Monthly Archives: May 2017

James Comey’s firing goes beyond failures of FBI email investigation

Director’s moral code, political independence contributed to downfall

by Peter Elkind, special to ProPublica

On Tuesday, when Donald Trump abruptly dismissed the FBI director, James Comey, his administration insisted that he was merely following the recommendation of his attorney general and deputy attorney general, the two most senior officials in the Justice Department.

In a three-page memorandum attached to Comey’s termination letter, the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, cited concern for the FBI’s “reputation and credibility.” He said that the director had defied Justice Department policies and traditions and overstepped his authority in the way he handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

This was a puzzling assertion from the Trump administration, not least because Trump is widely acknowledged to have reaped the benefits of Comey’s actions on Election Day. After the FBI director sent his letter to Congress, on Oct. 28, about the discovery of new Clinton emails and the Bureau’s plans to assess them, Trump praised Comey for his “guts” and called the news “bigger than Watergate.”

In the end, Comey’s conspicuous independence — for so long, his greatest asset — proved his undoing, making him too grave a threat to Trump but also giving the president a plausible excuse to fire him.

In the aftermath of Comey’s firing, Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have proposed a far more credible explanation for Trump’s action, accusing the President of trying to halt the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the election and possible collusion with his campaign. Some of those legislators, as well as many critics in the press, have said that Trump has ignited a constitutional crisis, and they called for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to carry out the Russia investigation.

Comey’s dismissal came just as his Russia probe appeared to be widening. Just last week, the FBI director went to Rosenstein, who had been in his job only for a few days, to ask for significantly more resources in order to accelerate the investigation, according to The New York Times. Tensions between the Trump administration and Comey had been escalating already, and Trump’s fury over the FBI’s Russia probe remained full-throated. On Monday, Trump tweeted that the inquiry was a “taxpayer funded charade.”

It is now clear that the aim of Rosenstein’s memo was simply to provide a pretext for Comey’s firing. White House officials may have thought it would be a persuasive rationale because Comey has come in for criticism from leaders of both political parties. Trump had been harboring a long list of grievances against the FBI director, including his continued pursuit of the Russia probe. On Thursday, Trump confirmed in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt that, even before he received the deputy attorney general’s memo, he had already made up his mind to dismiss Comey. In the end, Comey’s conspicuous independence — for so long, his greatest asset — proved his undoing, making him too grave a threat to Trump but also giving the president a plausible excuse to fire him.

Rosenstein’s memo does reflect genuine frustration inside the Justice Department about the FBI’s handling of the Clinton emails, and betrays long-standing fissures between the two institutions, which are headquartered across from each other on Pennsylvania Avenue. Rosenstein, a Trump appointee who was previously the U.S. attorney in Maryland, titled his memo “Restoring Public Confidence in the F.B.I.” In the wake of Comey’s ouster, the FBI’s impartiality and competence remains an essential issue, making understanding what actually happened in the Clinton email inquiry urgent as well.

Comey’s announcement about the discovery of the new Clinton emails did break with written and unwritten Justice Department guidelines against interfering with elections. Last week, during testimony before Congress, Comey cast the move as a singularly difficult decision and an act of principled self-sacrifice, driven by events far beyond his control­­. “I knew this would be disastrous for me personally,” he said. “But I thought this is the best way to protect these institutions that we care so much about.”

A close examination, however, of the FBI’s handling of the Clinton emails reveals a very different narrative, one that was not nearly so clear-cut or inevitable. It is one that places previously undisclosed judgments and misjudgments by the Bureau at the very heart of what unfolded.

“I could see two doors and they were both actions,” Comey recounted in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “One was labelled ‘speak’; the other was labelled ‘conceal.’ … I stared at ‘speak’ and ‘conceal.’ ‘Speak’ would be really bad. There’s an election in eleven days — lordy, that would be really bad. Concealing, in my view, would be catastrophic, not just to the FBI but well beyond. And, honestly, as between really bad and catastrophic, I said to my team, ‘We got to walk into the world of really bad.’ I’ve got to tell Congress that we’re restarting this, not in some frivolous way — in a hugely significant way.”

But by the time Comey elected, on Oct. 28, to speak, rather than conceal, he and his senior aides had actually known for more than three weeks that agents sifting through files on a laptop belonging to the former congressman Anthony Weiner, as part of a sex-crimes investigation, had stumbled across emails sent by Clinton when she was secretary of state. The agents had been unable, legally, to open the emails, because they fell outside the bounds of their investigation of Weiner.

FBI officials kept the discovery to themselves. Without consulting or even informing the Justice Department lawyers who had worked on the email inquiry, FBI officials concluded that they lacked the evidence to seek a search warrant to examine the emails right away. Several legal experts and Justice Department officials I spoke to now say that this conclusion was unnecessarily cautious. FBI officials also ruled out asking Weiner or his wife, Huma Abedin, one of Clinton’s closest aides, to allow access to the laptop — permission their lawyers told me they would have granted.

Instead, New York agents working the Weiner investigation, which centered on allegations of an explicit online relationship with a 15-year-old girl, were told to continue their search of his laptop as before but to take note of any additional Clinton emails they came across.

The debate over Comey’s effect on the 2016 election and, now, his historic dismissal, is likely to persist for years.

In the days that followed, investigators slowly sorted through the laptop’s contents, following standard protocols in a case that was anything but standard, and moving with surprisingly little dispatch to assess the significance of the emails.

After weeks of work, the agents concluded that the laptop contained thousands of Clinton messages, a fact they waited at least three more days to share with Comey. Finally, as Comey recounted before Congress last week, the FBI director convened his top aides in his conference room at Bureau headquarters to weigh the political and institutional consequences of what to do next.

At this point, Comey and his deputies were venturing far beyond their typical purview as criminal investigators. Under normal circumstances, department policies discouraged public discussion of developments in ongoing cases of any kind; with the election fast approaching, there was the added sensitivity of avoiding even the perception of interference with the political process. But FBI officials worried that agents in New York who disliked Clinton would leak news of the emails’ existence. Like nearly everyone in Washington, senior FBI officials assumed that Clinton would win the election and were evaluating their options with that in mind. The prospect of oversight hearings, led by restive Republicans investigating an FBI “cover-up,” made everyone uneasy.

One more misjudgment informed Comey’s decision. FBI officials estimated that it would take months to review the emails. Agents wound up completing their work in just a few days. (Most of the emails turned out to be duplicates of messages collected in the previous phase of the Clinton investigation.) Had FBI officials known that the review could be completed before the election, Comey likely wouldn’t have said anything before examining the emails. Instead, he announced that nothing had changed in the Clinton case — on Nov. 6, just two days before the election, and after many millions had already cast their ballots in early voting.

The debate over Comey’s effect on the 2016 election and, now, his historic dismissal, is likely to persist for years. In the months since Donald Trump became the nation’s 45th president, a number of media organizations — most recently, The New York Times — have scrutinized Comey’s handling of the Clinton emails. They have also examined Comey’s accompanying silence about the Bureau’s investigation of possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, an inquiry that began in July of 2016.

