Why you should care
Because, with 10 days to the election, we need facts more than ever.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
When news broke yesterday that the FBI had uncovered new emails that might be relevant to its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information, much of the media world went — in a word — berserk. October surprise! Time to unleash all the speculation, misinformation and rumors we can, right?
Wrong. We turned to OZY senior contributor John McLaughlin for some insight. As former acting director and deputy director of the CIA, McLaughlin knows a thing or two about email investigations — as well as handling classified information. In the interview below, he explains what we know, what we don’t know and what it all portends for the presidential election.
Why would the FBI announce the potential for new developments now — and after its extensive earlier investigation?
I’ve been involved in many such inquiries in my intelligence career, as both an investigator and as a subject, and I can tell you that email-based investigations are notoriously difficult and unpredictable. This is because of the way email travels and bounces among recipients, with relevant messages often buried in correspondence between or among people not directly involved but possibly cc’d for some unrelated reason. Unlike written correspondence, email chains often form a labyrinth that is difficult to map. It’s hard to get to the bottom.
Is that a factor in this case?
It appears so, based on the very little we know at this point. Initial reports are that the material in question appears in email associated with another investigation that — on the surface — is actually unrelated. (Recall that the email that led to charges against former CIA Director David Petraeus was discovered during an FBI inquiry into a matter not directly related — harassment concerns raised by a Florida socialite.)
In the Clinton case, news reports say that this is email connected to former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. So it must be something mentioned in those emails, presumably insecure, that appears classified. I say “appears” because classified status is often very difficult to determine; you cannot be sure material dealing with sensitive subject matter is actually classified until you determine that it does not appear somewhere in the public domain. This can take time, be contentious and require careful judgment.
What could this material be?
I have no idea — and frankly, it would be irresponsible to speculate. Bear in mind that FBI Director James Comey said only that the material “appeared to be pertinent” to the earlier investigation of Clinton’s use of an unsecured email server; he was careful to say that he didn’t yet know whether the material would turn out to be significant. It is still entirely possible that, after a careful look, the Bureau may say the material is not significant.
If there is that much uncertainty about it, why would the FBI make this announcement so close to the election?
Three things. First, in both intelligence and legal investigations, you have to quickly determine whether you need to modify your view when new material is discovered.
Second, if the FBI took time to make that determination and said nothing publicly until after the election, it would be accused of playing politics — the worst charge you can level against organizations like the FBI or CIA.
Third, I know Director Comey, who was deputy attorney general during my last years in government, and I know him to be as straight a shooter as you will find in government. He will inevitably “call it like it is” and go where the facts lead. There is no way he would have sat on information that might be pertinent to the earlier investigation.
How might the FBI’s announcement affect the election?
Obviously hard to tell right now. This could be a one- or two-day story, or it could drag on closer to November 8. Donald Trump, of course, is already into ballyhoo on this. The Clinton campaign — wisely, I think — is asking Comey for a fuller explanation. From Clinton’s standpoint, the sooner that details are known, the better. I’ve been through a lot of crises and controversies, and the first rule of crisis management is to get it all out immediately. Otherwise, you really can’t deal with it — and you get into the “drip, drip, drip” mode that fuels suspicion and saps support from your cause.
Does any of this affect Secretary Clinton’s fitness to receive intelligence briefings?
No. Based on her public statements, she has been meticulous in observing her secrecy agreement regarding the briefings. I suspect that all the controversy about her email has made her extra careful in handling classified information.
Trump, on the other hand, has commented publicly about his briefings, saying — incorrectly, I’m sure — that briefers had indicated the president was not following their advice. Professional intelligence briefers would never comment on their policy preferences — this is strictly forbidden by their ethics and their guidance. But that does not disqualify even Trump. The basic philosophy is that if someone has a reasonable chance to become president, he or she needs to have this information — and they will get it unless they demonstrate truly flamboyant irresponsibility.
What can Russia, China or the Islamic State do with this information?
Well, we still don’t know the substance of these emails, so no way to know.
What we do know is that Russia has interfered with our election process by hacking into emails associated with the Clinton campaign, which Wikileaks has subsequently published. The Russian purpose is to shake credibility in our election process. Its leaders also resent U.S. criticism of Russia’s elections as unfair and are trying to establish moral equivalence by pointing to emails that suggest unfairness here — a theme I heard frequently from Russian interlocutors during a research trip to Moscow last week.