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FBI and politics: Nation needs to know whether a line was crossed

FBI director James Comey at FBI headquarters in

FBI director James Comey at FBI headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, July 5, 2016. Photo Credit: AP

The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI are rushing to determine whether recently discovered emails warrant reconsidering the decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton for using a personal server to send classified information while she was secretary of state.

Their findings should be made public immediately, but that’s the least of it. The stunning Anthony Weiner plot twist in the season finale of campaign 2016 demands that this drama shouldn’t end next week.

Just 11 days before Election Day, FBI Director James Comey went off script last week by sending a letter to Congress about a new FBI probe that might be connected to the investigation of Clinton’s handling of emails. In July, Comey held an extraordinary news conference to announce the FBI’s decision not to recommend a prosecution of Clinton for the mishandling of classified information. He said there was no criminal intent and that the case would be impossible to prosecute.

It’s unlikely that anything will turn up on a laptop used by Weiner that will change that decision. The disgraced former congressman is the subject of a federal probe after he allegedly sexted an underage girl in North Carolina. Weiner’s estranged wife, Huma Abedin, has been one of Clinton’s closest confidantes for two decades. In searching the device for evidence about Weiner, the Clinton emails were found.

Comey, whose integrity and impartiality had been widely praised, apparently violated Justice Department guidelines not to disclose information about ongoing investigations or take actions that could interfere with an election. So what made Comey go public with vague information that had the potential to change the course of an election? Was it to protect the reputation of the FBI, or his own? Did he believe there was political meddling from Justice Department officials in the probe? He might have had no good choice and determined that transparency was, in the end, the best option.

Few institutions have remained unscathed in this election, but the FBI and the Justice Department, two agencies where professionalism and fairness must be exemplary, have taken big hits. Attorney General Loretta Lynch stepped into a mess because of an impromptu meeting in June when Bill Clinton walked onto her plane at the Phoenix airport just before the server investigation was being concluded. To avoid an appearance of a conflict, Lynch said she would accept the recommendations of Comey and career prosecutors.

Comey then owned the case.

In July, Donald Trump and fellow Republicans excoriated Comey and the FBI for not recommending charges against Clinton, which was the correct call. But Comey’s lengthy news conference and testimony to Congress highly critical of Clinton were seen as out of bounds by the administration.

By Friday night, it was Democrats who called for his head. Former Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday wrote, “I fear he has unintentionally and negatively affected public trust in both the Justice Department and the FBI.” If that’s so, Comey alone isn’t responsible.

One of the biggest challenges for the next president and the new Congress is to restore confidence in our government. The FBI will be a good place to start. — The editorial board


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