Thursday, July 7, 2016
Recently, Professor Podgor wrote two informative posts covering FBI Director James Comey’s public statement about the FBI’s year-long investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of private e-mail servers, its recommendation that no criminal charges be filed (here), and AG Loretta Lynch’s acceptance of the FBI’s recommendation (here). Professor Podgor noted many unusual aspects about Director Comey’s statement, including the fact that the FBI does not usually publicize its recommendations. The short version of Director Comey’s speech is that the FBI did find “evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information,” but is recommending against criminal prosecution for a variety of reasons. This post examines two questions: (1) Is Director Comey right when he says that the evidence indicated potential violations of federal laws? (2) if so, why is the FBI recommending against prosecution?
What laws did Hillary Clinton’s conduct potentially violate?
While the FBI’s investigation undoubtedly looked at many federal statutes, the one that Director Comey referenced in his statement appears to be 18 U.S.C. 793(f), which makes it a federal crime for anyone “through gross negligence" to permit classified information "to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed[.]”
In this case, classified information was undoubtedly removed from its proper place of custody. According to Director Comey, of the approximately 30,000 emails provided by Hillary Clinton, 110 contained classified information at the time they were sent or received. (Another 2,000 emails were later determined to contain classified information, although those were not formally classified at the time they were sent or received). A small number of emails also contained documents with markings that indicated the presence of classified information. Comey noted that “none of these e-mails [containing classified information] should have been on any kind of unclassified system,” let alone “unclassified personal servers not even supported by full-time security staff[.]”
Whether the act of communicating classified information through personal servers constitutes “gross negligence” is a more difficult question to answer. The Supreme Court has called “gross negligence” a “nebulous” term “lying somewhere between the poles of negligence at one end and purpose or knowledge at the other[.]” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 836 n.4 (1994).
Reported decisions of prosecutions under 18 U.S.C. § 793(f) are rare. In one case, a Marine Corps intelligence officer pled guilty to a violation of § 793(f) where he inadvertently packed classified documents into his gym bag along with his personal papers and took the classified documents home. United States v. Roller, 42 M.J. 264 (CAAF 1995). Former FBI Agent James J. Smith, who had an affair with suspected Chinese spy Katrina Leung, was also charged under this provision for taking classified documents to Leung’s home, resulting in Leung covertly copying the documents without Smith’s knowledge. Smith later pled guilty to a charge of false statements.
Director Comey opined that the use of a private server was “extremely careless” and that any “reasonable person” in Hillary Clinton’s position would know better than to use an unclassified system to discuss classified information. A jury looking at the full evidence, including the actual content of the emails and the context in which these events occurred, may have agreed with Comey, or may have decided that although negligent, Clinton’s conduct did not rise to gross negligence.
Why did the FBI recommend that no criminal charges be filed?
Director Comey’s primary reason for not recommending criminal charges in this case appears to be the lack of precedent for criminal charges in similar cases in the past. According to Director Comey, “[a]ll the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed…; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice.” Whereas “in similar circumstances,” “individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions”
While the decision to prosecute is ultimately up to the prosecutor, what some may not realize is that in federal cases, the prosecutor’s decision to bring criminal charges is governed by the United States Attorney’s Manual. USAM 9-27.000, titled “Principles of Federal Prosecution” contains the DOJ’s written guidance to prosecutors about decisions to initiate or decline prosecution. Specifically, 9-27.220(A) instructs prosecutors to file criminal charges in all cases where there is a violation of federal law and the evidence is sufficient to obtain a conviction, unless one of three grounds exist:
- Lack of a substantial federal interest;
- The defendant is subject to prosecution in another jurisdiction; or
- The existence of adequate non-criminal alternatives to prosecution.
In this case, both the first and third grounds are potential reasons that a federal prosecutor can rely on to justify not bringing any charges.
The first ground, “substantial federal interest,” is a composite factor that weighs a number of considerations including federal law enforcement priorities, the nature and seriousness of the offense, the deterrent effect of prosecution, the personal characteristics of the individual, and the probable sentence upon conviction. Nationally, the DOJ’s number one law enforcement priority is protecting U.S. citizens from national security threats. See Memorandum re: Federal Prosecution Priorities. However, a prosecutor can potentially justify declining prosecution based on Hillary Clinton’s personal characteristics and the nature and seriousness of the offense.
The third ground, the existence of adequate non-criminal alternatives, appears to have been the one that Director Comey relied upon. In this case, for example, Hillary Clinton could potentially face security and administrative sanctions such as revocation of her security clearance, and such a sanction may be “adequate” in light of past practice. (How such a sanction would work if Clinton is elected President, however, is a question we can’t answer).
The FBI’s investigation uncovered sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Hillary Clinton did violate the law. However, the federal government does not (and should not) bring criminal charges in every case. If Director Comey is right that individuals in similar circumstances in the past were only subjected to administrative sanctions, then its decision to recommend no prosecution in this case may be the right one.
(ZZ & EG)