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James Comey’s loud, empty shouts of ignorance on Clinton’s email

Image: Scribd

FBI director James Comey has now dominated election news with his letters to Congress and to his staff about new developments in the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But the letters are the political equivalent of a rice cake: crunchy, but with no actual nutritional content.

First, the sordid background. The FBI is investigating former Congressman Anthony Weiner for sexting an underage girl. His estranged wife is Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton. Some of Clinton’s emails are on Weiner’s laptop, so the FBI is going to look into whether they reveal anything about Clinton’s email behavior. Naturally, Trump says this is bigger than Watergate, and Clinton says there’s nothing new to report. But why did Comey bring this up 11 days before the election — and two weeks after his agents found the emails?

Let’s take a close look at the two letters Comey has sent about the investigation.

Comey’s first letter is 84% nothing

The news blew up when he sent the first letter Friday. I’ve put the only meaningful words in bold, and the weasel words in italic.

In previous Congressional testimony, I referred to the fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had completed its investigation of former Secretary Clinton’s personal email server. Due to recent developments, I am writing to supplement my previous testimony.

In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation. I am writing to inform you that the investigative team briefed me on this yesterday, and I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.

Although the FBI cannot yet assess whether this material may be significant, and I cannot predict how long it will take us to complete this additional work, I believe it is important to update your Committees about our efforts in light of my previous testimony.

Of the 158 words in this letter, only 25 are meaningful, for a vacuous meaning ratio of 16%. Effective writing has a meaning ratio of 70% or higher, so this is basically fluff. Here’s the full meaning of this statement (27 words):

The FBI found some more of Hillary Clinton’s emails when we were looking at something else, but we have no idea what’s in them. We’ll keep looking.

The second letter clarifies Comey’s proclamation of ignorance

It’s unusual (and some have said, criminal) for the FBI to release such a controversial statement with so little actual content. So Comey followed up with a letter to FBI employees.

This morning I sent a letter to Congress in connection with the Secretary Clinton email investigation. Yesterday, the investigative team briefed me on their recommendation with respect to seeking access to emails that have recently been found in an unrelated case. Because those emails appear to be pertinent to our investigation, I agreed that we should take appropriate steps to obtain and review them.

Of course, we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel an obligation to do so given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed. I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record. At the same time, however, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression. In trying to strike that balance, in a brief letter and in the middle of an election season, there is significant risk of being misunderstood, but I wanted you to hear directly from me about it.

With the help of this letter, we can now definitively write the letter Comey should have written. It looks like this:

I thought I was done with Hillary Clinton’s emails. With the new ones we found on Weiner’s laptop (eww), I can now definitively state that I have no idea what’s happening next. I wanted to make sure everyone in Congress and the entire FBI — and by extension, the entire nation — was aware that the department was now in a state of ignorance. Since there is no actual content, the news media, the candidates, the spinmeisters, and the entire government can make up any stories they want and discuss them in the last 11 days of the election cycle, displacing any actual election news or stories about Donald Trump. Ready . . . go!

Another sad truth about Election 2016

The irony of this whole saga is that before this, the media were talking about Trump and his behavior (and his polls were tanking). Now they are talking about Clinton and hers. In this election cycle, the more they talk about a candidate, the worse it is for that candidate. That’s sad.

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  1. In all this, I feel for Comey. Play this out. Comey signs off on a warrant to look at more Clinton emails. Doesn’t tell Congress. Hillary wins. News comes out about this – as it would. World explodes. FBI ripped to shreds. Comey takes the blame. Were that to happen – President HRC would effectively be unable to govern. Congress in an uproar. And oh, the hearings that would ensue. You’d have efforts to dismantle the FBI and replace it with something far more sinister and political. And it doesn’t matter what the emails actually contain. It’s ridiculous that it actually comes to that. But I think he was trying to err on the side of transparency in an age of perceived coverups.

    1. It’s hard for me to feel too much for Comey in this. I understand he’s in a tough spot. But he’s the FBI Director. If he doesn’t know how to handle a tough spot, then I question his ability; if he does and he’s manipulating the system to cover his own ass, then he’s able, but corrupt. The right thing to do is what’s always been done: keep an ongoing investigation, that currently has no substantive information, private until such time as it’s clear that there is content (if any shows up). Take the chance with your career, because that’s what professionals do. I’d feel differently if there were content, but now, as Josh said, everyone is free to make shit up instead of waiting until we know the facts. Like the rest of this political season.

      And happy birthday Josh!

  2. Josh, you write about so many important things. But take a moment to reflect on another important thing: Happy birthday!

  3. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is something we’re told as children. I would have thought that a federal law enforcement official would also live by “if you can’t say something specific, don’t say anything at all” as well.

    You’re right as usual. The absence of specifics allows almost any interpretation to fit. I’ve read one where Comey is the hero and has “taken one for the team” multiple times over the e-mail investigation. I’m skeptical.

  4. Is this IT? Emails from another computer? Really? I sit on the sidelines way up here in the land of ice and snow…
    Canada… watching “The Show”. To put it bluntly from a foreign observer the lead up to this election is beyond words. I feel like a bobble head. I can’t stop shaking mine.
    I can only pray for a good outcome on November 8, 2016. I wonder what the rest of the world is thinking about it?