Clinton traces her loss directly to Comey; she asserted recently that if the election had been held on Oct. 27, “I would be your president.” Trump retorted, in a tweet, that the FBI director was “the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!”

This account is based on interviews with dozens of participants in the events leading up to the election. They include current and former officials from the FBI and the Justice Department who were eager to have their actions understood but unwilling to be quoted by name. Comey himself declined my requests for an interview. Back in early January, however, he replied politely to a written interview request, acknowledging that he was aware of my “ongoing work.” He wrote from an email address whose whimsical name, he said, “the Russians may have a harder time guessing.”

Clinton traces her loss directly to Comey; she asserted recently that if the election had been held on Oct. 27, “I would be your president.”

Comey added a note of intrigue, suggesting that there were unappreciated complexities to the story that hadn’t yet become known: “You are right there is a clear story to tell — one that folks willing to actually listen will readily grasp — but I’m not ready to tell it just yet for a variety of reasons.”

During his testimony before Congress last week, Comey said that the possibility that he’d influenced the outcome of the Presidential election made him “mildly nauseous.” Previously, over two decades of public service, Comey had made independence from partisan politics the foundation of his political identity. Comey, who is 56 years old, had been the rarest of creatures in Washington: A Republican even Democrats could love.

A registered Republican for most of his adult life, Comey had made a point of telling a congressional committee last July that he was no longer affiliated with either party. (His distance from partisan politics extends to the voting booth; records show that Comey hasn’t voted in a primary or general election in the past decade.)

Comey rose to prominence through the Justice Department, first as a federal prosecutor in New York and Virginia, and then as the United States attorney in Manhattan, and the deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush. From early on, colleagues say, Comey carefully cultivated a reputation for integrity and nonpartisanship. Until the events of the past year, it had always served him well. “He knew what was the right thing to do,” a former federal prosecutor who worked with Comey told me. “But he figured out how to execute it in a way that, whatever the result, Jim Comey would be protected. I say that respectfully. He has an exceptional gift for that.”

Comey liked to map out the ramifications of major decisions, often in lengthy meetings with deputies. At critical moments in his career, Comey showcased his independence — too eagerly, in the view of some who accuse him of “moral vanity.” “I think he has a bit of a God complex — that he’s the last honest man in Washington,” a former Justice Department official who has worked with him told me. “And I think that’s dangerous.”

Daniel Richman, a Columbia law professor and close friend of Comey who has served as his unofficial media surrogate, acknowledged Comey’s penchant for public righteousness. “He certainly does love the idea of being a protector of the Constitution,” Richman said. “The idea of doing messy stuff and taking your lumps in the press.” But Richman, who worked with Comey as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, insisted that Comey’s motivations were sincere. “More than most people, he thinks that when it comes to making really difficult decisions, transparency and accountability have incredible value,” Richman said.

Comey’s distance from partisan politics extends to the voting booth; records show that Comey hasn’t voted in a primary or general election in the past decade.

Among scores of people I interviewed, not even Comey’s harshest critics believe that he acted out of a desire to elect a Republican president. Comey built his reputation by taking on powerful figures of both parties. Most famously, while serving as acting attorney general under George W. Bush, he’d raced to the hospital bedside of the ailing attorney general, John Ashcroft, to confront administration officials seeking Ashcroft’s reauthorization for a domestic surveillance program that the Justice Department considered illegal. Comey’s congressional testimony, in 2007, about the confrontation raised his public profile, earning him encomiums from both parties. In 2013, after Comey completed a seven-year interlude in the private sector, Barack Obama chose the Republican lawyer as the director of the FBI. “To know Jim Comey is also to know his fierce independence and his deep integrity,” the president declared, in a Rose Garden ceremony. The Senate confirmed him 93 to 1.

The FBI is a division of the United States Department of Justice, and its director reports to the attorney general. But, from the start of his 10-year term at the FBI, Comey asserted a belief in the agency’s right to chart its own course. “The FBI is in the executive branch,” Comey likes to say, “but not of the executive branch.”

The investigation of Clinton’s emails was exactly the sort of challenge Comey seemed to have spent his career preparing for. The FBI formally opened its probe on July 10, 2015, just three months after Clinton announced her candidacy for president. “We all recognized it was a no-win situation,” the former FBI Executive Assistant Director John Giacalone, who helped oversee the investigation’s first seven months, said. At the outset, the goal was to finish the investigation by the end of 2015 — before the first primary votes were cast. It took twice that long, barely ending before the party conventions in July 2016.

The focus of the inquiry, run out of FBI headquarters because of its sensitivity, was whether Clinton’s use of an unclassified email system housed on private servers in the basement of her Chappaqua home violated any laws or allowed hackers and foreign governments to access government secrets. It was staffed by a core team of a dozen FBI agents and analysts, along with two prosecutors from the Justice Department’s National Security Division and two from the Eastern District of Virginia.

Much of their time was taken up trying to find and examine all of the roughly 62,000 messages from Clinton’s four years as secretary of state, which began in January 2009; two of Clinton’s lawyers had deleted about half of the emails, deeming them purely personal. This had sent the FBI on an often frustrating hunt for the missing emails. Agents fanned out to locate, examine and reconstruct scattered hardware and data backup systems from Clinton’s private network, as well as all the BlackBerrys, iPads, computers and storage drives that Clinton, her aides and her lawyers had used. Forensic recovery would eventually help the FBI to find 17,448 deleted emails, including thousands that agents deemed work-related.

Even as thousands of messages remained elusive, the investigators ultimately reached consensus that the evidence didn’t warrant criminal charges, which required proof of intentional misconduct, gross negligence or efforts to obstruct justice. After nearly a year and more than 90 interviews, they had identified 81 message chains deemed to be classified that passed through her private server. Clinton’s practices were sloppy, irresponsible and in defiance of State Department policies, but investigators found no proof of criminal conduct — just a misguided effort by Clinton to maintain control over what the public, and her opponents, could learn about her.

As the inquiry neared its end, Comey, who had closely monitored it from the start, requested summaries of more than 30 government prosecutions involving mishandling of classified information. He waded through the records, seeking to understand the cases’ rationale and how they had been resolved. In the end, he agreed with the investigators’ unanimous conclusion: Clinton should not face criminal charges.

By June 2016, the FBI and the Justice Department were jointly weighing the question of how to reveal their decision in the midst of the presidential campaign. FBI and Justice officials had been discussing for weeks a major departure from the usual handling of a criminal inquiry that ended without charges.

The final interview, with Clinton herself, was scheduled for Saturday, July 2, at FBI headquarters. Agents planned to spend the next week completing a confidential memo detailing their findings, assuming nothing new materialized. Then, in accord with standard Justice Department procedure, the supervising prosecutors and agents, along with top officials from both the Justice Department and the FBI, would privately brief the attorney general, Loretta Lynch, on their recommendation against bringing charges. She would accept, closing the case.

Comey liked to map out the ramifications of major decisions, often in lengthy meetings with deputies. At critical moments in his career, Comey showcased his independence — too eagerly, in the view of some who accuse him of “moral vanity.”

