In September, FBI Director James Comey was under fire, including from former FBI agents, over his decision not to bring criminal charges against Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way The dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat MORE in connection with her use of a private email server while secretary of State.
So, Comey emailed FBI employees to reassure them that the FBI's investigation of Clinton had been "honest, competent, and independent."
That assertion has been in dispute since last Friday, when Comey disclosed to congressional leaders that "in connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation."
The controversy, however, has been mainly over Comey's independence.
On Monday, Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Biden hits one-year mark in dire straits 'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act MORE of Nevada wrote Comey that he may have violated the Hatch Act, which bars officials from using their positions to influence an election.
Much overlooked in the uproar is the question of the FBI's competence.
Why didn't the FBI discover these emails sooner?
The "unrelated case" was a separate federal investigation of allegations that former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) had engaged in sexually explicit texting with a teenager. Weiner, as probably the whole world knows by now, is the estranged husband of Huma Abedin, a top aide to Clinton including while she was secretary of State. The new emails were found in a laptop reportedly shared by Weiner and Abedin.
OK, you are asking, why should the FBI have thought there might be any relevant emails on the laptop of Weiner, a disgraced congressman?
First, the FBI should have known that there was a statistically significant likelihood that, as a married couple, Weiner and Abedin shared an email account.
A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that 67 percent of Internet users who are married or in a committed relationship shared a password to an online account. The study also found that 27 percent of such couples shared an email account.
If there was even a 25 percent possibility that Abedin and Weiner shared an email account, then the FBI should have examined the emails on Weiner's laptop.
Second, in January 2016, the documentary film "Weiner" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The documentary, which received considerable attention, followed Weiner in his 2013 campaign for mayor of New York. Abedin was prominently featured in "Weiner" as a close confidant and political adviser to her husband.
That was another reason to search the Weiner laptop.
Third, Abedin was one of three persons who accounted for 68 percent of Clinton's email traffic as secretary of State, excluding emails with family and friends (the other two were aides Jake Sullivan and Cheryl Mills).
If there are classified State Department emails on Weiner's laptop, they almost certainly came from Abedin. While Abedin denied knowing, while she was at the State Department, of Clinton's private server, the FBI should have traced Abedin's emails to her husband's laptop.
Comey claims that the FBI conducted a "painstaking" investigation of the Clinton emails. In fact, a painstaking investigation would have considered and acted on the possibility that relevant emails might be on the Weiner laptop.
Had the FBI searched that laptop, the significance of those emails, if any, could have been disclosed in July, when Comey announced his decision to close the Clinton investigation, not after 20 million people had already voted and just 10 days before the election.
Instead, the FBI's last-minute discovery of the emails on Weiner's laptop has created a presidential electoral nightmare. That blunder was compounded last Friday by Comey's fact-devoid, innuendo-crammed letter to congressional leaders.
The FBI's job is to gather and assess evidence, not devise political Rorschach tests for anyone to read however they like. Even worse, according to some reports, the FBI is scrambling to review all of the emails on Weiner's laptop before the election, which suggests that, once again, the FBI will not conduct a careful and deliberate investigation.
The FBI should explain why its original failure to examine the emails on the Weiner laptop is excusable.
If it can't, what will be remembered long after the election is how the FBI botched one of its most important investigations and badly failed the country.
Wallance is a writer, lawyer, former federal prosecutor and the author most recently of "America's Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR's State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy." Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.
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