Washington — On Thursday, the US Justice Department said it would probe a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) decision to announce an inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails shortly before the November presidential election, a move she has cited as a factor in her defeat.
The department’s office of inspector-general said that its investigation would focus in part on decisions leading up to public statements by FBI Director James Comey regarding the Clinton investigation and whether they may have been based on "improper considerations". The controversy involved Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server for official correspondence when she was secretary of state under President Barack Obama, including using it for messages that were later determined to contain classified information.
The office of inspector-general Michael Horowitz said it decided to open the review "in response to requests from numerous chairmen and ranking members of congressional oversight committees, various organisations and members of the public". Although the FBI ultimately decided not to refer Clinton’s case for prosecution, Democrats said Comey’s announcement damaged her image with voters right before the election, and he faced complaints that his moves were politically motivated.
Law enforcement authorities, including the FBI, do not customarily disclose information about investigations that do not end in criminal charges. If the review finds evidence of misconduct, any officials involved would be referred for disciplinary action.
Comey said the FBI would co-operate fully and he was "grateful" to Horowitz for the probe. "He is professional and independent and ... I hope very much he is able to share his conclusions and observations with the public because everyone will benefit from thoughtful evaluation and transparency regarding this matter."
Brian Fallon, Clinton’s spokesman, said that Comey’s actions "cried out for an independent review." Senator Dick Durbin, the No2 Democrat in the US Senate, said Comey’s statements were not "fair, professional or consistent with the policies of the FBI". President-elect Donald Trump, who will be sworn in on January 20, will not have the power to dismiss the probe; however, federal law permits US presidents to dismiss inspectors-general for federal agencies, as long as the president provides Congress a written justification for the removal 30 days in advance.
Often leading crowds in chants of "Lock her up!" during the election campaign, Trump repeatedly accused Clinton of illegal conduct regarding the e-mails. In a debate in October, he vowed she would "be in jail" over the matter if he became president, but he has since said he would not pursue prosecution.
Comey publicly announced the status of the agency’s investigation into Clinton’s e-mails two times in 2016. In July, Comey held a press conference and testified before Congress to explain why the FBI had decided not to refer Clinton for prosecution, explaining that she was "extremely careless" but should not be charged with gross negligence or any other federal crime.
In October, less than two weeks before the November 8 election, Comey sent members of Congress a letter saying the FBI was resuming the investigation because of new e-mails found on the computer of disgraced former Representative Anthony Weiner, the husband of one of Clinton’s top aides.
US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch had informed Comey the day before he sent the letter that doing so would conflict with official justice department guidance that instructs employees to "never select the timing of investigative steps ... for the purpose of affecting any election". Comey asked whether he was being explicitly directed not to send the letter; Lynch did not give Comey the order not to do so, a senior government official said at the time.
On November 6, Comey said the investigation into Weiner’s computer produced no new evidence that would incriminate Clinton.
On Thursday, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who chairs the Senate judiciary committee commended Horowitz for opening the probe. "Conspicuously absent, though, is any specific reference to the attorney-general’s failure to recuse herself from the probe, particularly after her meeting with former president (Bill) Clinton," said Grassley.
That half-hour meeting, which took place in June on board Lynch’s plane while it was parked on the tarmac in Phoenix, drew criticism that Lynch was politically biased and unfit to oversee the investigation into Clinton’s e-mail server.
Critics of Comey’s decisions also said he could be in violation of the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that bars government employees from interfering with US elections.