Lynch was a widely respected 17-year Justice Department veteran who had previously served as the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, under President Bill Clinton and, then, President Obama. In April 2015, a Republican-controlled Senate confirmed her to replace Eric Holder as attorney general. The first African-American woman to serve as attorney general, Lynch was a graduate of Harvard Law School, the daughter of a librarian and a Baptist preacher and the sister of a Navy SEAL. She’d prosecuted corrupt politicians from both parties and was viewed as a career prosecutor, not a political figure. But the Trump campaign and conservative websites called her integrity into question. Any exoneration of Clinton, they said, would be tainted because Lynch was an Obama appointee.

So the Justice Department and the FBI together plotted an unusual strategy. Over weeks of meetings, they discussed a plan in which Comey and Lynch would appear together at a news conference. After announcing the FBI’s recommendation and the attorney general’s acceptance of it, they would affirm their mutual confidence in the thoroughness and integrity of the investigation. Given the public appetite for more information, officials also considered sending a limited summary of their findings to the inspector general for the intelligence community. He had referred the matter for investigation in the first place, and could choose to make the summary public.

“It hadn’t all been sketched out,” a former Justice Department official familiar with the matter told me. “But there were conversations about how it could go. There were these discussions between the buildings, leadership to leadership. Everyone knew how this rolled out was really important.”

Comey had his own ideas. Unbeknownst to his Justice Department colleagues, Comey had resolved to proceed alone with the announcement. Since May, he had been holding a parallel series of meetings with top FBI confidants to thrash through his plan. He would publicly announce — and explain — the Clinton decision without Lynch at his side. “We had discussions for months about what this looked like,” Michael Steinbach, who retired as the FBI’s executive assistant director for national security in February 2017, said. “This, for us, was the best course of action, given the political situation that we were in — for us to do it independently.”

As Comey saw it, according to Steinbach and others familiar with his thinking, the public doubted Lynch’s independence and would be less likely to accept the decision if she were involved in announcing it.

Comey and his aides had another motivation for acting alone. In their view, the American people were entitled to hear the investigators’ views of Clinton’s conduct, something they believed Lynch would not allow. Justice Department policies frown upon officials commenting on investigations, especially if they are making subjective remarks about people whom prosecutors have declined to charge. But with Election Day just four months away, FBI officials felt that it was essential to provide a fuller accounting “that allowed the American people to make an informed decision,” Steinbach said. “Our concern, as we got closer to the election, was to make sure that the American people understood we found no evidence of a crime but we did find evidence of misconduct.”

FBI officials began drafting a lengthy statement that explained their recommendation not to prosecute but was, nevertheless, harshly critical of Clinton. “For the director to get that out, he’s either doing it alone or he’s not doing it,” Steinbach told me. “DOJ’s not going to let it happen.”

Then, on the evening of June 27, former President Bill Clinton and Lynch both happened to be on the tarmac at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and the ex-president strode aboard her government plane. When news of the visit inevitably spilled out, both Lynch and Clinton insisted that they’d merely discussed golf and family matters during a 30-minute conversation.

For those who felt that the Obama administration was doing everything it could to help Hillary Clinton win, the encounter was conclusive proof. “SNAKES ON A PLANE,” the New York Post screamed. “Bill’s shady meeting taints probe.” Lynch declined to recuse herself from the case but said that she fully expected to accept whatever recommendation the FBI agents and career prosecutors made.

The tarmac episode reinforced Comey’s conviction to act on his own. The FBI interviewed Clinton the following Saturday, July 2. Justice Department officials settled in to wait for a draft of the FBI’s report.

Instead, at about 10:30 a.m. on July 5, Justice Department officials received an informal heads-up: In 30 minutes, Comey was going to hold a live televised press briefing at FBI headquarters. Before stepping in front of cameras, Comey sent an email to all FBI employees with a copy of his prepared remarks and an explanation of why he was speaking so freely and on his own. “I am doing that,” Comey wrote, “because I think the confidence of the American people in the FBI is a precious thing, and I want them to understand that we did this investigation in a competent, honest, and independent way.”

Despite Clinton’s “extremely careless” handling of “highly classified information,” Comey concluded, there was no evidence of intentional misconduct or efforts to obstruct justice, and “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”

Moments later, Comey delivered what he called “an update on the FBI’s investigation.” He told reporters, “This is going to be an unusual statement in at least a couple of ways. First, I’m going to include more detail about our process than I ordinarily would, because I think the American people deserve those details in a case of intense public interest. And, second, I have not coordinated this statement or reviewed it in any way with the Department of Justice or any other part of the government. They do not know what I’m about to say.”

Comey then described Clinton as “extremely careless” in handling “very sensitive, highly classified information.” As “any reasonable person” in her position “should have known,” Comey declared, a private, unclassified email server “was no place for that conversation.” Despite these statements, Comey concluded that, because there was no evidence of intentional misconduct or efforts to obstruct justice, “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”

Late the following afternoon, Lynch met with the FBI director, agents and prosecutors for their formal briefing. In a two-sentence statement, the Justice Department announced that the attorney general had accepted their “unanimous recommendation.”

Partisan outrage was immediate. Conservative media and Trump surrogates accused Comey of protecting Clinton and preventing rank-and-file FBI agents from pursuing the truth. During nine hours of congressional hearings in which Comey elaborated further on his opinions of Clinton’s conduct, Republicans repeatedly questioned his reasoning for ending the investigation without charges.

Perhaps more worrisome to Comey was the rising discontent within the FBI. The retired assistant director James Kallstrom, a Trump backer who had run the New York field office from 1995 to 1997, became a fixture on Fox News and Fox Business, where he attacked Comey’s “nonsensical conclusion” in the Clinton probe and highlighted the “disgust” of “hundreds” of active and retired agents, including some “involved in this thing” who “feel like they’ve been stabbed in the back.” Kallstrom said, “I think we’re going to see a lot more of the facts come out in the course of the next few months. That’s my prediction.”

For their part, Justice Department officials were incredulous at Comey’s decision to proceed without them. On Tuesday, in his Comey memo, Rosenstein said that the FBI director was “wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority” by announcing “his own conclusions about the nation’s most sensitive criminal investigation.” He added, “It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement,” and “the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.”

A recent report in The New York Times raised the prospect of another factor in Comey’s calculations. Early last year, another FBI investigative team had found a memo or email hacked by the Russians in which a Democratic operative expressed confidence that Lynch would protect Clinton. According to the Times, Comey worried that if Lynch were involved in the Clinton announcement and the Russians leaked the document, then voters would not trust the inquiry.

But Comey did not confront Lynch, demand that she recuse herself or raise the matter with the deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, former Justice Department officials told me. Instead, he sent an aide to confer with David Margolis, a respected senior Justice Department official, who has since died. Margolis never raised the issue with department leadership. Two former officials who have seen the document told me that it was never a real concern. Comey and his defenders, they insisted to me, are now engaged in “revisionist history.”

Conservative media and Trump surrogates accused Comey of protecting Clinton and preventing rank-and-file FBI agents from pursuing the truth.

In May 2016, just as the FBI’s investigation into the Clinton emails was nearing its final stages, a young woman in Indiana named Sydney Leathers received a Facebook message from someone she did not know.

