Let’s say you’re convinced Hillary Clinton is a crook and that she must have been hiding something incriminating on that private email server of hers. FBI Director James Comey’s vague announcement on Oct. 28 that the bureau was reviewing a new batch of Clinton emails must have come as a relief and a validation. Surely, this time, her misdeeds would be revealed, and her plot to keep America from being made great again would be foiled once and for all.
Then, on Sunday, Comey announces that the FBI has reviewed the new emails and found no grounds on which to charge Clinton. Galling, right? They must not have looked hard enough!
No wonder, then, that Donald Trump and his supporters have been scouring for signs that the FBI didn’t really review those emails properly. In the wake of Comey’s latest announcement, the Trump campaign and its media allies were quick to seize on what they thought was a telltale sign that the inquiry was rigged. The FBI was reported to be reviewing 650,000 emails found on disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s laptop. But it concluded its review in just over a week. “You can’t review 650,000 new emails in eight days,” Trump said at a rally on Sunday. “You can’t do it, folks.”
People who really should know better were quick to agree. Retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012–2014, chimed in on Twitter with what he must have thought was some awfully persuasive back-of-the-envelope math.
He was joined by former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who tweeted:
There are 691,200 seconds in 8 days. FBI Director Comey reviewed 650,000 emails in 8 days? An email per second? Americans aren’t stupid!
Kerik’s tweet, which Breitbart reported as evidence of the apparent “statistical impossibility of the FBI’s investigation,” has since been deleted, which should tell you where this is going.
The critique seems to imply that the FBI would have had to review each of the emails individually, perhaps even manually, in order to home in on the ones pertinent to the Clinton investigation. But as numerous information technology and computer security experts have pointed out, there are at least two very simple steps that could automatically filter a huge batch of emails down to a far smaller number. First, you could filter them by address to weed out those that were neither sent to or from Clinton, or the associates who used her private server. Second, you could search their Message-ID headers to identify those that are simply duplicates of emails the FBI had already obtained elsewhere.
Security researcher Robert Graham, New America cybersecurity fellow Adam Elkus, and forensic scientist Jonathan Zdziarski were among the many to rebut Trump’s logic. Even Edward Snowden weighed in. And Wired’s Andy Greenberg has a comprehensive explanation, in layman’s terms, of how straightforward it would be to review hundreds of thousands of emails. “Eight days is more than enough time to pull this off in a responsible way,” Zdziarski told Wired.
Indeed, law enforcement officials told the New York Times, NBC News, and others that the vast majority of emails on Weiner’s computer turned out to be either personal messages or duplicates of messages the FBI had already examined.
It’s not uncommon for the nation’s political discourse to revolve around “common sense” arguments that appeals to the layperson’s intuitions. Of course, the workings of modern technology do not always align with those intuitions. Trump’s use of a readily debunked argument about Clinton’s emails should surprise no one. The more troubling aspect of this story is that people like Flynn and Kerik, who have been entrusted with some of the country’s most senior law enforcement and intelligence positions, seem to be unaware of their trade’s basic forensic tools—and ready to publicly leap to conclusions based on their ignorance.
At least Kerik deleted his tweet. As of 1:30 p.m. EST on Monday, Flynn’s was still on Twitter, racking up the retweets and providing fodder for bogus stories and blog posts that will—with the help of Facebook’s algorithms—continue to mislead voters and persuade people that the investigation was rigged, even as they head to the polls.