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James Comey, FBI director, denies bias to Congress in Clinton email probe

FBI Director James Comey on Thursday strongly defended the government's decision to not prosecute Hillary Clinton over her private email setup, telling Congress there was no evidence that she knew that anything she was doing was against the law or that she had lied to federal investigators.

Republicans have criticized both the investigation and the decision not to prosecute

FBI Director James Comey is shown being sworn in before testifying at a House oversight and government reform committee about the investigation into Clinton's email servers. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Under an onslaught of Republican criticism, FBI Director James Comey vigorously defended the government's decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton over her private email setup, rejecting angry accusations that the Democratic presidential candidate was given special treatment.

To criminally charge Clinton based on the facts his agency's yearlong probe had found would have been unwarranted and mere "celebrity hunting," Comey told a congressional investigative committee Thursday.

In nearly five hours of testimony, he sought to explain the U.S. Justice Department's decision to end an investigation that has dogged Clinton's presidential campaign and raised fresh questions among voters about her trustworthiness.

Republicans' hard, skeptical questioning made it clear that settling the legal issue will not end the matter as a political issue, as Clinton campaigns against Republican Donald Trump, who scornfully refers to her as "Crooked Hillary."

Republicans on the panel, voices sometimes raised in apparent frustration and irritation, said they were mystified by the decision not to prosecute because they felt that Comey, in a remarkably detailed and critical public statement on Tuesday, had laid out a sufficient basis for charges.

"I totally get people's questions," he said, but the FBI was obliged to follow the law.

Speaking to Congress, FBI director denies bias

5 years ago
3:28
James Comey was grilled by Republicans over the government's decision to not prosecute Hillary Clinton over her private email setup 3:28

No criminal intent

He said investigators found no evidence that Clinton or her aides intended to break the law, even though they mishandled classified information. A misdemeanor statute requires the mishandling to be willful, Comey said. And a law that permits felony prosecution due to gross negligence has been used only once in the 99 years since it was enacted — and that was in a case involving espionage.

"We don't want to put people in jail unless we prove that they knew they were doing something they shouldn't do," Comey said. "That is the characteristic of all the prosecutions involving mishandling of classified information."

Comey's appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee marked his first public statements since his announcement that removed the threat of criminal charges against Clinton, but also revived public scrutiny of her email behaviour as secretary of state in President Barack Obama's first term.

Committee chair Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, told Comey that the FBI's decision showed a "double standard" for powerful people. Had the "average Joe" done what she had done, he said, that person would go to prison.

"If your name isn't Clinton, or you're not part of the powerful elite, then Lady Justice will act differently," Chaffetz said, adding that the FBI had set a "dangerous precedent" in letting her off the hook.

Hillary Clinton, seen Tuesday, was 'extremely careless' in her handling of some classified State Department information while she was secretary of state, the FBI director has publicly stated. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Chaffetz said lawmakers would now ask the FBI to investigate whether Clinton lied to the committee.

One by one, Comey rebutted a litany of Republican charges, including that the FBI had been biased, ignored the law, applied it unjustly or co-ordinated the decision with Clinton's campaign. "We try very hard to apply the same standard whether you are rich or poor, white or black, old or young, famous or not known at all," he said.

"We have no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI," Comey said.

When asked in a follow-up by Chaffetz, if Clinton lied to the American public, Comey said he was "not qualified" to answer that question.

The committee's top Democrat, Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, accused Republicans of politicizing the investigation. But he suggested that Comey had contributed to that by leaving "a perceived gap" between his public criticism of Clinton and his conclusion not to prosecute.

"I beg you to fill the gap. Because when the gap is not filled by you, it will be filled by others," Cummings said.

As he had on Tuesday, Comey left no doubt about the FBI's contention that Clinton's email practices were careless and left government secrets exposed to hostile nations. He said that three of the emails in question bore classification markings in the body despite Clinton's assertions that nothing she had sent or received was marked classified. And he said that government workers who negligently handled classified information, including FBI agents, could be subject to administrative sanctions.

But he repeated his earlier contention that "no reasonable prosecutor" would have pursued criminal charges against Clinton, saying at one point, "We went at this very hard to see if we could make a case."

Appointed by Bush promoted by Obama

Comey, for years a registered Republican who said he's no longer registered with a political party, was deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration and was appointed in 2013 to a 10-year term as FBI director by Obama. He would still be on the job if Clinton were elected president.

He drew distinctions between the Clinton probe and last year's prosecution of former CIA director David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to sharing classified information with his biographer. Petraeus, Comey said, retained a "vast quantity" of classified information in his home and then lied to the FBI about it.

"He admitted he knew that was the wrong thing to do," Comey said. "That is a perfect illustration of the kind of cases that get prosecuted. In my mind, it illustrates importantly the distinction to this case."

Despite the no-prosecution decision, Comey had rebuked Clinton and her aides on Tuesday as being "extremely careless" in their handling of classified information and contradicted many of the explanations she's put forward.

The investigation formally ended Wednesday when Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced that no charges would be filed.

In a statement, Clinton's campaign said Comey's testimony "shut the door on any remaining conspiracy theories once and for all."

Internal investigation reopened

Later Thursday, the State Department announced it was reopening an internal investigation into the emails. 

Spokesman John Kirby says the emails probe is restarting now that the Justice Department isn't pursuing a criminal prosecution. The State Department suspended its review in April to avoid interfering with the FBI's inquiry.

Kirby said earlier this week former officials can still face "administrative sanctions." The most serious is loss of security clearances, which could complicate Clinton's naming of a national security team if she becomes president.

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