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Home » Criminal Law » Deciphering Clinton & Comey’s Vague Diction

Deciphering Clinton & Comey’s Vague Diction

Hillary Clinton and James Comey stand before an american flagFBI Director James Comey recently announced his recommendation that Hillary Clinton not face criminal charges for her controversial use of a private email server to conduct government business during her time as Secretary of State.

Many people, so far, seem to be rallying behind two reactions: outrage and told-ya-so. The general narrative across the media paints these camps as the usual partisan enemies.

Democratic-leaning commentators have labeled the outraged party as witch-hunting Republicans plus a few resentful Bernie Sanders diehards.

Republican-leaning commentators argue that those outraged aren’t the few, but rather the American People at large.

The told-ya-so camp stands largely unrecognized, but maintains its own bipartisan divide — anti-Hillary people who are bitterly proud because they were right to be cynical all along, and pro-Hillary people reveling in the opportunity to rub Comey’s announcement in the faces of all who doubted the future Madame President.

Of course, these generalizations don’t account for everybody. They might not even account for most. But these types of people are out there, publishing their opinions, trying to convince as many of us as possible that their respective stances are the right stances.

I don’t want to write about what they’re writing about. I didn’t study political science.

I want to write about something George Orwell wrote about 70 years ago: Politics and the English Language.

Comey’s Language

To say that politicians are confusing misses the point. Yes, obviously they are, but the question hiding in this assessment is, “Why?”

Why is almost every sentence that escapes a politician’s mouth so confusing? For example, here’s one from the end of James Comey’s statement:

“Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgement is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”

But why would no reasonable prosecutor bring such a case? If there’s evidence of potential violations, why is it reasonable to ignore that evidence?

He goes on:

“Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges.”

Yes they do, and Comey mentions some of these factors in his next two sentences:

“There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.”

Comey lists three considerations: intent, context, and precedent. He’s not wrong at all. But, remember, there are “a number of factors” involved in the decision to bring charges. That number is higher than three, and the proof is in another of his sentences — this one from the beginning of Comey’s announcement:

“Our investigation looked at whether there is evidence classified information was improperly stored or transmitted on that personal system, in violation of a federal statute making it a felony to mishandle classified information either intentionally or in a grossly negligent way, or a second statute making it a misdemeanor to knowingly remove classified information from appropriate systems or storage facilities.”

At issue is this part: “either intentionally or in a grossly negligent way.” Later on, we see that Comey again mentions one of these considerations — intent — when explaining the FBI’s decision not to recommend indictment. What he didn’t bring up again was gross negligence.

Intent, context, precedent: “obvious” and “responsible” considerations when bringing charges, according to Comey. Again, he’s not wrong. He just fails to mention the most relevant consideration in this particular case: gross negligence.

And folks are noticing. Because even though Comey didn’t bring up gross negligence again, he did mention “extreme carelessness.”

Break out those thesauruses…

Without them, it’s very hard to even understand what Comey or any other doublespeaking politician is telling us.

More on that doublespeaking accusation in a bit. First, the sentence in question:

“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Extremely careless. Grossly negligent. Let’s compare the phrasings. If a printed thesaurus isn’t readily available, the internet does just fine.

According to, “extreme” and “gross” are synonyms for “egregious,” a word which means “outstandingly bad or shocking.”

“Carelessness” and “negligence” are synonyms for each other, as they both share the definition of “unconcern.”

Words are funny, at least in the English language. One word can have many meanings, as all of us who’ve peeked into a dictionary are well-aware.


There is certainly a great distinction between regular definitions and legal definitions. While any dictionary will be able to define “gross” and “negligence,” there is no regular definition for the two-word phrase “gross negligence.”

Cornell University Law School’s online legal dictionary defines gross negligence as “a lack of care that demonstrates reckless disregard for the safety or lives of others, which is so great it appears to be a conscious violation of other people’s rights to safety. It is more than simple inadvertence, and can affect the amount of damages.”

