zeldin added, “Hillary Clinton not only grossly mishandled classified information in a very convoluted and reckless scheme, but then she lied about it. America notices when time and again, the Clintons bring the system down with them, rather than leading consistently with a strong moral compass.”
Marc Brumer, spokesman for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, said Gillibrand “believes Director Comey made the right recommendation.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) said that as a former prosecutor he agreed with Comey’s assessment of the FBI investigation. “There is nothing to prosecute,” Meeks said. “It was the appropriate decision by independent and career individuals. It shows that there has been some errors made, but nothing prosecutable.”
With Tom Brune