Freedom of information or too much information?

The US election and the presence of Trump in the political arena have been immensely influenced by the release of questionable information and the dissemination of what is considered by many “fake news” or lies. Information also, classified or unclassified, verified or unsubstantiated, has been at the forefront of debates and US politics, particularly, in the case of Hillary Clinton’s email server, or more recently, in the case of the explosive and unverified information in the dossier published by Buzzfeed.

Withholding or releasing classified material

At his press conference on Wednesday (11 January), Trump attacked the CNN and Buzzfeed, as well as US intelligence, for leaking or drawing attention to an unsubstantiated dossier with allegations relating to his close ties with Russia. The document, which was compiled by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, alleged that there were sexual videos with which Russia could blackmail Trump and a series of evidence demonstrating the extent of Russia’s involvement in the US elections and assistance to the Trump team. But US intelligence agencies didn’t leak the dossier. Instead, the information was circulating within newspapers and other news media outlets for months, but many resisted its publication because of the unverified nature of the material. The FBI is currently investigating the material. What is particularly interesting is the fact that this explosive information was withheld during the US election, while the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) email leak, published by WikiLeaks and acquired from the Kremlin, became big news. The WikiLeaks released emails were repeatedly utilised by Trump in his speeches to attack his opponent. The FBI Director’s interference and the resumption of the Clinton probe was coupled with his total silence regarding possible investigations of Trump. This grew suspicions of a cover up.

The origins of the dossier

The material was first requested by a Republican opponent of Trump in the primary campaign, but by the time any research was gathered, the Republican primary was finished. Consequently, a Democratic wealthy individual financed the continuation of the research and by July the counter-intelligence author of the dossier gathered enough material from Russian oligarchs and other trusted informants. Because of the content of the report he felt it was appropriate to send a copy to the FBI and British intelligence service. As it was logical, the UK avoided to interfere, but the FBI remained quiet. Instead its director, James Comey, in a faux pas, preferred to draw attention, 11 days before the presidential election, to emails found on former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s computer that could have been related to the investigation into Clinton’s emails. As the Guardian points out, the author “grew concerned that there was a cover-up in progress.” And this is how, he tells his story to the editor of Mother Jones who first mentions the material on 31 October. In November, the documents were mentioned in an intelligence report on Russian interference delivered to both Obama and Trump. The way the information in the dossier was handled, or not investigated properly, is also interrelated with the current Justice Department’s inquiry into the FBI Director James B. Comey and the allegations of misconduct in relation to his handling of Hillary Clinton’s email practice.

Justice Department’s Investigation

On Thursday (12 January), the Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz announced he will review the allegations of misconduct in relation to the FBI Director’s handling of Clinton’s email case. The investigation will examine Comey’s letters and public statements in relation to the emails and whether FBI or other Justice Department employees released classified information. Comey has become a controversial figure during the US election, shocking both Republicans and Democrats by sending a letter on Oct.28 to congressional leaders informing them that the FBI was resuming its investigation in the Clinton probe. This he did, despite Justice Department officials warning him to avoid action. A few days before the election, Comey sent a second letter to Congress in which he stated that the investigation concluded without any charges against Clinton. His action however, was seen as interfering in the US election, while further raising more doubt and suspicion about Clinton’s political persona. Former Justice Department officials have also accused Comey for not following the department’s policy and of acting in a way that immediately affected a candidate close to an election. Comey was also criticised by lawmakers for his violations in communications, especially when information was leaked, possibly to former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was supporting Trump. The inspector general didn’t clarify whether he would investigate the Russia dossier and the allegations against Trump. Horowitz will examine “allegations that Department or FBI policies or procedures were not followed” in regards to the release of Comey’s two letters. This will be followed by a report, and charges will be recommended for anyone who broke the law. In addition, he would explore allegations relating to the Department and the FBI’s employees who possibly gave non-public information to people, including Giuliani, who once claimed he had insider FBI knowledge. Horowitz wrote that he would research documents in relation to the probe into former president Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive Democratic donor Marc Rich. He would also examine whether Peter Kadzik, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, released non-public information to the Clinton campaign. The concerns expressed and the investigation are positive actions which will help to throw some more light in the ways information has been used to affect the US election. The problem however remains, and has been accentuated by the past year’s presidential election and the handling of information. Whether true or manufactured, information has always been an important ideological tool in the ways democratic procedures are exercised, and the ways presidents are made or unmade. The problem isn’t too much information or too many media outlets within which unsifted data circulates. The problem lies in the fact that we have lost our capacity to read signs and be more suspicious about the ways information is exploited by different media and for different reasons.