The Unanswered Questions From The NY Times' Debunked Clinton Emails Report

NY Times

The New York Times' dramatic changes to their initial, anonymously-sourced claim that federal investigators were seeking a criminal probe into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of personal email raises significant questions about the paper's reporting of the story.

On July 23, The New York Times published a report headlined “Criminal Inquiry Sought In Clinton's Use Of Email” which claimed that "[t]wo inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Hillary Rodham Clinton mishandled sensitive government information on a private email account she used as secretary of state." But soon after, the Times updated their report to remove the implication that Clinton was the target of the supposed investigation.

Since then, a U.S. official has reportedly stated that “the referral didn't necessarily suggest any wrongdoing by Clinton.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Democratic ranking member of the Benghazi Select Committee, has said that both the Intelligence Community Inspector General and the State Department Inspector General “confirmed directly to me that they never asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation.”

And a Justice Department official has reportedly said that the referral regarding the Clinton emails was never a “criminal” referral, apparently contradicting earlier DOJ statements.

The Times gave no indication that the report had been altered for several hours before eventually issuing a correction explaining the paper was wrong to state that the probe targeted Clinton, but without correcting the apparent falsehood that a “criminal investigation” had been sought at all.

These developments raise substantial questions about the Times' reporting of this story, including:

Who Were The Times' Sources?

In its initial article, the Times reported: “Two inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Hillary Rodham Clinton mishandled sensitive government information on a private email account she used as secretary of state, senior government officials said Thursday.”

It is currently unclear who those “senior government officials” are -- whether they were Justice Department sources who may have been mistaken, Republican congressional sources who may have had an interest in deliberately misleading the paper, or a combination of both.

Politico's Dylan Byers reported that his sources told him the error came from the DOJ, but it would be beneficial for the Times to confirm, or clarify, this.

While reporters generally maintain the confidentiality of their anonymous sources as inviolate, they occasionally do reveal them when they discover their sources have deliberately misled them. The journalist Craig Silverman explained the importance of this practice in detailing one such case (emphasis in the original):

A source burned the paper, so the paper decided to burn the source by detailing her lies in a follow up report.

The resulting report may seem like nothing more than payback, but it does two important things. First, it helps readers understand why the paper published a story that led with false information. At the same time, it holds the company accountable. Second, the story functions as something of a warning to other would-be dishonest sources: You can't lie to us and get away with it.

Did The Times Seek Documentary Evidence Of The Referrals For A Criminal Probe?

The Times also cited “senior government officials” as its source for the claim that two inspectors general had called for a DOJ criminal probe into Clinton's actions. The article also cites two “memos” from inspectors general on the topic, which were provided to the Times and which were apparently sent before the referral itself. On Twitter, Clinton campaign aide Brian Fallon noted that he was unaware of any reporter “who has actually seen a referral” like the one described by the Times.

Did the Times reporters try to get their hands on such documentary evidence before running with their sources' claims? If they indeed did not see the document itself, why didn't they wait for such confirmation before publishing their story?

Did The Times Reach Out To Democrats On The Benghazi Committee Before Publication?

Reporters have frequently published inaccurate material related to Clinton's emails and other aspects of the work of the House Select Committee on Benghazi by trusting what appear to be mendacious leaks from that committee's Republicans. In such cases, the committee's Democrats have been quick to issue materials correcting the record.

The Times article includes quotes from the committee's Republican chairman criticizing the State Department for not providing documents, but includes no quotes from the committee's Democrats. This morning, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the committee's ranking member, issued a statement “in response to inaccurate leaks to the New York Times” effectively debunking a central premise of the article. Did the paper reach out to Cummings or other Democrats on the committee before publication?

Did The Times Reach Out To The Inspectors General Before Publication?

The Times article, in citing anonymous “senior government officials” to claim that two inspectors general had sought a criminal investigation of Clinton never indicates whether the paper had sought to contact the offices of those inspectors general prior to publication.

In a July 24 press release, Cummings stated (emphasis added):

Over the past hour, I spoke personally with the State Department Inspector General and the Intelligence Community Inspector General together, and they both confirmed directly to me that they never asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton's email usage.  Instead, they said this was a 'routine' referral, and they have no idea how the New York Times got this so wrong.

Cummings' release further states that “The Inspectors General explained that under 50 U.S.C. section 3381, the heads of agencies notify the Department of Justice about potential compromises of classified information, but this is a routine notification process--not a request for a criminal investigation of an individual.” Moreover, a Democratic spokesperson for the committee reportedly said State's inspector general “did not ask for any kind of investigation, criminal or otherwise.”

This description of events differs wildly from how it was originally reported by the Times. Did its reporters reach out to the offices of those inspectors general for clarification before publishing a story that appears to be based solely on anonymous sources?