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Monday, December 5, 2016

In a letter to New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, the Clinton campaign’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, adds still more troubling detail to the narrative of the “criminal referral” debacle – and implicitly poses some hard questions about the sourcing of the original story.

Palmieri’s letter begins with a brief review of the basic facts, the gravity of the Times’ error in using the word “criminal” with reference to Hillary Clinton, and the paper’s “inexplicable, let alone indefensible” failure to correct that error (and others) in a timely and adequate way. She then recounts how a Times reporter – whom she does not name – initially contacted the Clinton campaign, and what ensued:

This allegation [of a criminal referral to the Justice Department], however, was reported hastily and without affording the campaign adequate opportunity to respond. It was not even mentioned by your reporter when our campaign was first contacted late Thursday afternoon. Initially, it was stated as reporting only on a memo – provided to Congress by the Inspectors General from the State Department and Intelligence Community – that raised the possibility of classified material traversing Secretary Clinton’s email system. This memo — which was subsequently released publicly — did not reference a criminal referral at all. It was not until late Thursday night – at 8:36 pm – that your paper hurriedly followed up with our staff to explain that it had received a separate tip that the Inspectors General had additionally made a criminal referral to the Justice Department concerning Clinton’s email use. Our staff indicated that we had no knowledge of any such referral – understandably, of course, since none actually existed – and further indicated that, for a variety of reasons, the reporter’s allegation seemed implausible. Our campaign declined any immediate comment, but asked for additional time to attempt to investigate the allegation raised. In response, it was indicated that the campaign “had time,” suggesting the publication of the report was not imminent.

Despite the late hour, our campaign quickly conferred and confirmed that we had no knowledge whatsoever of any criminal referral involving the Secretary. At 10:36 pm, our staff attempted to reach your reporters on the phone to reiterate this fact and ensure the paper would not be going forward with any such report. There was no answer. At 10:54 pm, our staff again attempted calling. Again, no answer. Minutes later, we received a call back. We sought to confirm that no story was imminent and were shocked at the reply: the story had just published on the Times‘ website.

If accurate, this account of the stumbling scramble to publish looks even more unseemly and unprofessional than the narrative provided by Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor. And the reporter, whoever that was, appears to have misled the campaign about the imminence of publication until it was too late for a response.

Palmieri then goes on to discuss the dubious sourcing of the story — and the blame laid upon those anonymous sources by Baquet and his deputy, Matt Purdy:

In our conversations with the Times reporters, it was clear that they had not personally reviewed the IG’s referral that they falsely described as both criminal and focused on Hillary Clinton. Instead, they relied on unnamed sources that characterized the referral as such. However, it is not at all clear that those sources had directly seen the referral, either. This should have represented too many “degrees of separation” for any newspaper to consider it reliable sourcing, least of all The New York Times.

Times editors have attempted to explain these errors by claiming the fault for the misreporting resided with a Justice Department official whom other news outlets cited as confirming the Times‘ report after the fact. This suggestion does not add up. It is our understanding that this Justice Department official was not the original source of the Times‘ tip. Moreover, notwithstanding the official’s inaccurate characterization of the referral as criminal in nature, this official does not appear to have told the Times that Mrs. Clinton was the target of that referral, as the paper falsely reported in its original story.

This raises the question of what other sources the Times may have relied on for its initial report. It clearly was not either of the referring officials – that is, the Inspectors General of either the State Department or intelligence agencies – since the Times‘ sources apparently lacked firsthand knowledge of the referral documents. It also seems unlikely the source could have been anyone affiliated with those offices, as it defies logic that anyone so closely involved could have so severely garbled the description of the referral.

Of course, the identity of the Times‘ sources would be deserving of far less scrutiny if the underlying information had been confirmed as true.

Here Palmieri interrogates the Times explanation of what happened, which has never made sense. Evidently the Clinton campaign has since made its own inquiries and determined that an unnamed Justice official wrongly characterized the referral as “criminal,” without naming Hillary Clinton as its target. Her clear suggestion is that someone else — on Capitol Hill, perhaps? — planted a false charge against a presidential candidate on the front page of the nation’s most important newspaper. Certainly that requires closer “scrutiny” – not only by the Times itself, which continues to protect its treacherous sources, but by the Justice Department as well.

Palmieri’s letter is worth reading in full. How will Baquet answer this fresh challenge? Will anyone at the Times suffer consequences for this awful failure? It is easy to imagine the paper’s editorial page demanding accountability, had any other American institution perpetrated such a catastrophic wreck. The paltry response offered so far by the executive editor — that the paper could not have acted differently under the circumstances – will not suffice.

Photo: U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives at the Senate Democratic weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

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