The saga over Hillary Clinton’s emails that began with Benghazi just may be her new Benghazi.
A day after FBI Director James Comey announced he would not recommend pressing charges against Clinton or her aides for what he called their “extremely careless” handling of classified information, Republicans were gearing up a multi-pronged political assault that could keep the controversy thriving until the November elections, and possibly beyond.
In light of the FBI’s findings, a congressional staffer told The Daily Beast that the House Intelligence Committee is considering legislation that could block security clearances for people who have been found to have mishandled classified information in the past.
It’s not clear how many of Clinton’s aides still have their government security clearances, but such a measure could make it more difficult for them to be renewed, should they come back to serve in a Clinton administration.
“The idea would be to make sure that these rules apply to a very wide range of people in the executive branch,” the staffer said. (Clinton herself would not need a clearance were she to become president.)
Republicans on Wednesday afternoon were already calling for security clearances of Clinton aides to be revoked.
“That’s what I’m asking for, absolutely,” Sen. Marco Rubio told The Daily Beast.
Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, demanded to know the names of aides who mishandled information.
“I want to know who else was on those email chains that were marked ‘top-secret,’ or ‘secret,’ or ‘confidential,’ because from my standpoint they were every bit as reckless engaging in these email exchanges that they had to know full well were outside the classified system and not in a secure environment,” Johnson told The Daily Beast.
And in a move sure to trigger flashbacks of Clinton scandals past, House Republicans said they were considering whether to appoint a special prosecutor to further investigate Clinton’s email use.
“We’re not going to foreclose any options,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said after meeting with his fellow GOP lawmakers.
On Thursday morning, Comey will testify before the House Oversight Committee, where congressional aides told The Daily Beast he is certain to be grilled by Republicans about why he thinks Clinton’s use of a private email system for official business didn’t violate laws against mishandling classified information, either intentionally or through negligence. Comey said that 110 emails were found to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received, including seven email chains in which Clinton herself sent messages concerning matters that were classified at the top secret level. (The Clinton campaign has disputed the exact number but hasn’t denied that classified information was sent and received.)
Next Tuesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch will appear before the House Judiciary Committee, where she’s expected to face more tough questions about the FBI decision as well as her impromptu meeting with former President Bill Clinton last week on an airport tarmac in Arizona.
Privately, aides to Democratic and Republican members drew comparisons between the congressional email inquiries and the special House committee to investigate the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which worked for two years, subpoenaed dozens of witnesses, spent millions of dollars, and only issued a lengthy report last week. That investigation was highly polarizing and led some lawmakers to accuse the White House and State Department of a political coverup. (It was also because of the investigation that lawmakers first discovered Clinton had been using a private email account.)
But the FBI is an independent organization, and Comey is widely respected among law enforcement and national security officials, as well as many lawmakers, as an apolitical figure. Congressional Republicans now find themselves in the difficult position of second-guessing the nation’s top law enforcement official, who’s also a self-identified Republican and served as deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration.
The Clinton campaign blasted Republicans for trying to undermine Comey’s conclusions in the email affair. “For weeks Republicans have said they trusted FBI Director Comey to lead an independent review into Secretary Clinton’s emails, but now they are second-guessing his judgment because his findings do not align with their conspiracy theories,” spokesperson Brian Fallon said in a statement. “The bottom line is the career officials who handled this case have determined that no further action is appropriate here, no matter how much Republicans may seek continuing politicizing this.”
Comey will surely come prepared to answer skeptical lawmakers’ questions, and will remind them that the FBI spent more than a year investigating Clinton’s email system, interviewed current and former officials, including Clinton herself, and conducted a forensic examination of the email system that Comey described as “a painstaking undertaking, requiring thousands of hours of effort.”
In announcing his recommendation, Comey stressed that he had not coordinated his announcement with anyone else in the executive branch—a statement that appeared designed to defend against criticism in light of Lynch’s meeting with former president Clinton, which was criticized on both sides of the aisle.
But if history is any guide, Republicans will want to tread cautiously. The Benghazi review backfired when the final report was dubbed a partisan attack by the committee’s fellow Democrats. And the years of investigation, including by a special prosecutor, that ultimately led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment saw Republicans blamed for a partisan witch hunt.
But the politics are perilous for Clinton aides, as well, particularly those who might want to return to government. In his statement, Comey emphasized that just because he wasn’t recommending criminal charges didn’t mean other punitive measures wouldn’t be appropriate.
People who mishandled classified information “are often subject to security or administrative sanctions,” Comey said, of which revoking a security clearance is one example.
Whenever someone applies for a security clearance or a renewal, investigators look for so-called derogatory information that may indicate a person isn’t fit to handle classified information.
“Generally speaking, mishandling of classified information could be grounds for suspension or revocation of clearance,” Steven Aftergood, an expert on classification and official secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told The Daily Beast. “However, it would have to be a rather severe infraction, such as unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Lesser offenses would more typically be met with training and supervision.”
Comey didn’t name any of the aides that the FBI had determined behaved carelessly. But the bureau is known to have interviewed some of Clinton’s closest staff members and confidantes, including Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills, both of whom corresponded with Clinton on her private account and were aware she was using it for official business. Both women maintained their security clearances after they’d left the State Department as full-time employees, records show, but it’s not clear whether those clearances are still active.
“As is standard, the Department does not comment on the security clearance status of individuals,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby told The Daily Beast. Lawyers for Abedin, Mills, and three other Clinton aides didn’t respond to requests for comment about whether they still have clearances or if they’ve received any notice that they could be revoked.
Ultimately, the decision could hinge less on the actions of a few staffers than on the broader policies of the State Department, Aftergood said.
“The problem in this case is that the mishandling of classified information may be a reflection of the whole agency’s security culture, and so may not be attributable to individual misconduct,” he said. “Under those circumstances, penalizing individuals might not be appropriate. In any case, it would be up to the State Department, not the FBI, to make that determination.”
That could put the State Department in the uncomfortable position of penalizing the actions of ex-staffers who worked under a previous secretary now running for president.
In remarks to the press Tuesday, Kirby said that the State Department does have “an administrative process to evaluate cases where information may have been mishandled…” Up until now, though, officials have not looked into the issue at the request of the FBI, in order not to interfere with its investigation, Kirby said.
—with additional reporting by Tim Mak.