“This is very big and frankly it’s unbelievable. What was just found out is that the Department of Justice, the State Department and the FBI colluded, got together, to make Hillary Clinton look less guilty and look a lot better than she looks. … This is collusion between the FBI, Department of Justice, and the State Department to try and make Hillary Clinton look like an innocent person when she’s guilty of very high crimes.”
—Donald Trump, in a video message to supporters, Oct. 17, 2016
Sometimes, it helps to wait till at least some of the facts are in.
Trump rushed out a video statement to supporters claiming that there was “collusion” between the State Department, FBI and the Justice Department “to make Hillary Clinton look less guilty” after news reports that an FBI official spoke of a “quid pro quo” between the FBI and State regarding the classification status of some of Clinton’s emails.
“Quid pro quo” certainly sounds bad. But as more information has come in, there’s much less to the story than Trump claims. The Trump campaign, as usual, did not respond to a request for an explanation of Trump’s claim.
There are two key players here: First, Patrick Kennedy, the State Department undersecretary of state for administration. He’s a career official and legendary in the department, having held the same job for secretaries Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and John F. Kerry. And second, Brian McCauley, at the time deputy FBI director for international operations, now retired. McCauley is unidentified in the FBI documents, but he gave an interview on Oct. 18 to our colleague Matt Zapotosky.
The statement about “quid pro quo” comes from an FBI summary of an interview (known as a 302) with a third, unidentified FBI official during the criminal investigation of Clinton’s private email account. But there are other interviews as well, including with McCauley and Kennedy. Moreover, even the summaries with the unnamed official shows that whatever was said in the conversation, nothing happened to change the classification of the emails.
That certainly undercuts Trump’s claim of “collusion.” (Dictionary definition of collusion: “secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy, especially in order to cheat or deceive others.” In other words, action has to be taken.)
We should note that 302s are not transcripts, but are summaries of interviews, which may or may not accurately reflect the nuances of a conversation with the witness.
Here’s the section of the interview with the unidentified official that generated headlines:
[McCauley] indicated he had been contacted [in May 2015] by Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state, who had asked his assistance in altering the email’s classification in exchange for a “quid pro quo.” [McCauley] advised that in exchange for marking the email unclassified, State would reciprocate by allowing the FBI to place more agents in countries where they are presently forbidden.
But McCauley, in his interview with the FBI, offered a less sinister account.
Kennedy asked for assistance in changing a classification of FBI information in an email. Kennedy said “the FBI’s classification of the e-mail in question caused problems for Kennedy and Kennedy wanted to classify the document as “B9”. Kennedy further stated that the “B9” classification would allow him to archive the document in the basement of DoS never to be seen again. … Not yet knowing the email’s content, [McCauley] told Kennedy he would look into the email matter if Kennedy would provide authority concerning the FBI’s request to increase its personnel in Iraq.
Once McCauley realized the email contained information about possible arrests in the 2012 terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya, McCauley informed Kennedy “that there was no way he could assist Kennedy with declassifying the information in the email,” the summary said.
The reference to a “B9” classification is a mystery, as it refers to a Freedom of Information Act redaction relating to geological information. The State Department says Kennedy referred to “B7,” which concerns law enforcement information. That makes more sense, though given the context of the conversation as described in the FBI interview, the phrase “benign” — instead of “B9″ — also seems possible.
In the Post interview, McCauley said had been trying for weeks to get Kennedy to approve his request to put two bureau employees back in Baghdad. Kennedy finally called him back, and McCauley said he took advantage of the opportunity.
“He said: ‘Brian. Pat Kennedy. I need a favor,’ ” McCauley recalled in the interview. “I said: ‘Good, I need a favor. I need our people back in Baghdad.’ ”
Kennedy then explained that he wanted the FBI to change its determination that an email found on Clinton’s server contained classified information. McCauley said he offered to do a favor in exchange for another favor before he had any idea of what Kennedy wanted. In the end, the FBI did not get additional people in Baghdad and Kennedy did not get the classification changed. The email was released with a notation that material was classified and redacted because it would reveal confidential sources or information from a foreign government.
In a statement, Kennedy said: “There was no quid pro quo, nor was there any bargaining. At no point in our conversation was I under the impression we were bargaining.” Kennedy also noted whether or not the material was deemed to be classified “the document would have been released on our FOIA website with the exact same material redacted.” The only difference would be the notation for why the material was redacted.
McCauley, for his part, said “there was no collusion, there was absolutely no collusion. That’s illegal. Something that was underhanded, illegal, I would not do it. No one in the FBI would do it. It’s a matter of integrity.”
There is no evidence Clinton was ever aware of this conversation. As we have noted before, even before Clinton’s tenure, there have been tensions between the State Department and intelligence agencies over the handling of classified information. The State Department has a retroactive process, in which unclassified email that is subject to a Freedom of Information Act request will be retroactively classified to protect foreign and diplomatic communications.
But in the view of intelligence officials, State Department officials have been sending highly sensitive information on the unclassified system — with the expectation that if a FOIA request is made, department officials could then redact the emails and prevent any classified information from becoming public. Some intelligence officials thought that was backward — that the information should be protected on the front end.
Kennedy, as a career official for four decades, knew how much the day-to-day business of diplomacy would be upended if suddenly many of Clinton’s emails were deemed to be classified. In one of the FBI interviews released on Oct. 17, an unidentified State Department official was quoted as saying that under the review process overseen by Kennedy, officials “felt immense pressure to complete the review quickly and to not label anything as classified.”
Alternatively, some might argue that Kennedy was seeking to protect Clinton and head off a criminal investigation. But it’s unclear why a career official would stick his or her neck out for a former secretary of state.
The Pinocchio Test
To sum up, “quid pro quo” was a secondhand description of a conversation — and both people who engaged in the conversation insist there was no collusion. Moreover, there is no evidence that anything happened as a result of the conversation. The FBI did not back down from its contention that the email should to labeled as classified. Indeed, the FBI in the end determined that Clinton and her staff were “extremely careless” in their handling of classified information in email exchanges.
Ordinarily, Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric about collusion would merit yet another Four-Pinocchio rating. But we are going to keep it to Three because Kennedy was certainly on a quest to limit the number of emails that were deemed classified. There’s no evidence he was doing this for the benefit of Clinton, but we don’t want to jump the gun in case new, more damning information is released.
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