Senior FBI officials were informed about the discovery of new emails potentially relevant to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server at least two weeks before Director James Comey notified Congress, according to federal officials familiar with the investigation.
The officials said that Comey was told that there were new emails before he received a formal briefing last Thursday, although the precise timing is unclear.
The information goes beyond the details provided in the letter that Comey sent to lawmakers last week declaring that he was restarting the inquiry into whether Clinton mishandled classified material during her tenure as secretary of state. He wrote in the Friday letter that “the investigative team briefed me yesterday” about the additional emails.
The people familiar with the investigation said that senior officials had been informed weeks earlier that a computer belonging to former congressman Anthony Weiner, D-New York, contained emails potentially pertinent to the Clinton investigation. Clinton’s top aide, Huma Abedin, shared the computer with her husband, from whom she is now separated.
Comey did not notify Congress as soon as he learned about the emails because officials wanted additional information before proceeding, the officials said.
Even after Comey received the desired information, major questions still remain – for instance, how many emails are related to Clinton or contain classified information. Since notifying Congress, Comey has drawn intense criticism from lawmakers in both parties as well as prominent former law enforcement officials for publicizing the investigation so close to the election when so little was known.
It is unclear what FBI agents have learned since discovering the emails in early October. But officials say they gained enough information from the email metadata to take the next step, seeking a warrant to review the actual emails. That legal step prompted Comey’s letter to Congress, which has made him a central figure during the stretch run of the presidential campaign.
“He needed to make an informed decision, knowing that once he made that decision, he was taking it to another level,” an official with knowledge of the decision-making process said.
Law enforcement officials on Oct. 3 seized the computer belonging to Weiner, who was under investigation for allegedly sending suggestive online messages to a teenage girl. As they examined his computer, investigators quickly stumbled on emails tied to Abedin. She and Weiner separated in August. Abedin, like Clinton, used an email address that was routed through Clinton’s private server.
Soon after the investigators found the new trove of thousands of emails, they notified the separate team of FBI agents in Washington that worked on the probe into Clinton’s private email server, officials said. Comey said in July that the investigation was complete and that he would recommend to prosecutors that no charges be brought.
After the agents on the Clinton case were notified in early October about the newly discovered emails, they in turn told FBI leaders about them.
At that point, the leaders did not believe they had enough information to make a decision about what to do next, officials said.
The senior FBI officials instructed the agents to do everything they could within legal limits to determine the relevance of the new emails, one official said. That review, including a closer examination of the email metadata, was an attempt to figure out the scope and volume of what the agents had found.
An FBI spokesman declined to comment.
In notifying lawmakers on Friday about the new investigative steps, Comey said he had been “briefed” about the newly discovered emails a day earlier but did not mention that he had first heard about them before that. The news media has widely reported that Comey was first told about the emails last week.
A formal briefing for Comey with the investigative team was held Oct. 27 at FBI headquarters. At that point, Comey was given a complete presentation of everything the team knew about the trove.
“It was a combination of assessments by the investigative team as to what it might be,” the official said.
Much was unknown about the contents and relevance of the thousands of emails. How many were to or from Clinton? Did any contain classified information? How many were duplicates of material the FBI had already reviewed? Was any of this significant to the Clinton email investigation that had been completed?
“At that point, there was no way for Comey to know if the [Clinton investigators] had already seen the emails before or if they were new, old or different,” an official said. “All of that was just unknown.”
But Comey and others felt there was enough information at that point to pursue a warrant, which would permit the investigators on the Clinton case to read the emails, officials said. They could not read them without legal permission because the emails had been discovered in the separate criminal probe involving Weiner.
When Comey and the officials decided to seek a warrant, they knew that would involve more people, both at the FBI and the Justice Department. Comey was concerned that the explosive information that they had to renew the Clinton investigation would leak out.
“It could not be done in secret,” an official with knowledge of the investigation said. “It’s a volatile subject and a major topic in the presidential campaign.”
But the overriding factor in Comey’s decision was that he felt he had to tell Congress what he was doing because he had testified under oath this past summer and “told Congress and the world” that the Clinton email investigation was complete, and now that was no longer true, an official said.
Then, Comey had to figure out what to say to lawmakers, when he knew so little. He wanted the letter to be accurate and “circumspect,” the official said.
“He wanted it to be carefully, thoughtfully done and say no more than his investigators knew,” the official said.
After the formal briefing, staffers in Comey’s office contacted senior officials at the Justice Department to notify them about the director’s decision. The next day, Comey sent his letter.
Two officials familiar with the case said it is unclear whether investigators will be able to conclude their review of the new emails before the election.
President Barack Obama addressed the controversy in an interview posted Wednesday by NowThisNews, saying, “I do think that there is a norm that when there are investigations we don’t operate on innuendo, and we don’t operate on incomplete information, and we don’t operate on leaks.”
“When this was investigated thoroughly last time the conclusion of the FBI, the conclusion of the Justice Department, the conclusion of repeated congressional investigations was she had made some mistakes but that there wasn’t anything there that was prosecutable,” Obama said.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Sari Horwitz, Ellen Nakashima