Three years earlier, Leathers had earned notoriety as Anthony Weiner’s most famous sexting partner. Leathers, then a 23-year-old college student, had come forward, at first anonymously, with details about her online relationship with the disgraced former congressman, who had gone by the screen name Carlos Danger. Leathers’s story inspired countless tabloid headlines and ended Weiner’s political comeback as a candidate for mayor of New York City. Leathers quickly cashed in, selling her story to tabloid media, letting “Inside Edition” record her cosmetic surgery makeover, starring in porn films and charging for phone sex and webcam services.

The messages Leathers received in 2016 were from someone who identified herself as a 15-year-old in North Carolina. The sender said she had been sexting with Weiner, but Leathers was skeptical. “I just thought it was a crazy person,” she told me.

Leathers changed her mind after the girl sent screen shots from months of exchanges with the former congressman. The teenager wanted to go public, but Leathers urged her to call the police instead. “I don’t claim to be a morality queen,” Leathers said. “I don’t care if he was sexting another adult. But, if it’s a child, it’s another story. I felt a little protective of her.”

After it became clear that the teenager was determined to tell her story, Leathers said she shifted to “damage control.”

“How can I at least make you some money?” she said she asked the teenager. “I basically said, ‘The only way you should do this is if they pay you.’ Certain outlets will pay you to talk, and I had made deals with a lot of them.” Leathers’ agent alerted, the online version of a British tabloid with which she’d previously done business. Both Leathers and the girl received a sizable fee; the teen’s father, an attorney, helped negotiate her payment.

On July 30, Leathers took another step. She had not communicated with Weiner for years, but she decided to send him a private Facebook message that amounted to a half-warning, half-scold:

“This is super awkward but you need to know something. There’s a 15-year-old girl named [redacted] messaging me and she’s claiming you guys sext and skyped. And that you know how old she is. For once I’m keeping my mouth shut. I want nothing to do with this. Frankly, I hope it isn’t true. But she showed me a screenshot that looks legit to me. How have you not learned your lesson? This is another level of fucked up. I suggested to her not to talk to the press so you’re welcome but you may want to refrain from messaging anyone under 18 for gods sake. If she is really someone you’ve been talking to, you better cut that off quickly. She’s talking about potentially messing with Hillary’s campaign. I am kind of pissed to be put in this situation to be honest.”

The Daily Mail story appeared on Sept. 21. The 2,200-word article was accompanied by dozens of screen captures, displaying half-clad photos and suggestive texts that Weiner had sent the teenager, a high school sophomore whose name was withheld. She told the Daily Mail that she had contacted Weiner, then 51, in late January 2016. During online video chats, she said, Weiner had invited her to undress and masturbate. She said he’d urged her to engage in “rape fantasies.” The girl’s father said that he’d learned of the relationship in April but did not alert the police because his child believed the relationship was “consensual” and “I didn’t want to exacerbate anything that she has mentally going on.” The article included four pictures of Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, including one of her with Hillary Clinton.

Anthony Wiener, married to Hillary’s deputy chief of staff at the State Department, came under FBI suspicion for sexting a minor.

Abedin was perhaps Clinton’s closest aide, often described as a surrogate daughter. She had met Clinton in 1996, while she was a White House intern, and spent her entire adult life working for her. When Abedin married Weiner, in 2010, Bill Clinton officiated at the ceremony; the couple had a son a year later.

When the FBI began investigating the Clinton emails, in 2015, agents had taken special interest in Abedin because she was one of the four aides who served as conduits for most of Clinton’s State Department messages, screening them, forwarding them and printing them out for her boss. When agents interviewed Abedin on April 5, 2016, she told them that she had used Yahoo and accounts while working in the State Department, as well as an email address on Clinton’s private basement server,

They asked Abedin what devices she used for email, at work and home, and whether she’d kept any archive. According to FBI notes of the interview, Abedin said that she had already turned over everything she had to the State Department. The agents did not ask to inspect any personal computers at her Manhattan apartment, where she lived with Weiner and their son. Her lawyer would later publicly insist that Abedin had no idea that her exchanges with Clinton were on his laptop. The couple has since separated.

The Daily Mail story raised the possibility of serious criminal charges for Weiner. If he had encouraged an underage female to take explicit photos or video of herself, he could be charged with producing child pornography, a felony that carries a minimum prison term of 15 years. FBI agents in New York immediately began investigating.

On Sept. 26, after federal prosecutors in New York obtained a search warrant, and the FBI collected Weiner’s iPhone, iPad and laptop. Agents began examining the computer — a silver, 15.6-inch 2015 Dell Inspiron 7000 — for any pictures, videos or other evidence involving Weiner’s teenage sexting partner. An agent sorting through the contents of the hard drive came across a jolting find: a State Department memo and some emails between Abedin and Hillary Clinton. The documents were not covered by the sex-crimes warrant, which meant that the FBI had no legal right to examine them.

The presidential election was five weeks away.

The agent went to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for guidance. Prosecutors there wanted no part of the email case, which had been staffed by a special team of agents, FBI analysts, and Justice Department lawyers working out of FBI headquarters, in Washington. The New York prosecutors told the agent to seek advice from that team. They said nothing to their own bosses at Justice Department headquarters.

Officials at FBI headquarters instructed the New York agent examining Weiner’s hard drive for evidence of sex crimes to continue his work as before and to keep a log of any further Clinton emails he came across.

By Oct. 3, senior officials at the FBI — including Comey — had been alerted that the Weiner laptop contained an unknown number of Clinton emails. By this point, the email controversy had receded as an issue in the presidential race. Any news of the discovery would surely have profound consequences for the Clinton campaign, especially as the election drew ever closer. Yet, over the following three weeks, FBI agents proceeded unhurriedly with their investigation, on the premise that what they knew of the discovery was not, as one official put it to me, “investigatively significant.”

FBI officials decided not to share news of the new emails on the laptop with the Justice Department prosecutors who had worked with them on the Clinton case. A former high-ranking Justice Department official, who dealt frequently with the FBI, blamed the failure on institutional distrust. “There is a general tendency, with everything at the Bureau, to keep things inside the Bureau until they figure out what to do,” he told me.

Without the involvement of their Justice Department colleagues, the FBI eschewed options that might have expedited matters. Former Justice Department officials familiar with the case told me that the FBI’s failure to move more quickly in this phase of the investigation represented a serious blunder. “It probably would have helped to have the prosecutors on the investigation involved at the earliest moment,” the former high-ranking official told me.

A crucial question was whether the discovery of the first few emails and a State Department document was sufficient to obtain a new search warrant to locate and examine all the Clinton messages right away. The former federal magistrate judge John Facciola, now an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, told me that he would have granted such a warrant request, even after the discovery of just a “handful” of Clinton emails. The FBI’s earlier investigation had revealed that some messages from the Clinton server contained improperly stored classified information, Facciola noted. “If the headers show transmittal from Clinton to Abedin, it follows as night to day that others bearing that header may also be classified, and we have a right to search. What more you need than that, I don’t know.”

