WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — The FBI won’t recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while secretary of state, agency Director James Comey said Tuesday, lifting a major legal threat to her presidential campaign.
In what he called an “unusual statement,” Comey laid out the results of the agency’s investigation, CBS2’s Brian Conybeare reported.
He said that although it found “extremely careless” behavior by Clinton and her staff in their handling of sensitive information, the FBI had concluded that “no charges are appropriate.”
He said after looking at similar circumstances, the agency believed that “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”
“All cases prosecuted involved some combination of clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information or vast quantities of information exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct or indications of disloyalty to the United States or efforts to obstruct justice,” Comey said. “We do not see those things here.”
But Comey made that statement after he delivered a blistering review of Clinton’s actions, saying the FBI found that 110 emails in 52 email chains were sent or received on Clinton’s server containing classified information.
“Eight of those chains contained information that was top-secret at the time they were sent,” he said. “Thirty-six of those chains contained secret information at the time and eight contained confidential information at the time — that’s the lowest level of classification.”
He added that it was possible that people hostile to the U.S. had gained access to her personal email account.
“There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position — should have known that an unclassified system was no place” for sensitive conversations, Comey said.
Comey stated that the server’s security was so lax that even a Gmail account would have been better at keeping sensitive information from potential enemies.
“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” the FBI director said.
Comey said agents spent thousands of hours reading 30,000 emails.
He said he shared the FBI’s findings with no one else in the government before making his announcement, which came just hours before Clinton was to travel with President Barack Obama on Air Force One to campaign together for the first time this year.
While Comey criticized Clinton and her lawyers for deleting emails that should have been saved, he said there was no intent to break the law.
“The statute is quite explicit: in order for there to be a criminal violation warranting prosecution there has to be evidence that she knowingly and willfully disclosed information that was classified at the time,” William Aronwald, a former federal prosecutor, said.
Comey, a Yonkers native, is a Republican and people who have worked with him generally hold him in high regard.
“I don’t think anybody who knows him or knows of his background could possibly suggest or suspect that he did anything here for political reasons,” Aronwald said.
However, one former Justice Department official said Comey put himself into the middle of a political campaign, while others complained his rebuke of Clinton went too far, considering he determined she didn’t break the law.
State Department spokesman John Kirby would not comment on the FBI findings, but did say the agency is not lax.
“We, of course, take the security of our systems very, very seriously and we’re always concerned about intrusions into our system,” Kirby said.
Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said they were pleased with the decision but reiterated that it was a “mistake” for Clinton to use personal email.
“We are pleased that the career officials handling this case have determined that no further action by the department is appropriate,” Fallon said. “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 came three days after the FBI interviewed Clinton for hours in a final step of its yearlong investigation into the possible mishandling of classified information.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said last week that she would accept the recommendations of the FBI director and of career prosecutors, meaning that Comey’s decision almost certainly brings the legal part of the issue to a close and removes the threat of criminal charges.
However, it’s unlikely to wipe away many voters’ concerns about Clinton’s trustworthiness. Nor will the recommendation stop Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has called for criminal charges, from continuing to make the server a campaign issue or suggesting Clinton was helped by a Democratic administration.
After Comey’s announcement, Trump tweeted, “No charges. Wow!” In another tweet, he said “The system is rigged — Very very unfair! As usual, bad judgment.”
Trump released a full statement Tuesday afternoon, saying “because of our rigged system that holds the American people to one standard and people like Hillary Clinton to another, it does not look like she will be facing the criminal charges that she deserves…. Folks – the system is rigged. The normal punishment, in this case, would include losing authority to handle classified information, and that too disqualifies Hillary Clinton from being President.”
During a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, Trump slammed the decision.
“I always felt Hillary Clinton would escape criminal charges for her dangerous and illegal behavior because I always knew and it’s so sad that our system is in fact rigged, totally rigged,” Trump said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan also issued a statement, saying while he respects the professionals at the FBI, “this announcement defies explanation.”
“No one should be above the law,” he said. “Declining to prosecute Secretary Clinton for recklessly mishandling and transmitting national security information will set a terrible precedent.”
Clinton’s personal email server, which she relied on exclusively for government and personal business, has dogged her campaign since The Associated Press revealed its existence in March 2015.
She has repeatedly said that no email she sent or received was marked classified, but the Justice Department began investigating last summer following a referral from the inspectors general for the State Department and the intelligence community.
The scrutiny was compounded by a blistering audit in May from the State Department’s inspector general, the agency’s internal watchdog, which said that Clinton and her team ignored clear warnings from department officials that her email setup violated federal standards and could leave sensitive material vulnerable to hackers.
Clinton declined to talk to the inspector general, but the audit said that she had feared “the personal being accessible” if she used a government email account.
The Clinton campaign said agents interviewed her this past Saturday for three and one-half hours at FBI headquarters. Agents had earlier interviewed top Clinton aides including her former State Department chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, and Huma Abedin, a longtime aide who now is the vice chairwoman of Clinton’s campaign.
Lynch on Friday said that she would accept whatever findings and recommendations were presented to her. Though she said she had already settled on that process, her statement came days after an impromptu meeting with Bill Clinton on her airplane in Phoenix that she acknowledged had led to questions about the neutrality of the investigation.
Former New York City Councilmember Ken Fisher told CBS2’s Tony Aiello that Clinton needs to find a way to quickly put the scandal behind her.
“The easiest way for her to move forward on the email scandal is to keep repeating the fact that the head of the FBI, who has no reason to be her political ally, found that there was no crime committed,” Fisher of Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies said.
Trump’s campaign is also bogged down in a mess of his own making.
On Saturday, the billionaire tweeted an image of Clinton that included a six-pointed star of a background of $100 bills and the words “most corrupt candidate ever.”
Trump’s weekend explanation that it was a sheriff’s star, not a Star of David, caused headaches for his campaign.
“There’s simply no excuse at this stage of the game for a national campaign, national candidate to be so undisciplined when it comes to their social media strategy,” Fisher said.
Fisher added at this point, any attempt to remake Trump as a more traditional candidate would come across as phony, so he expects more of the same from the Trump campaign.
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