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FBI Head Under Fire For Clinton Email Scrutiny Days Before Election

FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 28.

FBI Director James Comey is facing criticism for turning the agency's attention to newly discovered emails that could be linked to Hillary Clinton, again focusing on the former secretary of state just days before Election Day.

Former prosecutors and former Department of Justice officials are questioning what Comey hopes to accomplish by announcing the investigation so close to the election.

Comey notified members of Congress that the FBI was again looking into Clinton's use of a private email server. As NPR reported Friday, Comey's decision followed the discovery of emails that "came to light in the course of an unrelated criminal investigation of Anthony Weiner," who is being scrutinized for sexting an underage girl. But, as the the Associated Press reported, it's "unclear what the emails contained, who sent them, or what connection they might have to the yearlong investigation the FBI closed in July without recommending criminal charges."

Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta slammed the decision in a statement: "It is extraordinary that we would see something like this just 11 days out from a presidential election. The Director owes it to the American people to immediately provide the full details of what he is now examining. We are confident this will not produce any conclusions different from the one the FBI reached in July."

This lack of information about the newly discovered emails, as well as the timing of Comey's announcement, has drawn scrutiny from former officials. One former senior DOJ official, who requested anonymity because he has pending matters at the department, told NPR that Comey's first mistake came in July, when he held a press conference to announce the findings of the FBI's investigation into Clinton's email use.

"You don't hold press conferences to announce that someone should not be charged with a crime and then proceed to dump all over that person and to publicly discuss the evidence against them," he said. "That's kind of one of the 10 commandments for being a federal law enforcement officer. And another commandment would be — you don't publicly announce that you're conducting a criminal investigation against someone. And you especially don't do it if that person is a candidate, 11 days before an election. That's true whether it's a presidential election or an election for dog catcher."

And a former prosecutor spoke to Politico:

"I got a lot of respect for Jim Comey, but I don't understand this idea of dropping this bombshell which could be a big dud," said former federal prosector Peter Zeidenberg, a veteran of politically sensitive investigations. "Doing it in the last week or 10 days of a presidential election without more information, I don't think that he should because how does it inform a voter? It just invites speculation ... I would question the timing of it. It's not going to get done in a week."

But others argue that Comey announcement was necessary for transparency's sake. Former DOJ official Carrie Cordero tweeted:

Cordero's tweet references the June "tarmac" meeting of Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The two spoke on a plane while the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails was still ongoing, creating "the appearance of impropriety," as NPR's Carrie Johnson reported at the time.

Comey explained his decision to restart the investigation, writing in a memo to FBI employees, which was obtained by the Post, "Of course, we don't ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record."

Update: 1:35 p.m. ET, Oct. 29

Two law enforcement sources told Carrie that the Justice Department reminded the FBI earlier this week about the department's guidelines against speaking about ongoing criminal cases and not moving to take steps that could influence an election. The FBI director was advised of the attorney general's position and he acted against that caution and independently by sending a letter to Congress, one source added. The two officials did not speak on the phone or meet in person though, the source said.

The Justice Department has no plans in the foreseeable future to talk about the issue or hold a news conference, the two sources said.

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