Former Justice Department officials told me that they also could have sought consent from Weiner and Abedin to examine the emails without a warrant. Lawyers for both told me that they were never asked and would have readily acceded. FBI officials, who were not fond of consent agreements, reportedly did not do this because they worried that Weiner would have sought concessions on any sex-crime charges; lawyers familiar with the matter dismiss the notion that he had any bargaining leverage.

Officials at FBI headquarters instructed the New York agent examining Weiner’s hard drive for evidence of sex crimes to continue his work as before and to keep a log of any further Clinton emails he came across.

By all accounts, this phase of the process went slowly. The software that the Bureau used to inventory the contents of Weiner’s laptop kept crashing. It would take about ten days before agents were able to retrieve a complete record of the messages saved on the laptop, showing dates, senders and recipients. But, even then, the FBI did not immediately seek a warrant.

By mid-October, inside the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, the handful of officials who knew about the discovery of the Clinton emails were openly wondering what was going on. Any effort to obtain a second warrant would have to go through their office, and they had heard nothing.

On Friday, Oct. 21, Joon Kim, the deputy U.S. attorney for the Southern District, called an official in the deputy attorney general’s office at Justice Department headquarters to ask what was being done about the Clinton emails on Weiner’s laptop. Recognizing the importance of the call, Kim wrote a memo noting it.

For Justice Department officials, the call was the first they’d heard of the emails. The following Monday, FBI and Justice Department lawyers finally gathered in Washington to discuss what to do. The New York agents had finished tabulating the emails between Abedin and Clinton, and they numbered in the thousands. FBI investigators who had been part of the Clinton inquiry decided that they were eager to examine the new emails.

A primary source of anxiety for Comey was the FBI’s own New York field office, which was handling the Weiner case and harbored deep pockets of anti-Clinton sentiment.

Throughout their yearlong investigation, FBI investigators had been frustrated by their inability to locate all of Clinton’s emails, especially those sent during the first eight weeks of her tenure as secretary of state, a troubling gap in their records. Some of those now appeared to be on Weiner’s laptop, and they might reveal incriminating information about Clinton’s motivation in setting up the private server in the first place. Investigators recognized that, in all likelihood, the new emails would not change the decision to close the case without charges. Most were probably duplicates of what the FBI had already seen. It seemed improbable that agents would find written proof that Clinton intended to violate the law. Still, it seemed foolish not to examine the emails. The Justice Department lawyers readily agreed to seek a court order, leading Comey’s deputies to schedule a meeting with their boss on the morning of Oct. 27.

More than three weeks had passed from the time that Comey and his top deputies had been alerted to the initial discovery of Clinton emails on Weiner’s laptop. Yet, in his congressional testimony, Comey described what he heard in his briefing that Thursday morning as a startling new development. “The Anthony Weiner thing landed on me on October 27 and there was a huge — this is what people forget — new step to be taken,” he said. “We may be finding the golden missing emails that would change this case. If I were not to speak about that, it would be a disastrous, catastrophic concealment.”

Comey immediately approved plans to seek a new warrant. Such warrants are typically obtained in secret before a magistrate judge and not made public, but Comey told his deputies that he wanted to send a letter to congressional leaders the next day.

Justice Department policies bar employees from interfering with elections and discourage taking any action that might be perceived as interference in the weeks before votes are cast. Election Day 2016 was less than two weeks off; early voting had already begun in 36 states.

Comey would justify his Oct. 28 disclosure as a matter of moral obligation: He’d told two congressional committees that the investigation was complete, and plans to review the new material meant that that was no longer true. Before Congress last week, he characterized his decision as a choice between “speak” and “conceal.”

In his memo released on Tuesday, Rosenstein scorned this characterization. “‘Conceal’ is a loaded term that misstates the issue,” he wrote. “When federal agents quietly open a criminal investigation, we are not concealing anything; we are simply following the longstanding policy that we refrain from publicizing non-public information. In that context, silence is not concealment.”

There was another motivation for Comey’s decision to “speak”: FBI officials feared that news of the new emails would leak out, damaging the Bureau and its director. The primary source of anxiety was the FBI’s own New York field office, which was handling the Weiner case and harbored deep pockets of anti-Clinton sentiment. New York agents had already been griping to the media about headquarters’ curbs on their investigation of the Clinton Foundation. Two prominent Trump surrogates with close local FBI ties — Kallstrom and Rudy Giuliani, a former U.S. Attorney and New York mayor — had for weeks been warning about agent fury over Comey’s decision in the email case. Lately, Giuliani had been chortling on Fox News about the Trump campaign’s plans for “some pretty big surprises” that “you’re going to hear about in the next few days.” (He would later claim that he had advance knowledge of the new emails.)

Comey and his aides had considered saying nothing about the discovery until agents could assess its significance, but only if their task would be completed by the election. “If we were of the belief we’d get through it before the election, we wouldn’t have said anything,” Steinbach said. But, given the number of Clinton-related messages on Weiner’s laptop (the FBI had identified 49,000 as “potentially relevant”), no one felt confident promising the FBI director that they could be examined in time. “I was thinking, I hope we can get this done in a couple of months,” Steinbach told me.

Mark Pollitt, a Syracuse University information studies professor who ran the FBI’s national computer forensics lab program during his career as a special agent, said that this mistaken judgment was likely born of excessive bureaucratic caution. “If you know this one’s going to go to the director and attorney general and maybe the president of the United States, we’re going to give them the worst-case scenario so we don’t get yelled at for dragging our feet,” he said. “I’m not going to say I can get it done in a particular time frame and then not make that deadline.”

This time, Comey decided to alert the Justice Department of his plans. Officials there tried vigorously to dissuade him from sending the letter. Heated discussions took place between a Comey deputy and an official in the deputy attorney general’s office, acting as surrogates for their bosses. The Justice official retrieved a transcript of Comey’s congressional testimony to point out that the director had never explicitly promised an update of every development in the case. Comey’s deputy acknowledged that this was the case but said the director’s view was that it didn’t matter; he had a “duty” to correct the “impression” he’d left that the FBI’s work was done. According to the former Justice official, Comey’s deputy also made clear that the FBI director was “very concerned” about a leak — that the news “was coming out anyway.”

Democrats, who had praised Comey since July, were outraged. A Clinton spokesman blamed Comey for “unleashing a wildfire of innuendo.”

The Justice official reminded Comey’s deputy about department policy regarding overt investigative steps before an election. Criticism was inevitable, he argued; the best defense was to consistently follow the normal process. The FBI’s response: “This one’s different.”

“This wasn’t a policy-position disagreement,” the former Justice Department official told me. “Comey felt this was his credibility on the line. He was the one who had testified before Congress. Their view is, ‘We get the policy and procedures. But he’s the one who had to personally suffer the fallout if he doesn’t update the Hill. It’s his ass in the sling.'”

Lynch and Yates had the power to order Comey not to send the letter. But Comey’s high-minded characterization of his “obligation” made that option seem perilous to senior Justice Department officials. If they gave Comey such an order, it wasn’t clear that he would comply. And if he did, there was a chance that it could be portrayed as the attorney general ordering the FBI director to hide information from Congress. None of that would play well, especially in the aftermath of the tarmac incident. So the Justice Department officials stuck to pleading through staff.

