Clinton Probe: Relevant Emails Could Be Identified by Election Day, Experts Say, But Their Analysis Will Take Longer
November 1, 2016

Digital tools make once-monumental tasks routine for investigators.

Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has revived its probe of Hillary Clinton’s email use, are faced with the task of sifting through 650,000 emails.

While that may sound like a monumental challenge, finding key excerpts buried in vast volumes of electronic data is now a routine aspect of many investigations. Entire industries have evolved around helping lawyers and investigators mine massive numbers of documents.

With the help of sophisticated technology, the most relevant of the trove of 650,000 emails could likely be pinpointed by Election Day, experts say. The emails were found on a laptop that the FBI believes was used by former Rep. Anthony Weiner and his estranged wife Huma Abedin , a close aide of Democratic nominee Mrs. Clinton.

But a thorough analysis of those emails would take longer, leading experts to conclude that the outcome of the new probe won’t be known until after votes have been cast. “These kinds of cases by their very nature are painstaking and involve layers of complexity beyond run-of-the-mill investigations,” said Paul Pelletier, a former Justice Department official now in private practice.

An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment on the investigation.

The first steps can happen quickly: categorizing the messages by fields, like ”sender” and “subject line,” that would be obvious to a layman as well as by metadata that identifies which of the emails passed through Mrs. Clinton’s email server. Such indexing can be done within a few hours, experts say.

Within that pool of emails, agents would likely then use document-review software to search for keywords like “secret” or “classified,” a process that takes a few seconds. Other searches could include words like “Benghazi,” which were relevant in earlier email disclosures from Mrs. Clinton, former FBI agents say.

Sophisticated technology can also go well beyond simple keyword searches, said Thomas Barnett, the lead attorney of the e-discovery and data science team at law firm Paul Hastings LLP. Statistical modeling can be used to locate emails based on parameters like who is communicating with whom in certain time periods.

Once pertinent emails are identified, reviewing the messages one by one is a labor-intensive process.

According to electronic-discovery experts, humans can reliably read and digest between roughly 50 and 75 emails per hour. Even if the batch containing 650,000 emails is culled to some 10,000 or 20,000, it would still likely take many hours to fully assess their possible importance. For such a high-stakes investigation, the FBI may have to bring in agents from around the country to divvy up the task, said former cybercrime investigators.

“Although the review of the emails can tell whether there is evidence, the interview process and other background fact-gathering will be critical to determining whether there is a solid criminal case,” said former FBI Special Agent Kenneth Springer.

While reviewing the individual emails, a key consideration is making sure the process doesn’t violate any attorney-client or spousal privileges, said a former FBI agent. One way to deal with this would be to take all the emails between Ms. Abedin and Mr. Weiner and have a separate team review them for privileged information.

Identifying and reviewing the emails might only be the first step. The search could lead agents to conduct additional interviews and obtain search warrants for other devices, which could lengthen the process significantly.

Nevertheless, reviews of this volume aren’t unusual for the FBI, said Mr. Springer. “650,000 sounds like a lot of emails—and it is—but when you’re doing it all the time, it’s not that big of a deal,” Mr. Springer said.


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