Editorial: With Clinton, a test for the attorney general

The Observer editorial board

Loretta Lynch faces a decision on investigating Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
Loretta Lynch faces a decision on investigating Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. TNS

Even as her nomination for U.S. Attorney General was held up in the U.S. Senate earlier this year, there was little dispute over the ability and character of Loretta Lynch. The North Carolina native was, most Republicans and Democrats agreed, an exemplary U.S. attorney who had the skill and integrity to be a strong attorney general.

Now comes a test of those sentiments – and the people who voiced them.

Media outlets reported last week that inspectors general for the State Department and intelligence agencies have informed the Department of Justice of the possibility that Hillary Clinton mishandled classified information by using a personal email account as secretary of state.

The Justice Department, as of Friday, hasn’t decided if it will investigate.

There’s no indication that the inspectors general were motivated by politics. Although most inspectors general are appointed by presidents, their job is to root out misbehavior in government no matter the administration in charge. The inspector general for the State Department, Steve Linick, was appointed by President Obama in 2013.

The inspectors general say Clinton’s personal email server contains “potentially hundreds of potentially classified emails.” Discovering exactly how many will take time. Already, the State Department is reviewing 55,000 pages of Clinton’s emails. Only 3,000 have been released thus far.

That means the public is ill-equipped right now to determine if Clinton broke the law. That won’t stop some from wielding this possible investigation in an attempt to dent Clinton’s presidential hopes.

We hope and expect Lynch to ignore pressure from the right to investigate – and from Democrats who believe an investigation would threaten Clinton’s campaign.

We also hope that when DOJ reveals whether or not it will pursue the matter, it will cut through the politics with clear answers to critical questions, including: Did emails on Clinton’s servers contain information that was classified at the time she sent or received them? Would any of Clinton’s emails have been declared classified earlier had Clinton used her State Department email instead of a server that was inaccessible to officials?

Also: Did Clinton send or receive emails that she reasonably could have expected might be classified later?

This is a key point. Clinton’s camp has stressed that no emails on her server contained information that was classified at the time. But as Secretary of State, she should know that there’s a fluidity to what’s declared classified. Even in the 3,000 pages that have been released, parts of two dozen emails were redacted because they’ve now been upgraded to classified status.

Clinton says she chose her private account for convenience. Using it also happened to shield her emails from Freedom of Information requests and nosy members of Congress. Neither reason was justification to hold potentially classified material on a personal server.

Now, that poor judgment has brought another political hit to the Democratic frontrunner.

That should be irrelevant right now to Lynch and DOJ officials. Politics might have contributed to Hillary Clinton hiding her emails. We hope it won’t be a factor in the DOJ deciding whether it wants a closer look.