In July 2015 the New York Times published the scoop of a lifetime when top Department of Justice sources told reporters that inspectors general at two separate agencies had asked the DOJ to open an investigation into Hillary Clinton's email use after discovering the then-secretary of state had sent emails containing classified information.
But within the next 48 hours, the Times made two major corrections. First it changed the story to indicate that the referral was for an investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email and not necessarily Clinton herself. Then its Department of Justice sources suddenly reversed themselves and said that the referral was not "criminal" in nature, but a "security review."
These were always distinctions in want of a difference. The Department of Justice is charged with investigating and punishing criminals. You only refer matters to them when there is evidence of possible lawbreaking, and you usually don't need to tell them that. Likewise, the DOJ does not investigate servers and it does not investigate emails. It investigates human beings.
But the Clinton campaign, which requested the corrections in the first place, seized on those small inconsistencies and attempted to use them to discredit the entire story. The campaign wrote a nearly 2,000-word public letter to the Times demanding an explanation for the "egregious" story and attacking the paper's "apparent abandonment of standard journalistic practices."
Liberal media outlets were more than happy to join in the pile-on. Newsweek‘s Kurt Eichenwald declared the Times guilty of "a level of recklessness that borders on, well, criminal behavior." The Atlantic called the "botched story" a "huge embarrassment" for the paper. Salon.com declared it "another shoddy Clinton smear." Mother Jones wrote that it was an "epic screw-up."
But former FBI director James Comey's new book indicates that the ridiculous semantics game was even more moot than it appeared. The Times actually understated the reality: Clinton was already under criminal investigation at the time by the FBI, and yes, she was definitely the target.
"Though The Times may have thought those clarifications were necessary, their original story was much closer to the mark," Comey writes. "It was true that the transmission to the F.B.I. from the inspector general did not use the word ‘criminal,’ but by the time of the news story, we had a full criminal investigation open, focused on the secretary’s conduct."
This isn't an entirely new revelation, although Comey does provide the highest-ranking acknowledgement to date. The Times reported last year that "despite what officials said in public," the DOJ "knew a criminal investigation was underway, but officials said they were being technically accurate about the nature of the referral." It also reported that "some at the F.B.I. suspected that Democratic appointees were playing semantic games to help Mrs. Clinton, who immediately seized on the statement to play down the issue."
It's hard not to agree with those FBI agents. Keep in mind that this is the same DOJ that was run by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who told Comey not to publicly refer to the Clinton criminal investigation as a "criminal investigation," but instead as a "matter," a courtesy that has never been given to any other suspect. "The attorney general seemed to be directing me to align me with the Clinton campaign strategy," Comey grumbles in the new book.
Why on earth was the Obama DOJ playing gotcha and the misdirection game over an accusation that was significantly tamer than the actual truth, and that targeted a government official who wasn't even in office? What apolitical reason could there be for shielding Clinton? What was the law enforcement and government purpose in flip-flopping and parsing meaningless terminology the way a politician's spokesman might?
And let's not spare anyone. The Times got played like a fiddle. The paper had an incredible scoop, but it let Obama appointees and the Clinton campaign bog its reporters down in correcting minutiae. I'm not inclined to believe the paper would have bent over backwards for Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and spent days agonizing about the story. You definitely wouldn't have Times reporters bashing the paper in mushy love letters to the campaign .
But three years later, those who excoriated the paper owe it an apology. The Clintons were wrong, and the Times was right.