Comey deliberated with his deputies into Thursday night about exactly what to say, generating multiple drafts of his letter. The first ran just two sentences; later versions offered far more detail, then somewhat less, as Comey and his staff struggled to find the right balance. Steinbach joined a conference call about the language while shopping for Halloween pumpkins in Virginia with his daughter. “The intention was to write a statement that was as politically neutral as possible — that did not allow for incorrect inference,” one person familiar with the situation told me. Predictably, that would prove impossible.

During a conference call the next morning with a half-dozen participants, FBI officials read portions of their draft to their Justice Department counterparts, who argued that the letter was certain to be used to political advantage by Trump. They urged Comey to add language that made clear that the director was making the disclosure because of the obligation he felt from his testimony, not because of the gravity of the discovery — and that the emails had been found on the laptop of an aide’s husband, not in Clinton’s possession.

Comey declined to make any changes. He dispatched his three-paragraph letter to 16 congressional leaders shortly before noon on Friday, Oct. 28. It disclosed the discovery of new Clinton emails “that appear to be pertinent,” as well as plans to “assess their importance,” before noting, “The FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant, and I cannot predict how long it will take us to complete this additional work.”

Comey explained his actions more fully in an email to FBI staff:

“Of course, we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel an obligation to do so given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed. I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record. At the same time, however, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression. In trying to strike that balance, in a brief letter and in the middle of an election season, there is significant risk of being misunderstood.”

Within hours, “law enforcement officials” disclosed to the press that the “unrelated case” was the Weiner sexting investigation. Trump, who’d previously been bashing Comey, celebrated the news at a New Hampshire rally. Clinton’s “corruption is on a scale we have never seen before,” he declared, amid chants of “Lock her up!” “We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.” Democrats, who had praised Comey since July, were outraged. A Clinton spokesman blamed Comey for “unleashing a wildfire of innuendo.”

The days after Comey’s revelation had been devastating to Clinton’s campaign. “Comey put a hole through the wall, and Trump drove a Mack truck through it.”

Clinton’s campaign set up a war room at its Brooklyn headquarters to respond to the news. The campaign highlighted an open letter signed by 99 former Justice Department officials from both parties who declared that they were “astonished and perplexed” by Comey’s actions. “The strategy was not to debate what Comey had done,” the Clinton pollster Joel Benenson told me. “The strategy was to aggressively discredit his actions with these bipartisan prosecutors.”

As the campaign — and debate over Comey’s actions — churned on, the FBI faced enormous pressure to complete its review of the new emails before Election Day, on Nov. 8. The government obtained its search warrant on Sunday, Oct. 30, two days after Comey’s letter, and agents immediately began scouring a copy of Weiner’s hard drive, which an agent had already carried to Washington from New York.

Exactly how thousands of Clinton emails ended up on Weiner’s laptop remains somewhat mysterious. In his testimony last week, Comey said that Abedin had forwarded “hundreds and thousands” of emails — including some containing classified information — to her husband’s email account, so that Weiner could print out the messages for delivery to Clinton. But two sources familiar with the matter told me that Abedin forwarded only a handful of Clinton emails to her husband for printing. Most of the old Clinton messages found on the laptop trace to backups of Abedin’s BlackBerry, which might have been first stored on a desktop computer at the couple’s home before ending up on Weiner’s laptop inadvertently, as part of a bulk transfer of old files. After Abedin’s lawyer and I pressed the FBI to clarify the matter, and I wrote an article about it, the Bureau released a letter correcting Comey’s testimony.

FBI agents had told their bosses that reviewing the new emails would take them well past Election Day. But, as the 10-member team began working around the clock, the process quickly accelerated. The FBI agents rapidly ruled out huge batches of messages that weren’t work-related, “de-duped” thousands of emails they’d seen before, and isolated the relative few — about 6,000, according to Comey — that required individual scrutiny. Potentially classified emails went to analysts for review.

Midway through a final all-night push, on Saturday, Nov. 5, two agents left FBI headquarters for a pizza-and-soda run. Outside, they found lime-green spray-painted graffiti near the building’s main entrance, some of it covering the FBI seal. It read “ASSHOLE” and “CORRUPT.”

At about 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, the FBI agents finished their work, and the team’s leader dispatched a message to their bosses. They had found new State Department messages but none, after all, from the missing period at the start of Clinton’s term, and nothing that suggested a criminal motive. Twelve email threads contained classified information; none of them were new.

That afternoon, Comey wrote to Congress again, revealing that the FBI had completed its review without finding anything to change the conclusions that he had announced back in July.

The days after Comey’s revelation had been devastating to Clinton’s campaign. “Comey put a hole through the wall, and Trump drove a Mack truck through it,” Benenson told me. The news dominated the home-stretch coverage; even the announcement that the review was over didn’t help. “You are in no good position at that point,” Benenson said. “Any discussion of emails and investigations is going to be a losing proposition.”

Trump’s campaign made the most of the Comey letter. “Decades of lies, coverups, and scandal have finally caught up with Hillary Clinton,” a new Trump TV ad intoned. “Hillary Clinton is under FBI investigation again, after her emails were found on pervert Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Think about that! America’s most sensitive secrets, unlawfully sent, received and exposed by Hillary Clinton, her staff, and Anthony Weiner. Hillary cannot lead a nation while crippled by a criminal investigation!”

“The Trump campaign was using it to the hilt,” Benenson said. “They took Comey’s statement, and they drove it. The most effective thing they did with it is to say, ‘This will never end. If she’s president, it will never end.'”

The “Comey effect” set in quickly. In a uniquely volatile electorate, enamored of neither candidate, weighing Trump’s temperament versus Clinton’s ethics, many of those who had finally been ready to vote for the Democrat fled. Her numbers slipped in key states. “It was enough of a lingering concern that at the end they said, ‘Screw it. I’m not going to vote for her,'” Benenson said. “They went with the third-party candidate or stayed home.”

FBI officials remain bitter at how Clinton and her supporters have blamed them for Trump’s election.

Many analysts concluded that Comey’s actions tilted the presidency to Trump. Nate Silver, the polling guru at the website FiveThirtyEight, said that Comey’s letter produced a swing of about three points in the popular vote in the handful of states that won Trump the presidency. In a post-campaign interview, the Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio put it this way: “When you really drill down on this election, if you change the vote in five counties, four in Florida, one in Michigan, we’d be having a totally opposite conversation right now.”

FBI officials remain bitter at how Clinton and her supporters have blamed them for Trump’s election. “I don’t find it credible,” Steinbach said. “It’s a mess she helped create from start to finish, with start being when she elected to use a private server. Even if you were to assume the investigation influenced the election, her actions created the environment. You can second-guess how it played out. But our guiding principle was to protect the American people and the Constitution of the United States.”

In January, the Justice Department’s inspector general announced that he would review charges that Comey’s public disclosures about the Clinton investigation violated department policies. Comey issued a statement saying that he welcomed “thoughtful evaluation and transparency” on the matter. Some of Comey’s friends and colleagues had weighed making public a letter of support for him, before eventually deciding against it. In conversations with reporters, they began seeking to explain his actions.

