The Anatomy of a Leak: How Did a Mistaken Clinton Story Happen?

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On Wednesday, Bret Baier dropped a bombshell report on his Fox News show: An investigation into the Clinton Foundation was likely to lead to an indictment. New evidence was pouring in by the day. Fox is a right-leaning outlet, but Baier is one of their news reporters, and generally has a good reputation. A report in The Wall Street Journal, Fox’s corporate cousin, further confirmed the story. The Clinton campaign, wobbling from FBI Director James Comey’s letter to members of Congress announcing new emails pertinent to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, seemed on the verge of collapse.

Then things began to shift. Baier said on Thursday that he had spoken “inartfully” when he mentioned a likely indictment. On Friday, he moved past that to a full apology: “That just wasn’t inartful, it was a mistake and for that I’m sorry.”

Baier’s retraction came after two days of reports from other news organization knocking down his original report. When NBC’s Pete Williams was asked about the investigation, he responded, “There really isn’t one,” adding that while there’d been some poking into the foundation, it didn’t rise to the level of “investigation,” an FBI term of art. ABC also reported that there was practically nothing to go on against the foundation.

What happened? None of this is necessarily an indication of malice or negligence on the part of Baier, or the Journal. His sources seem to have misled him, which is bad but happens to everyone on occasion. But why, and who were they? On Wednesday, before Baier’s story, my colleague Adam Serwer considered the surfeit of leaks dribbling out of the FBI, writing, “It seems clear that key officials at the bureau no longer feel that the rules against politicized disclosures apply to them.”

Since then, a series of stories have started to sketch out who, and why. Reuters’ Mark Hosenball reported that “FBI Director James Comey was driven in part by a fear of leaks from within his agency when he decided to tell Congress the FBI was investigating newly discovered emails related to Hillary Clinton, law enforcement sources said on Thursday.” There’s a peculiar logic to this course of action—the only way to stop an unauthorized leak interfering with the election is to turn it into an authorized annoucement!—but the suggestion that Comey is running scared is disconcerting.

Spencer Ackerman at The Guardian offered one reason why: “The FBI is Trumpland,” in the words of one agent who spoke with him, who added that Clinton is “the antichrist personified to a large swath of FBI personnel” and “the reason why they’re leaking is they’re pro-Trump.” Other employees told Ackerman that while Trump is not actually that well-liked, Clinton is truly widely reviled.

Meanwhile, Wayne Barrett, the ace veteran New York muckracker, laid out the close ties between Trump, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Jim Kallstrom, the former head of the FBI’s New York office. Kallstrom has been telling anyone who will listen for months that FBI agents disapprove of Comey’s recommendation that Clinton not be charged, and promising leaks.

One can start to imagine a path: FBI agents who hate Clinton leak to reporters or pass information to people like Kallstrom and Giuliani, who then send it to the media. Pressed on Fox and Friends Friday on whether he was tipped off ahead of time about the recent leaks, Giuliani said, “Did I hear about it? You’re darn right I heard about it, and I can’t even repeat the language that I heard from the former FBI agents.”

There is some irony that even as the Trump campaign is alleging improper communication between the Department of Justice and the Clinton campaign, a top Trump adviser is receiving just that kind of information. Giuliani’s statement has already attracted the attention of Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, who wrote a letter Friday to the inspector general of the Justice Department requesting an investigation into the leaks.

The second wave of leaks, debunking the Baier report, appears to be closer to accurate, given Baier’s apology. The leaks are a little better insofar as they might help voters have a more accurate picture of the truth, but they’re still dangerous. As Serwer wrote:

The point is not that some of these leaks are good and some of them are bad. The point is not that Clinton is innocent or not innocent, or that Trump is pro-Russian or anti-Russian. The point is that a presidential election should not depend on the ability of candidates to successfully intimidate or cultivate favor among American national-security agencies.

Meanwhile, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway was on MSNBC Thursday night, where Brian Williams grilled her on whether Trump would stop employing the now discredited report in his stump speech. “Well, the damage is done to Hillary Clinton, that no matter how it’s being termed, the voters are hearing it for what it is, a culture of corruption,” Conway replied. A look at polling suggests Conway is right: The damage is done to Clinton, regardless of what reality is.