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FBI calls Clinton's handling of email 'extremely careless,' but recommends no prosecution

FBI Director James B. Comey delivered a stinging public rebuke of Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, saying that even though the former secretary of State should not face criminal charges for using a private email account, she and her aides had been “extremely careless” in handling highly classified information.

Comey’s long-anticipated recommendation to the Justice Department removed the most serious threat hanging over Clinton’s presidential campaign — the possibility of a criminal indictment.

But his public judgment about her lax handling of government secrets will surely resound from now until November. 

“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” Comey told reporters at FBI headquarters. 

Even so, he said, “our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”

In reaching that conclusion, Comey said he and other top bureau officials determined that the case lacked the aggravating factors that have led prosecutors to press charges in the past. He noted that those previously charged in such instances intentionally or willfully mishandled classified information, or did so in such vast quantities that they must have known what they were doing. Others had been disloyal to the United States, he said, or tried to obstruct justice.

”We do not see those things here,” he said. 

It is highly unlikely that the Justice Department will overrule the director's recommendation. Last week, Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch said she would accept the decision of Comey and career prosecutors who have been working on the case. The Justice Department has provided no timeline on when officials might announce a final decision.

Clinton’s presidential campaign reacted with relief to Comey’s remarks, issuing a statement saying it was "pleased that the career officials handling this case have determined that no further action by the department is appropriate. As the secretary has long said, it was a mistake to use her personal email and she would not do it again. We are glad that this matter is now resolved."

Typically, the FBI makes no public comment when it finishes an investigation. In the rare cases in which the government does say something publicly at the end of a probe, the FBI’s remarks come in coordination with prosecutors and after the Justice Department has reviewed the case. But “unusual transparency” is warranted in this case because of the “importance of the matter,” Comey said. 

The bureau’s decision involved no political influence, and other government officials had no idea in advance what he was planning to say Tuesday, Comey said. “What I can assure the American people is that this investigation was done competently, honestly and independently,” he said.

Republicans reacted with frustration and disbelief. “Declining to prosecute Secretary Clinton for recklessly mishandling and transmitting national security information will set a terrible precedent," said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, immediately took to Twitter, saying,  "the system is rigged."

"FBI Director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security," he added. "No charges. Wow!"

At a rally Tuesday evening in Raleigh, N.C., Trump said her mishandling of State Department email showed that “her judgment is horrible.”

The announcement comes three days after FBI agents and Justice Department officials interviewed Clinton at FBI headquarters — a step that had long been forecast as the final move in the investigation. 

The FBI has been investigating the case for nearly a year, seeking to determine whether Clinton or any of her aides had mishandled classified information in connection with her emails. The bureau acted on a request from the inspectors general of the State Department and the intelligence community, who determined that some of the emails Clinton handled included classified information.

Clinton and her campaign have repeatedly said she did not send materials marked classified at the time over the private system, that the server was secure and that the emails were only later marked classified by overzealous intelligence officials in order to prevent their public release. She said she relied on the private email account so she could have just one device as a matter of convenience.

But Comey’s criticism contradicted some of her assertions. He said Clinton and her staffers sent emails that they should have known contained classified information, including a handful that “bore markings indicating the presence of classified information."

In all, Comey said, FBI agents found that 110 emails in 52 email chains contained information that was classified when it had been sent.  Eight of those chains contained information that was top secret, the highest level of classification.

An additional 2,000 emails, Comey said, were upgraded to classified status at a later date. 

Although the FBI found no evidence her server had been hacked by a foreign power, Comey said, the bureau determined it was possible that some gained access to the system. In particular, he noted, Clinton sent and received emails while on overseas trips "in the territory of sophisticated adversaries." 

The FBI also recovered “several thousand” work-related emails that were not part of the 30,000 that Clinton handed over. Those emails were retrieved from the email accounts of those who corresponded with Clinton or by piecing together fragments of deleted emails recovered on a decommissioned server, Comey said.

Of those, three contained classified material, including one that was top secret, he said. Comey said that investigators do not believe those additional work-related emails were intentionally deleted or withheld by Clinton. Rather he said they were likely lost because Clinton changed servers and emails were not routinely archived, or because her lawyers mistakenly concluded they were personal in nature.

Comey’s statement did not foreclose the possibility of administrative action against Clinton or some of her former aides, which could include loss of security clearances. People who mishandle classified information are “often subject” to such sanctions, he said.

He was also strongly critical of the State Department as a whole, saying that its “security culture” was “lacking in the kind of care for classified information that is found elsewhere” in the government.

State Department spokesman John Kirby disputed Comey’s remark.

“We don’t share that assessment of our institution,” Kirby told reporters at his daily briefing. The department is diligent about handling classified information, and “we take it very, very seriously,” he said.

Kirby declined to answer any questions about potential administrative actions against current or former Clinton aides, saying that the Justice Department still needed to review the case. 

Legal experts and former federal prosecutors had long predicted that the email investigation would not result in charges. Many applauded Comey, a Republican, for making public his rationale, saying the transparency will shed light on what is normally a secretive process.

Comey was appointed FBI director by President Obama in 2013. He served as the Justice Department’s second-ranking official, deputy attorney general, under President George W. Bush and was a federal prosecutor for much of his career before that, including two years as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan.

“You've got to respect Comey,” said Steven Levin, a criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor.  “He's a seasoned prosecutor who knows criminal conduct when he sees it.  He also knows extreme carelessness when he sees it and is able to distinguish between the two. Just as no reasonable prosecutor would bring charges, as he put it, no reasonable  person can question his integrity or judgment.”

del.wilber@latimes.com

david.lauter@latimes.com

Twitter: @delwilber@DavidLauter

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UPDATES:

6:17 p.m.: Updated with comments from Trump.

1:27 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction and background.

9:19 a.m.: This article was updated with additional detail from Comey’s statement.

This article was first published at 8:24 a.m.

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