Some of the most withering criticism of Comey focused on his refusal, before the election, to disclose the FBI’s investigation into the possibility of collusion between the Russian government and Trump associates — even as he spoke at length about Clinton’s emails. In late March, quoting two anonymous sources, Newsweek reported that Comey had actually wanted to talk about the Russian political meddling, through a personal, bylined newspaper column, but the White House had blocked him from doing so. People familiar with the matter told me that the Obama administration had wanted to respond in a more direct way, through an official finding. That came on Oct. 7, through a statement about Russian hacking from the secretary of Homeland Security and the director of National Intelligence. Comey declined to be included on the statement, telling administration officials that he believed it was too close to the election.

During conversations I had with Richman, he began to hint at something in the Russian email hack that had influenced Comey’s decision to go it alone with his July 5 announcement on the Clinton inquiry. “It’s not just the stupid tarmac visit,” he told me in late February 2017. “You don’t get to always defend yourself when you’re in his position.” Two months later, the The New York Times disclosed the existence of the document claiming that Lynch would protect Clinton.

Last week, Comey finally got his chance to defend himself. Called before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he offered an emotional account of his handling of the email investigation but then made his misstatement about Abedin forwarding “hundreds and thousands” of emails to Weiner. This week, after FBI officials clarified the issue, I asked the Bureau another question: Why hadn’t agents, who had access to Abedin’s emails and could, presumably, see that she had forwarded two classified messages to her husband, taken the opportunity to examine his laptop much earlier, as part of the original email inquiry? If they had done so, what ensued in October might never have happened. The FBI declined to comment.

On Wednesday, in a farewell letter emailed to Bureau employees, Comey said he was not dwelling on his firing and urged his former colleagues not to, either. “I have long believed that a President can fire an FBI Director for any reason, or for no reason at all,” Comey wrote. “I have said to you before that, in times of turbulence, the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence.” §

Peter Elkind worked for 20 years at Fortune magazine as an investigative reporter. He is co-author of The Smartest Guys in the Room, an examination of the Enron collapse. This article is posted with permission of ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

Ella Fitzgerald’s flirtation with reefer songs

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Nick Lehr/The Conversation via Wikimedia Commons

by Adam Gustafson, The Conversation

“The First Lady of Song” Ella Fitzgerald would have turned 100 on Tuesday, April 25: institutions from the Library of Congress to the Grammy Museum will be honoring her amazing contributions to the jazz canon. The Conversation

It will be interesting to see if any tributes mention Fitzgerald’s “Wacky Dust,” her song about cocaine.

In the 1930s – just as Fitzgerald was getting her start – jazz was under fire for its purported ties to drug culture. The 1936 anti-drug film “Reefer Madness” featured party scenes of young people listening to jazz and ragtime while smoking marijuana. A year later, Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, published “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth,” which pinned the use of drugs on a culture of unscrupulous partying – with big band jazz as its soundtrack.

In this climate, an ascendant singer named Ella Fitzgerald sought to take the opposite tack and cultivated a reputation as the “girl next door.” Fitzgerald walked the fine line between being understood as a jazz artist and an entertainer. Two recordings from the beginning of her career signal this tension. “A-Tisket, a-Tasket” and “Wacky Dust” were both released in 1938. One tune would go on to become a signature hit. The other would be largely forgotten, a side note to an otherwise squeaky-clean career.

A dressed-up nursery rhyme?

By 1938, Fitzgerald had established herself as the primary vocalist for Chick Webb’s orchestra at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. Under Webb, Fitzgerald began recording for Decca Records and in May 1938, Decca released Fitzgerald’s first major hit, “A-Tisket, a-Tasket.”

It was a song that perfectly encapsulates Fitzgerald’s girl-next-door image. It opens with Webb leading the orchestra through a stock series of simple chord changes. When Fitzgerald enters, listeners are treated to a reworked nursery rhyme that asks little of them other than to sit back and enjoy. There is no moral value, no hint of the singer’s inner life and no mention of drug use.

Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘A-Tisket, a-Tasket.’


In fact, “A-Tisket, a-Tasket” is barely jazz. As with Benny Goodman and so many other bandleaders in the late 1930s, Webb and Fitzgerald seem more interested in creating a pop tune that fit the 78 RPM format than in staying true to their genre. Yet it became so popular that she and Webb recorded a follow-up track, “I Found My Yellow Basket,” that same year.

But then – just a few months after “A-Tisket, a-Tasket” – Webb and Fitzgerald recorded “Wacky Dust,” a song about the allure and dangers of cocaine use.

Ella’s reefer song

How Fitzgerald moved from a nursery rhyme to a song about cocaine says more about jazz culture than it does Fitzgerald’s own tastes. And while songs about drugs were common in jazz, “Wacky Dust” put Fitzgerald in the awkward position of recording a song that ran contrary to the image that she was trying to cultivate.

Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Wacky Dust.’


The release of “Wacky Dust” coincided with a massive shift in cultural opinion taking place in the U.S. about the use of drugs like cocaine and marijuana. Once a relatively uncontroversial social issue, drug use in the 1930s increasingly came to be seen as a societal ill that was especially (and incorrectly) tied to African-Americans and jazz musicians. Even sympathetic artists couldn’t help but buy into the stereotype. George Gershwin’s operatic adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy,” for example, was revolutionary for its diverse cast, but the story, written and adapted by two men of European descent, reinforced the popular perception of prevalent drug use among African-Americans.

Jazz artists in the early 1930s didn’t do much to help this view. Just as big band jazz was coming to dominate the music scene, two of the era’s biggest names released songs with direct references to drug use.

In 1933, Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man” was used in the film “International House.” A year later, Benny Goodman released “Texas Tea Party,” a reference to both marijuana and to the trombonist on the recording, Jack Teagarden. These were not subtle works, and most jazz artists of the era produced what have since become known as “reefer songs.” Even Louis Armstrong – who, like Fitzgerald, cultivated a rather benign image – was arrested for smoking marijuana and recorded several tunes that allude to drug use.

So when “Wacky Dust” was released, the idea of one of the great New York City house bands recording a jazz tune about drugs wasn’t all that surprising. (Fitzgerald and Webb had experimented with a similar subject a couple of years earlier with the release of “When I Get Low I Get High.”)

Like “A-Tisket, a-Tasket,” Wacky Dust opens with Webb’s orchestra. Fitzgerald doesn’t enter until nearly one-third of the way through the song. The first verse aligns cocaine with jazz and describes how easy it is for musicians to access the drug. The second verse and bridge section describe its wonders, but the final verse takes a turn, with Fitzgerald warning that the drug can’t be trusted and might kill you.

While “A-Tisket, a-Tasket” went on to become one of Fitzgerald’s signature pieces, “Wacky Dust” has faded into relative obscurity outside of specialty albums that feature songs about drug culture. And this makes sense. Fitzgerald was extremely careful about her image, and “Wacky Dust” didn’t fit. In fact, after “Wacky Dust,” Fitzgerald moved entirely away from songs that alluded to drugs.

