Since January, numerous outlets, including Fox News and The Washington Post, have cited anonymous or discredited sources to claim that up to 150 FBI agents were investigating Hillary Clinton's private email server. But the number of agents has been a moving target, with the Post later correcting itself to say it was “less than 50” and NBC saying March 30 that the number is closer to 12. NBC's source -- also anonymous -- called the earlier figures “ridiculous” and said, “You need an act of terrorism to get 50 agents working on something.”
Multiple Outlets, Including The Washington Post, Report Figures Of Up To “150 Agents” Investigating Clinton's Email Server
January 11: Fox Reports “About 100 Special Agents” And 50 Additional Temporary Agents Assigned To Clinton's Email Server Investigation. On January 11, Fox's chief intelligence correspondent, Catherine Herridge, and senior executive producer Pamela K. Browne reported on FoxNews.com that an anonymous source told them that “about 100 special agents” were assigned to investigate Hillary Clinton's private email server, "with as many as 50 additional agents on 'temporary duty assignment'':
Fox News is told that about 100 special agents assigned to the investigations also were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, with as many as 50 additional agents on “temporary duty assignment,” or TDY. The request to sign a new NDA could reflect that agents are handling the highly classified material in the emails, or serve as a reminder not to leak about the case, or both. [FoxNews.com, 1/11/16]
January 11: Washington Examiner Reports “150 Agents” Are Working On Email Server Case, Citing Discredited Republican Activist. On January 11, Washington Examiner's Sarah Westwood quoted former U.S. Attorney Joseph DiGenova saying that he was told there were “150 agents working on [Clinton's server] case” and calling it “very unusually high.” DiGenova is a discredited Republican activist who pushed false Benghazi conspiracies and drew criticism from a congressman for lacking “impartiality, non-partisanship, and professionalism.” [Washington Examiner, 1/11/16; Media Matters, 1/6/16]
March 27: Washington Post Investigative Report Uses Anonymous Sources To Claim 147 FBI Agents Detailed To Investigation. On March 27, The Washington Post's Robert O'Harrow Jr. published an article on the FBI's investigation into Clinton's private email server claiming, “One hundred forty-seven FBI agents have been deployed to run down leads, according to a lawmaker briefed by FBI Director James B. Comey.” [The Washington Post, 3/27/16; Media Matters, 3/29/15]
March 27: Washington Post's 147 FBI Agents Figure Spreads Throughout Media. Numerous media outlets and reporters highlighted The Washington Post's 147 figure, including the Post's Chris Cillizza, who reacted to the number by writing “W-H-A-T?” and calling it “eye-popping.” Conservative magazine National Review referred to it as “a staggering deployment of manpower,” and Breitbart News wrote that the “FBI recently kicked its investigation into high gear.” [Media Matters, 3/29/16]
March 28: Politico Reports That Washington Post's 147 Figure Is “Greatly Exaggerated.” On March 28, Politico's Josh Gerstein responded to The Washington Post's report, writing, “The FBI does not have close to 150 agents working the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's email server, a source familiar with the matter told POLITICO Monday.” The anonymous source called the number “greatly exaggerated” but “declined to provide any further details about FBI staffing”:
The FBI does not have close to 150 agents working the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's email server, a source familiar with the matter told POLITICO Monday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, commented after the Washington Post reported that FBI Director James Comey told an unnamed member of Congress that 147 agents were working the Clinton investigation.
Asked about the Post report, the source said: “That number is greatly exaggerated.”
The source and other officials declined to provide any further details about FBI staffing or the status of the inquiry. [Politico, 3/28/16]
March 29: Washington Post Issues Correction, Cites Law Enforcement Officials Who Call The Figure “Too High” And Say The Number Of Personnel Involved Is “Fewer Than 50.” On March 29, The Washington Post issued a correction to its March 27 investigative report, stating, “Two U.S. law enforcement officials have since told The Washington Post that figure is too high ... the officials say the number of FBI personnel involved is fewer than 50”:
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Clinton used two different email addresses, sometimes interchangeably, as secretary of state. She used only email@example.com as secretary of state. Also, an earlier version of this article reported that 147 FBI agents had been detailed to the investigation, according to a lawmaker briefed by FBI Director James B. Comey. Two U.S. law enforcement officials have since told The Washington Post that figure is too high. The FBI will not provide an exact figure, but the officials say the number of FBI personnel involved is fewer than 50. [The Washington Post, 3/29/16]
March 30: NBC Reports That “There Are Currently About 12 FBI Agents Working On The Case.” On March 30, NBC News' Ari Melber quoted a “former federal law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the Clinton investigation,” who said, “There are currently about 12 FBI agents working full-time on the case.” The source criticized the Post's estimate of “fewer than 50” personnel, saying that “an estimate anywhere near 50 agents is also off base,” NBC wrote. Melber also quoted a former FBI official, who called the 147 figure “a ridiculous number,” continuing, “You need an act of terrorism to get 50 agents working on something”:
A former federal law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the Clinton investigation tells MSNBC an estimate anywhere near 50 agents is also off base.
“There are currently about 12 FBI agents working full-time on the case,” says the source, who would only speak anonymously about an open investigation.
A former FBI official, also speaking anonymously, says many in the law enforcement community view the large estimates of people assigned to the case as completely improbable.
“147 was such a ridiculous number,” said the source, adding that 50 also sounded unrealistic for this kind of inquiry. “You need an act of terrorism to get 50 agents working on something,” said the former FBI official. [NBCNews.com, 3/30/16]
March 30: Washington Post Brushes Off Reporting Mistake, Says “Mistakes Are Made.” On March 30, Post deputy managing editor Tracy Grant responded to a Media Matters inquiry about the paper's use of anonymous sources in light of the error by stating that “mistakes are made.” Grant continued that “this case does not cause us to feel that a policy change is necessary”:
The Washington Post's policy on confidential sourcing states clearly that we prefer named sources over unnamed sources, but it also acknowledges that sometimes people will only speak on the condition of anonymity. Nothing is published from an unnamed source without at least one editor knowing who that source is. In this case, two senior editors knew who the sources were. Sometimes, despite rigorous reporting and vetting, mistakes are made and when that happens we correct quickly and completely as we did in this circumstance. We are always open to looking at our procedures for ensuring the integrity of our journalism, but this case does not cause us to feel that a policy change is necessary. [Media Matters, 3/30/16]