Amid an unprecedented stream of leaks from anonymous FBI sources to various media outlets, Fox News’ Bret Baier is reporting unverified but explosive allegations about bureau investigations involving Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton based on extremely sketchy sourcing, escalating the scandalized tenor of the campaign just days before its climax. Baier’s unsubstantiated claims based on anonymous sources contradict reports from other media outlets and public FBI statements and are overplaying what is reportedly a common dispute between law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
In a November 2 report, Baier cited “two separate sources with intimate knowledge of the FBI investigations into the Clinton emails and the Clinton Foundation” to claim that the investigation “into possible pay-for-play interaction between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Foundation” is a “‘very high priority'” and that “agents are actively and aggressively pursuing this case.” Baier said FBI agents “had collected a great deal of evidence” to suggest wrongdoing -- though his reporting did not indicate what the alleged evidence concerned or who it suggested committed a crime.
Baier also alleged, per his anonymous sources, that the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server has turned up “new emails, not duplicates, that have been transported … [through Clinton’s] server,” and that FBI officials are claiming with “99 percent accuracy” that the server “had been hacked by at least five foreign intelligence agencies.” Baier ultimately claimed that the investigation “will continue to likely an indictment.” Since Baier broke the news, a steady stream of fellow Fox hosts and correspondents have been furiously hyping his claims.
Baier’s uncritical reporting of anonymous sources first and foremost calls into question the veracity and motivation of the allegations being made. Who are Baier’s sources? They could be disgruntled FBI agents pursuing the investigations. But the description of “sources with intimate knowledge of the FBI investigations” doesn’t require that the sources have firsthand knowledge -- Baier’s sources could include partisan congressional Republicans seeking to influence the election or even someone like Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani, who reportedly has “illicit FBI sources” who “[circumvent] bureau guidelines to discuss a case with a public partisan.”
Regardless of the source, Baier has decided to parrot their claims with no scrutiny, turning him into a mouthpiece for these unknown actors.
Having accepted that role as a de facto spokesman for whomever is leaking information, Baier is effectively turning what is reportedly a common dispute between intelligence agencies into an election scandal on the cusp of Election Day. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Senior officials in the Justice Department and the FBI didn’t think much of the evidence [related to the Clinton Foundation investigation], while investigators believed they had promising leads their bosses wouldn’t let them pursue.” Thus, agents and officials in the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) have become “increasingly frustrated with each other, as often happens within and between departments” (emphasis added). As the Journal previously reported, “It isn’t unusual for field agents to favor a more aggressive approach than supervisors and prosecutors think is merited.”
Baier’s reporting on the Clinton Foundation investigation is taking one side of a two-front battle, and thus leaving out critical context that senior DOJ and FBI officials believe there to be no case in the Clinton Foundation investigation and that disputes like this are common. His reporting also ignores context reported by the Journal that FBI agents have repeatedly been told to drop the investigation specifically because information gathered was “weak” and unimpressive.
Baier’s decision to trumpet these claims is reminiscent of Fox’s endless flogging of the New Black Panthers Party pseudoscandal. In 2010, the network devoted hours of coverage to generating a scandal around the decision by senior career Justice Department officials to overrule a push from lower-level attorneys to seek more charges in the case. An internal investigation ultimately cleared DOJ officials of any wrongdoing or misconduct in that case.
Moreover, Baier’s allegations about the Clinton email investigation raise more questions than answers about the claims. In choosing to parrot his sources, Baier is willingly ignoring the obvious holes in the story. His claim that FBI officials are “99 percent” sure that the server “had been hacked by at least five foreign intelligence agencies” flies in the face of the FBI’s public statements that there is “no evidence” Clinton’s server was hacked -- leading to question why Baier didn’t raise that contradiction. While Baier reports that his sources think the email investigation will “likely” result in “an indictment,” he doesn’t bother to answer the questions of who is supposedly going to be indicted, and for what?
Baier is essentially taking information already known about a dispute over the significance of the Clinton Foundation investigation, uncritically amplifying one side of that dispute with shaky claims, and parroting anonymous leaks that are likely overblown to further cast an aura of scandal right before the election. The reports leave little doubt that Fox News is acting as “the pipeline for the fifth column inside the bureau” that is publicly seeking to influence the election.