DOJ Watchdog To Review Pre-Election Conduct Of FBI, Other Justice Officials

Jan 12, 2017
Originally published on January 12, 2017 7:00 pm

Updated at 4 p.m. ET

The Justice Department's watchdog has launched a sweeping review of conduct by the FBI director and other department officials before the presidential election, following calls from Congress and members of the public.

Top advisers to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton have blamed FBI Director James Comey, in part, for her loss in November. Now, federal investigators say they will examine whether public statements by Comey in July, October and November 2016 ran afoul of policies that caution officials not to influence the outcome of an election and to avoid making derogatory comments about people who haven't been formally charged with wrongdoing.

Comey has previously told friends and employees that he had few good choices in the investigation into Clinton's handling of classified information on her private email server.

In a statement Thursday, Comey said, "I am grateful to the Department of Justice's IG for taking on this review. He is professional and independent and the FBI will cooperate fully with him and his office. 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."

Inspector General Michael Horowitz said he would not "substitute" his judgment on the declination to prosecute Clinton for that of prosecutors and the FBI. And he said the review could expand based on what his investigators encounter along the way.

Among the issues the IG will scrutinize:

  • Allegations that Justice Department and FBI staffers improperly leaked details about investigations before the election.
  • Claims that some "underlying investigative decisions were based on improper considerations."
  • Allegations that the deputy director of the FBI and the chief congressional liaison at the Justice Department should have recused themselves from the Clinton investigation.
  • How the FBI release of information about an old investigation of Bill Clinton's last-minute presidential pardons happened only days before the election and how an FBI Twitter account came to publicize the documents.

Former Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon called the inspector general's announcement "highly encouraging and to be expected given Director Comey's drastic deviation from Justice Department protocol."

Fallon said the probe is "utterly necessary in order to take the first step to restore the FBI's reputation as a nonpartisan institution."

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FBI Director James Comey is facing an extraordinary investigation. Watchdogs at the Justice Department announced they will review public statements that he made before the November election. Hillary Clinton has said Comey's disparaging remarks about her email practices contributed to our loss. Now authorities say they'll look at whether Comey broke longstanding policies designed to keep the FBI out of politics.

With us to talk about the investigation is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. And Carrie, what exactly is the inspector general examining, and why now?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Inspector General Michael Horowitz says he got calls and letters from Congress and members of the public all expressing concern about the way the FBI and Justice Department handled the Hillary Clinton email case. Now, Clinton was never charged with a crime, but the FBI director talked to the public or lawmakers three times before the election.

In July, he gave a press conference, calling her extremely careless but declining to prosecute. And then, Robert, in October and November of last year, he sent two different letters to Congress with updates on the case. DOJ veterans from both political parties say that was not kosher because under Justice policies, you're not supposed to be talking about open investigations or taking steps that could influence an election.

SIEGEL: But is the inspector general investigation broader than what Comey said?

JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely it is. The inspector general says he's not going to second guess the outcome of the Clinton email case - no charges for either Clinton or her aides. But the IG will look at improper leaks - any improper leaks at Justice or the FBI about the matter, will look at whether those investigators followed policy in the course of the investigation. And they're also going to look at whether the FBI deputy director or the congressional liaison at the Justice Department should have recused themselves from the case altogether.

SIEGEL: And I understand there's also a social media aspect to this investigation?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Robert. Who says Twitter's not relevant anymore? The inspector general's going to be looking at whether the FBI blasting out on Twitter some old documents on Bill Clinton's controversial last-minute pardons, something the FBI did in November right before the election, was done for any improper reasons or how that may have happened in the first place.

SIEGEL: Carrie, what's the FBI saying about this?

JOHNSON: Well, James Comey, the director, said he's grateful to watchdogs for taking on this investigation. He's pledged his full cooperation in the past. He told friends he stands by his actions and had no good choices in the case.

Now, a former press secretary for Hillary Clinton, Brian Fallon, has called this new investigation entirely appropriate and very necessary. He says this case cries out for an independent eye.

SIEGEL: So what happens next?

JOHNSON: Well, there's no timetable for this inspector general review, and there's a lot to investigate. The FBI director, James Comey, is likely going to be interviewed by investigators, and he said today, Robert, that he wants the public to see as much of the results of this investigation as possible in the interest of transparency.

SIEGEL: Assuming that Jeff Sessions is confirmed as attorney general, would he have the authority to simply reverse this?

JOHNSON: It's possible but very unlikely. It would be politically tone-deaf to do that. And Jeff Sessions in his confirmation hearings earlier this week, Robert, said he was concerned. And it would be very unusual to be making derogatory remarks about someone who has not been charged with a crime, which is exactly what the IG is going to be looking at here with respect to James Comey.

SIEGEL: OK, thanks, Carrie. That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.