Politics

The Unraveling Of A New York Times Story About A ‘Criminal Probe’ Of Hillary Clinton

CREDIT: AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque

In this Oct. 18, 2011, file photo, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton checks her Blackberry. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that there may be a criminal investigation opened up into the personal email account Clinton used as secretary of state.

The New York Times broke a big story on Thursday night. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the Times reported, could be the subject of a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice because of the personal email account she used as secretary of state. The Times reported that two inspectors general had asked for the criminal probe.

This would be a pretty big deal if true. Clinton’s personal email account has already been under intense scrutiny, as many speculated Clinton was using that account to avoid congressional and Freedom of Information Act requests for disclosure. But Clinton publicly released her emails from that account, and insisted nothing was improper or unlawful. A possible criminal investigation would suggest otherwise.

But as the story unfolded, things became a bit more complicated. Most importantly, the Justice Department has said that it never actually received a request for a criminal probe into Clinton’s email, contradicting the New York Times story. Prior to that announcement, the Times made small but significant changes to its copy, and a high-ranking congressman said the Inspector General’s request was about something entirely different.

The whole thing has been a bit scattered, so it’s worth taking each detail step by step to understand the full picture. Here’s what we know so far.

The Story Breaks, And Clinton Comes Under Fire

The Times’ story was published Thursday night, citing “senior government officials” who said that the Justice Department would be asked to perform a criminal investigation into Clinton’s emails. It asserted that the personal account may have contained “hundreds of potentially classified emails,” and that Clinton herself may have improperly handled the sensitive materials.

The internet then promptly exploded. As a barrage of aggregated articles piled up, pundits put the candidate under fire. On CNN, John King called the allegations “very troubling,” while Michaela Pereira called the story “pretty damning” for Clinton’s presidential campaign. “It feeds into a kind of narrative she can’t quite be trusted,” Earth Institute director Jeffery Sachs said on MSNBC.

Clinton has already faced political lashings over her use of her personal email while at the State Department, mostly from Republicans who imply the emails contain answers to their questions about whether Clinton mishandled the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. So far, Republican investigations over Clinton’s handling of that attack have come up largely empty.

The Times Quietly Alters The Story

Amid the hubbub, it was discovered that the Times had quietly altered the story. “Small but significant” is how Politico described it, and noted that the headline, among other things, had been changed. The first headline, “Criminal Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email,” had been changed to “Criminal Inquiry Is Sought in Clinton Email Account.”

The change reflects something very important: that the possible criminal inquiry was not necessarily about Clinton’s direct use of her own email. The potential criminal inquiry, then, could now be read as not being focused on Clinton herself. The correction was made in response to pushback from the Clinton campaign, Politico reported.

A Congressman Clarifies The Situation

Things got even more confusing when Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) said he had spoken directly to the State Department Inspector General. According to Cummings, the inspector general said he had never asked the Justice Department to perform a criminal probe of Clinton’s email.

Instead, he said the investigation was about something entirely different. According to Cummings, the inspector general had identified classified information in a few emails that the State Department had publicly released in response to outrage over her personal account, and told the Justice Department about it. Those emails had not been previously marked as classified, though there was no evidence that Clinton had marked them as classified at the time they were transmitted.

“This is the latest example in a series of inaccurate leaks to generate false front-page headlines — only to be corrected later — and they have absolutely nothing to do with the attacks in Benghazi or protecting our diplomatic corps overseas,” Cummings said in a statement.

The Justice Department Says No Criminal Probe Was Requested

Later on Friday afternoon, Reuters reported that the Justice Department said that it had indeed received a request to look at Clinton’s email, but that it wasn’t a request for a criminal investigation. Instead, the story suggested that the requested investigation may be about how the emails were handled as they were being prepared to be released to the public, alluding to concerns that they may not have adequately censored classified information.

If Cumming’s statements are correct, however, those emails would not have been previously marked as classified, meaning Clinton would not be held responsible.

The Clinton Campaign Responds

As the details continue to unfold, Hillary Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill issued a statement speaking harsh words to the Times.

“It is now more clear than ever that the New York Times report claiming there is a criminal inquiry sought in Hillary Clinton’s use of email is false,” he said. “It has now been discredited both by the Justice Department and the Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee. This incident shows the danger of relying on reckless, inaccurate leaks from partisan sources.”

The Times Story Remains In Place

The story itself is still in place, but on Friday afternoon, the Times added a correction saying the original version “misstated the nature of the referral to the Justice Department regarding Hillary Clinton’s personal email account while she was secretary of state.”

“The referral addressed the potential compromise of classified information in connection with that personal email account,” the correction continued. “It did not specifically request an investigation into Mrs. Clinton.”

You can read the Times’ story here.

UPDATE JUL 24, 2015 2:23 PM

This story has been updated to include the New York Times' correction, issued Friday afternoon.

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