FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 3, 2017, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing: "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 3, 2017, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing: "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." AP / CAROLYN KASTER

Comey: The Metadata Made Me Do It

The FBI director tries to explain to Congress his pre-election letters about the missing Clinton emails.

Why did FBI Director James Comey tell Congress he was “re-opening” the Clinton email investigation just nine days before the election? Metadata and a misunderstanding.

That’s what Comey told lawmakers on Wednesday, explaining his momentous decision for the first time. He said that the FBI team looking into Clinton’s lost emails became very excited about the discovery of Anthony Weiner’s laptop, upon which was stored metadata that pointed to various messages, and the possibility — false, as it turns out — that it would show criminal intent. The team also told Comey that it would take a long time to go through the data, which also proved untrue.

Bottom line, Comey said: he did not know how much evidence they had or how long it would take to examine it, and he decided on Oct. 28 to send a letter telling lawmakers that the investigation was open again.  

Here’s how it went down: On the morning of Oct. 27, the FBI investigative team met with Comey in his conference room.

“They laid out what they could see from the metadata on this fellow Anthony Weiner’s laptop,” Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee.  ”What they could see was that there were thousands of Secretary Clinton’s emails on that device, including what they thought were the missing emails from her first three months as Secretary of State.”

The metadata on Weiner’s device pointed to emails from Clinton’s Verizon Blackberry, a device she used during her first three months as Secretary of State, Comey said.

“That’s obviously very important because if there was evidence she was acting with bad intent that’s where it would be,” he told a somewhat agitated Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “We never found any emails from her first three months.”

After the investigators said that they would need a search warrant to go further, Comey verified that with the Justice Department, then granted his team permission to seek it.

Comey told lawmakers that once he had given permission to obtain a search warrant, he would have two choices. He could either conceal or reveal that he had given permission for the agents to continue their investigation. Concealing it would have been “catastrophic,” to public trust in the FBI, he said.

As well, Comey told lawmakers, his team had informed him that searching the 650,000-plus emails could not be completed before the Nov. 8 election. That proved untrue.

Instead, he said, “They found thousands of new emails and they called me the Saturday night before the election and said, ‘Thanks to the wizardry of our technology, we’ve only had to personally read 6,000. We think we can finish tomorrow morning, Sunday.’”

At the time, some observers and political players, such as disgraced former National Security Advisor and former Defense Intelligence Agency director Michael Flynn, said that a thorough review of emails in that timeframe would be impossible.

But former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, among others, surmised that it might take no more than an afternoon once you filtered out the copied and blind-copied (the so-called CC and BCC) recipients.

That’s without using any fancy tricks.

“We’d routinely collect terabytes of data in a search. I’d know what was important before I left the guy’s house,” one former FBI forensics analyst told WIRED’s Andy Greenberg.

Shouldn’t Comey have known better? There are any number of methods or software tools available for searching enormous corpuses of data quickly…if you know what you are looking for. While there are tags and other indicators that can quickly show that a message contains classified information, the object of Comey’s obsession was a bit more vaporous: a clear indication of criminal intent on behalf of Hillary Clinton. Even so, it proved easy to eliminate a large majority of emails that definitely contained no such proof, leaving a much smaller pile to go through more carefully.

Comey told the committee that the investigators came back to him the Saturday before the election.

“They said, ’We found a lot of new stuff. We did not find anything that changes our view of her intent. We’re in the same place we were in July.’”

What effect did Comey’s letter have on the election?

Sam Wang at the Princeton Consortium did a quick analysis on the prevalence of Hillary Clinton’s email as a voting issue in the final days before the election. Unsurprisingly, there was a spike.

“The big change does coincide well with the release of the Comey letter. Opinion swung toward Trump by 4 percentage points, and about half of this was a lasting change. This was larger than the victory margin in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. Many factors went into this year’s Presidential race, but on the home stretch, Comey’s letter appears to have been a critical factor in the home stretch,” Wang wrote.

Statistician Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight found that Clinton’s support waned whenever Comey talked about her emails, as he did in July when he first closed the investigation.

At very least, Comey’s letter of Oct. 28 certainly changed the optics and themes of the campaign in its final days. “It got Trump out of the spotlight for vulgar comments on the Access Hollywood video and back on offense. He and his allies used word of a new FBI investigation and an erroneous report on Fox News to argue that Clinton was about to be indicted,” USA Today’s Susan Page observed.

Still, pinning a specific perception change in the minds of millions of voters on a single event is an ambitious feat with even the best data. But had Comey simply called his own forensic experts or consulted someone with expertise in parsing big data, rather than rely entirely on the judgment of agents whose expertise was elsewhere, he might have sent a better letter to lawmakers. That might have changed history.