The first part of that definition is fairly intuitive. Gross negligence is reckless, yes, this makes sense. But it’s also important to note what is then emphasized: safety. Specifically, the safety of others.

So, to put it another way, ‘gross negligence’ in the legal sense refers to behavior so recklessly dangerous that any reasonable person would have known better.

The definition also makes it clear that gross negligence is “more than simple inadvertence.”

The legal definition for ‘inadvertence’ is elusive. Cornell University Law School’s legal dictionary doesn’t shed much light on its use in this context — there’s no explicit definition for the word.

Another online legal dictionary (which cites a legitimate legal thesaurus), does, however, define ‘inadvertent.’ It’s an adjective, synonymous with words like ‘blind’, or ‘careless’, or ‘negligent.’ It’s basically gross negligence without the ‘gross’ — just plain ole’ negligence.

And Cornell Law School’s online dictionary does indeed have a definition for negligence:

“A failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances. The behavior usually consists of actions, but can also consist of omissions when there is some duty to act.”

This is all a long way of explaining exactly what James Comey means when he describes Hillary Clinton as “extremely careless” instead of grossly negligent.

If he’d called her grossly negligent, he’d be accusing her of putting people’s lives at risk. And that’s the thing — even if Hillary Clinton’s exclusive use of a private email server did, in fact, put the lives of Americans in danger (for example, if names of CIA operatives in foreign nations were exposed to hackers), there’d be no way to prove it without an observable paper trail directing linking fatal incidents to Clinton’s emails.

As James Comey himself said: “it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal email account,” but, “given the nature of the system and of the actors potentially involved, [the FBI assessed] that [they] would be unlikely to see such direct evidence.”

Politics and the English Language

To sum up:

James Comey and the FBI did not recommend an indictment for Hillary Clinton for her exclusive use of a private, home-brewed email server.

In order for Clinton’s behavior to violate federal law, there must be evidence clearly demonstrating either intent or gross negligence.

James Comey called Hillary Clinton and her team extremely careless, but not grossly negligent.

According to standard dictionaries and thesauruses, “extremely careless” and “grossly negligent” mean the same thing in this context.

According to legal dictionaries, “gross negligence” refers to extreme carelessness that compromises the safety of other people.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton held one of the highest offices in the federal government and was in charge of United States foreign policy.

At this point, we enter a gray area. While James Comey, the FBI, and intelligence experts have said there’s no way to prove Hillary Clinton’s email server was ever compromised, they also make it very clear that any evidence sufficient enough to satisfy the specific federal statutes would most likely be destroyed by now if it ever existed.

To phrase this differently: it was pretty much impossible to prove anything in this case, at least in terms of gross negligence.

This is one big reason why so many Clinton critics were cynical from the start, why people on all sides of the political spectrum are so infuriated with the investigation’s outcome — we can’t prove her guilty OR innocent.

All we can do is take into account available facts and make assumptions for ourselves. There aren’t many of these. We know Hillary Clinton was responsible for American lives, we know she was extremely careless, or negligent, in her responsibilities, but we cannot prove she was “grossly” negligent without an impossibly conspicuous trail of clues.

Furthermore, legal terminology tends to get weirdly specific. Many Americans are reasonably unaware of the distinction between legal definitions and standard definitions. It’d be generous to say the United States government hasn’t taken into account the fact that the general population hasn’t gone to law school. For many, “grossly negligent” and “extremely careless” mean the exact same thing — a correct observation.

Unfortunately, our current legislation defies common understandings of the English language. Without proper legal training, laws and statutes might as well be written in morse code. Countless Americans are being told one thing and hearing another, and the politicians doing the telling know this.

It’s called doublespeak, a concept you’re probably familiar with if you’ve read George Orwell’s 1984.

Doublespeaking people use language that can be interpreted in several ways to misrepresent the truth.

Was James Comey doublespeaking when he said “extremely careless” instead of “grossly negligent?”

It’s fair to assume he was.

If not, there’d have been no reason for him to say both — leaving Americans to wonder at the difference and interpret as they will.

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