Meet Judicial Watch, A Driving Force Behind The Clinton Email Story That Keeps Duping The Press

Tom Fitton

Judicial Watch is a conservative activist group that has been one of the organizations driving the media narrative on Hillary Clinton's emails. They have a history of dishonest activism, promoting conspiracy theories, and pushing false or misleading narratives.

The organization was formed in the 1990s by conspiracy theorist Larry Klayman, who used the technique of filing spurious lawsuits in an attempt to bring down the Clinton administration. It is now headed by Tom Fitton, who has continued Klayman's methods in an ongoing campaign to antagonize the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats.

Judicial Watch, Part Of The Email Scandal Engine

The organization has played a key role in the ongoing controversy over the email system Hillary Clinton used as secretary of state. Records obtained from the State Department by Judicial Watch have served as fodder in the media and for the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

This week, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the frontrunner for the soon-to-be vacant Speaker's office, boasted on Fox, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought and made that happen.”

Judicial Watch has tried to stake its own claim to denting Clinton, with Fitton claiming in a press release, “Judicial Watch has had more success investigating the IRS, Benghazi, and Clinton email scandals than any House committee under Boehner's direction.”

Since it was reported in March that Clinton used a private email server, Judicial Watch has been mentioned dozens of times in reports on the story, including in major outlets like Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post, and USA Today.

But if history is any indication, media outlets risk credibility and accuracy by relying on Judicial Watch.

NY TimesPolitico Recently Duped By Judicial Watch Clinton Document Release

The media's reliance on Judicial Watch's work comes with a significant risk, as the conservative group often overreaches in its attacks on Democrats and progressives.

For example, on September 24, Judicial Watch released records it had received from the State Department which it claimed “reveal former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally signed the authorization for Huma Abedin, her then-deputy chief of staff, to become a special government employee.”

The New York Times reported on Judicial Watch's findings, writing that the documents “show that Mrs. Clinton personally signed forms establishing a new title and position for the aide, Huma Abedin, in March 2012.” PoliticoFox News, and other outlets also published stories based on the document.

Those stories were wrong.

As the Times reported a few days later, the document that Judicial Watch had given to the media had the signature redacted “in a box intended for the aide's supervisor,” and the assumption was apparently made that Sec. Clinton had signed it. But later a copy of the document was given to the Times and it showed that it was signed by Cheryl Mills, who was then Clinton's chief of staff.

In other words, the entire premise of the Judicial Watch release was false (the uncorrected headline remains on the Times website).

Judicial Watch Promotes False Stories

Judicial Watch has often started stories that are simply untrue and collapse almost immediately under scrutiny.

For example, Judicial Watch alleged that the Obama administration had appointed 45 “czars” to serve under him, a claim which then became the basis for a viral email attacking the president. As explained by PolitiFact in 2014, Judicial Watch stretched the truth by listing senior advisor Valerie Jarrett as a czar, crediting the Obama administration for czars created under the Bush administration, and describing Ray Mabus as the “Oil Czar” when in reality he was Secretary of the Navy, a Senate-confirmed position.

Judicial Watch accused then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of engaging in “boorish demands for military travel” that are “more about partying than anything else” and highlighted expenditures of "$101,429.14 ... for in-flight expenses, including food and alcohol." After conservative outlets regurgitated the claims, investigated and found that “costs are not as high as critics claim, and they're comparable to those of her Republican predecessor.”

Last year, Judicial Watch alleged that a company had been sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) “for requiring workers to speak English.” But in reality, the EEOC said it sued the company for violating its employees' rights by subjecting them to a “sham performance improvement plan” that focused on their English language skills.

Judicial Watch Creates And Promotes Conspiracy Theories

Judicial Watch has concocted conspiracy theories that end up being amplified by conservative and mainstream media, as well as elected officials.

Judicial Watch claimed that the Justice Department was helping to “organize and manage rallies and protests against George Zimmerman,” the Florida man who shot and killed teenager Trayvon Martin. In reality, the unit of the DOJ was sent to Florida in order to defuse tensions in the community, and as the Orlando Sentinel reported, they “reached out to the city's spiritual and civic leaders to help cool heated emotions.” 

Judicial Watch claimed that the Islamic State (ISIS) had set up a terrorist camp in Mexico “just a few miles from El Paso, Texas,” facilitating the smuggling of terrorists into the United States. Conservative media outlets picked up Judicial Watch's claim.

Authorities in the United States and Mexico rejected the group's fearmongering.

A spokesman for the National Security Council said there was “no indication that this claim has any validity to it,” while an FBI spokesperson told PolitiFact, “there is no credible information to support” the allegation. The government of Mexico stated: “The government of Mexico dismisses and categorically denies each of the statements made today by the organization Judicial Watch on the alleged presence of ISIS's operating cells throughout the border region.” Similarly, the Texas Department of Public Safety said they had “no credible information to corroborate or validate this story.”

PolitiFact rated the claim as “false.” A similar claim by Judicial Watch in September of 2014 became the basis of a statement by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) that ISIS is “present in Ciudad Juarez” in Mexico. Government agencies denied that allegation as well, and PolitiFact rated it “mostly false.”

Judicial Watch's Obama Travel Obsession

Throughout the Obama administration, there have been repeated news stories discussing the cost of travel arrangements for the Obama administration, particularly for first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters.

These stories have often been based on reports generated by Judicial Watch, and their website boasts an archive of releases on the topic (despite the organization's existence during the Bush administration, the “First Family” Vacations archive is limited to travel from 2010-present).

Many of these releases also exaggerate the truth. In 2010, Judicial Watch alleged that the Obamas went on a “private family safari” at taxpayer expense, but the safari was paid for with the Obama's own funds. They also claimed the trip “was as much an opportunity for the Obama family and friends to go on a safari as it was a trip intended to advance the administration's agenda in Africa” but the schedule was filled with official events:

The six-day trip was dominated by official events and meetings with world leaders. Mrs. Obama met with the South African president's wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma; spoke to the Young African Women Leaders Forum; participated in community service events in Johannesburg; visited U.S. embassies and consulates; spoke at the University of Cape Town and met with students from poor communities; held a meeting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu; met with Botswanan president Ian Khama; and gave interviews to several news outlets, including NBC, ABC, BET, and CNN.

Judicial Watch was designed almost two decades ago to use the courts and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to trip up and raise implications about Democrats and other related elected officials. It does so through dishonest claims and inaccurate document releases. Despite their history, the media has continued to rely on them, only to sometimes be caught hyping inaccurate supposed scoops.