In July 2015 the New York Times reported that the Justice Department had opened a “criminal inquiry” into whether “Hillary Rodham Clinton mishandled sensitive government information.” This was apparently a mistake, and the article was quickly rewritten to say only that DOJ had opened an “investigation” into whether sensitive information had been mishandled “in connection with the personal email account Hillary Rodham Clinton used as secretary of state.” A few days later the Times’ public editor wrote a scathing summary of the paper’s scoop:
Aspects of it began to unravel soon after it first went online….From Thursday night to Sunday morning — when a final correction appeared in print — the inaccuracies and changes in the story were handled as they came along, with little explanation to readers, other than routine corrections….Eventually, a number of corrections were appended to the online story, before appearing in print in the usual way — in small notices on Page A2. But you can’t put stories like this back in the bottle — they ripple through the entire news system.
So it was, to put it mildly, a mess….“We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong,” [editor Matt] Purdy told me. “That’s an explanation, not an excuse. We have an obligation to get facts right and we work very hard to do that.”
A few days later I wrote about this too, suggesting that the Times owed us a better explanation of what happened. This weekend they went some of the way there in an aside buried in their big story about James Comey, co-authored by two of the same reporters who wrote the original piece. Here’s what they say:
On July 10, 2015, the F.B.I. opened a criminal investigation, code-named “Midyear,” into Mrs. Clinton’s handling of classified information….There was controversy almost immediately. Responding to questions from The Times, the Justice Department confirmed that it had received a criminal referral — the first step toward a criminal investigation — over Mrs. Clinton’s handling of classified information.
But the next morning, the department revised its statement. “The department has received a referral related to the potential compromise of classified information,” the new statement read. “It is not a criminal referral.”
At the F.B.I., this was a distinction without a difference: Despite what officials said in public, agents had been alerted to mishandled classified information and in response, records show, had opened a full criminal investigation.
If this is correct, it was a criminal investigation, and the Times didn’t get it wrong. Rather, the Justice Department put up a smoke screen after news of the investigation had been leaked.
The second part of this remains fuzzy. Was the investigation specifically aimed at Hillary Clinton or was it only “in connection with” Hillary Clinton? It’s pretty obvious that Clinton was, in fact, the primary target of the investigation, but the FBI also investigated many others in her orbit. So I’m not sure how to score this.
Overall, though, despite what I wrote and what the Times itself wrote, it appears that this wasn’t an enormous screwup at all. There might have been a minor detail or two that was slightly wrong, but nothing central to the story itself.