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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Suspicion grows that the leaks behind the bungled New York Times “criminal referral” story came from the Republican side of the House Select Committee on Benghazi chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC). First Times public editor Margaret Sullivan hinted that the original “tip” came from “Capitol Hill.” Over the weekend, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking Democrat on the select committee, revealed proof that Gowdy knew of the (utterly non-criminal) referrals by the inspectors general for the intelligence community and the State Department to the Justice Department, in advance.

Criticizing the stumbling scramble to publish without checking what turned out to be inaccurate information, Cummings complained in an article on the Huffington Post of “a series of inaccurate, partisan leaks designed to attack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Many of these attacks rely on anonymous sources to describe – and often mischaracterize – documents reporters have not seen.” The Maryland Democrat’s post ought to have received much more attention than it has received so far. It offers a disturbing perspective on events from “behind the scenes,” on the day that the Times broke its ill-fated scoop:

On Thursday morning at 10:27 am, my staff received a copy of a letter sent from Select Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy to FBI Director James Comey. To the best of my knowledge, that letter has never been made public.

Chairman Gowdy’s letter warned the FBI Director that the Chairman was aware of a “formal referral” that was made to the FBI “by impartial officials within the Executive Branch” related to “classified information.”

I had no idea then — and still have no idea today — how Chairman Gowdy knew about this referral before everyone else, and his office has refused to respond to my staff’s inquiry.

At 12:03 p.m., the office of the State Department Inspector General (IG) sent an email to staff on several committees with a copy of a memorandum describing its joint work with the Intelligence Community IG reviewing the FOIA process for Secretary Clinton’s emails. This memo did not mention any sort of referral to the Department of Justice.

At 2:30 p.m., my staff and I had a previously scheduled meeting with the State Department IG, so we asked him about Chairman Gowdy’s letter and whether he was aware of any referral.

He told me he never asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton’s email usage. Instead, he said officials from the Intelligence Community IG — not the State Department IG — notified the FBI and Congress that they had identified information they believed was classified in several mails that were part of the FOIA review.

Importantly, the State Department IG made clear that none of those emails had been marked as classified when Secretary Clinton received them.

At 5:44 p.m. that evening, the Intelligence Community IG’s office sent a notification to the Intelligence Committees describing — for the first time — its referral to the FBI. This notification detailed a counter-intelligence referral, not a request for a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton.

When I woke up on Friday morning and read the news, I was stunned. I immediately issued a public statement and released the congressional notification from the Intelligence Community IG.

I then got on the phone with both IGs from the State Department and the Intelligence Community. They confirmed that they never asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton’s email usage. Instead, they said this was a “routine” referral, and they said they had no idea why the Times story was so flawed.

But Cummings has his own ideas about that problem — and wonders why the Times reporters never checked with him or other Democrats on the committee, who could have corrected the ruinous mistake before publication. Combined with the timeline posted last week by the Clinton campaign’s Jennifer Palmieri, the Cummings post indicates just how irresponsibly this story was handled by the paper of record. Yet so far, the Times‘ editors and proprietors have offered nothing much beyond that public editor’s note — no apology for smearing Clinton, no accountability for any reporter or editor. Just an implausible excuse or two and a deflection of responsibility to those naughty sources, whose identities will of course remain protected. So why shouldn’t they perpetrate more inaccurate smears? They will.

Meanwhile, reporters covering the House might start asking some tough questions of Gowdy and the man who appointed him, Speaker John Boehner. Most likely, they never will.

File Photo: Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) questions a witness during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing on Benghazi on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

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