By the 1950s, she had embarked on a recording career that displayed an unrivaled musicianship and joy for singing. Nonetheless, one has to wonder what her career would have looked like had “Wacky Dust” been the hit of 1938, rather than “A-Tisket, a-Tasket.” §

Adam Gustafson, Instructor in Music, Pennsylvania State University This article was originally published on The Conversation

Woodrow Wilson’s war propaganda

U.S. government’s heavy hand altered American journalism

1917 executive order that created ‘the nation’s first ministry of information’  still smarts

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The censorship board. George Creel is seated at far right. Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress

by Christopher B. Daly, The Conversation

When the United States declared war on Germany 100 years ago, the impact on the news business was swift and dramatic.

In its crusade to “make the world safe for democracy,” the Wilson administration took immediate steps at home to curtail one of the pillars of democracy—press freedom—by implementing a plan to control, manipulate and censor all news coverage, on a scale never seen in U.S. history.

Following the lead of the Germans and British, Wilson elevated propaganda and censorship to strategic elements of all-out war. Even before the U.S. entered the war, Wilson had expressed the expectation that his fellow Americans would show what he considered “loyalty.

Immediately upon entering the war, the Wilson administration brought the most modern management techniques to bear in the area of government-press relations. Wilson started one of the earliest uses of government propaganda. He waged a campaign of intimidation and outright suppression against those ethnic and socialist papers that continued to oppose the war. Taken together, these wartime measures added up to an unprecedented assault on press freedom.

I study the history of American journalism, but before I started researching this episode, I had thought that the government’s efforts to control the press began with President Roosevelt during WWII. What I discovered is that Wilson was the pioneer of a system that persists to this day.

All Americans have a stake in getting the truth in wartime. A warning from the WWI era, widely attributed to Sen. Hiram Johnson, puts the issue starkly: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

Mobilizing for war

Within a week of Congress declaring war, on April 13, 1917, Wilson issued an executive order creating a new federal agency that would put the government in the business of actively shaping press coverage.

That agency was the Committee on Public Information, which would take on the task of explaining to millions of young men being drafted into military service—and to the millions of other Americans who had so recently supported neutrality—why they should now support war.

The new agency—which journalist Stephen Ponder called “the nation’s first ministry of information”—was usually referred to as the Creel Committee for its chairman, George Creel, who had been a journalist before the war. From the start, the CPI was “a veritable magnet” for political progressives of all stripes—intellectuals, muckrakers, even some socialists—all sharing a sense of the threat to democracy posed by German militarism. Idealistic journalists like S.S. McClure and Ida Tarbell signed on, joining others who shared their belief in Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy.

At the time, most Americans got their news through newspapers, which were flourishing in the years just before the rise of radio and the invention of the weekly news magazine. In New York City, according to my research, nearly two dozen papers were published every day—in English alone—while dozens of weeklies served ethnic audiences.

Starting from scratch, Creel organized the CPI into several divisions using the full array of communications.

The Speaking Division recruited 75,000 specialists who became known as “Four-Minute Men” for their ability to lay out Wilson’s war aims in short speeches.

The Film Division produced newsreels intended to rally support by showing images in movie theaters that emphasized the heroism of the Allies and the barbarism of the Germans.

The Foreign Language Newspaper Division kept an eye on the hundreds of weekly and daily U.S. newspapers published in languages other than English.

Another CPI unit secured free advertising space in American publications to promote campaigns aimed at selling war bonds, recruiting new soldiers, stimulating patriotism and reinforcing the message that the nation was involved in a great crusade against a bloodthirsty, antidemocratic enemy.

Some of the advertising showed off the work of another CPI unit. The Division of Pictorial Publicity was led by a group of volunteer artists and illustrators. Their output included some of the most enduring images of this period, including the portrait by James Montgomery Flagg of a vigorous Uncle Sam, declaring, “I WANT YOU FOR THE U.S. ARMY!”

Other ads showed cruel “Huns” with blood dripping from their pointed teeth, hinting that Germans were guilty of bestial attacks on defenseless women and children. “Such a civilization is not fit to live,” one ad concluded.

Frederick Strothmann/Library of Congress

Creel denied that his committee’s work amounted to propaganda, but he acknowledged that he was engaged in a battle of perceptions. “The war was not fought in France alone,” he wrote in 1920, after it was all over, describing the CPI as “a plain publicity proposition, a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.”

Buried in paper

For most journalists, the bulk of their contact with the CPI was through its News Division, which became a veritable engine of propaganda on a par with similar government operations in Germany and England but of a sort previously unknown in the United States.

In the brief year and a half of its existence, the CPI’s News Division set out to shape the coverage of the war in U.S. newspapers and magazines. One technique was to bury journalists in paper, creating and distributing some 6,000 press releases – or, on average, handing out more than 10 a day.

The whole operation took advantage of a fact of journalistic life. In times of war, readers hunger for news and newspapers attempt to meet that demand. But at the same time, the government was taking other steps to restrict reporters’ access to soldiers, generals, munitions-makers and others involved in the struggle. So, after stimulating the demand for news while artificially restraining the supply, the government stepped into the resulting vacuum and provided a vast number of official stories that looked like news.

Most editors found the supply irresistible. These government-written offerings appeared in at least 20,000 newspaper columns each week, by one estimate, at a cost to taxpayers of only US$76,000.

In addition, the CPI issued a set of voluntary “guidelines” for U.S. newspapers, to help those patriotic editors who wanted to support the war effort (with the implication that those editors who did not follow the guidelines were less patriotic than those who did).

The CPI News Division then went a step further, creating something new in the American experience: a daily newspaper published by the government itself. Unlike the “partisan press” of the 19th century, the Wilson-era Official Bulletin was entirely a governmental publication, sent out each day and posted in every military installation and post office as well as in many other government offices. In some respects, it is the closest the United States has come to a paper like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or China’s People’s Daily.

The CPI was, in short, a vast effort in propaganda. The committee built upon the pioneering efforts of public relations man Ivy Lee and others, developing the young field of public relations to new heights. The CPI hired a sizable fraction of all the Americans who had any experience in this new field, and it trained many more.

One of the young recruits was Edward L. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and a pioneer in theorizing about human thoughts and emotions. Bernays volunteered for the CPI and threw himself into the work. His outlook – a mixture of idealism about the cause of spreading democracy and cynicism about the methods involved – was typical of many at the agency.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” Bernays wrote a few years after the war. “Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.”

All in all, the CPI proved quite effective in using advertising and PR to instill nationalistic feelings in Americans. Indeed, many veterans of the CPI’s campaign of persuasion went into careers in advertising during the 1920s.

The full bundle of techniques pioneered by Wilson during the Great War were updated and used by later presidents when they sent U.S. forces into battle. Now, as the Trump administration begins to engage in military operations abroad, the American experience in WWI provides some timely warnings: The news media and all U.S. citizens should demand not propaganda, but accurate information in times of hostilities, and the government should never be allowed to equate dissent with disloyalty. §

Christopher B. Daly, Professor of Journalism, Boston University This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Sold for parts

Returning to the Roots of Case Farms’ Workforce, ProPublica reporter Michael Grabell traveled to Guatemala to find Case Farms workers who returned home, sometimes after years of work and crippling injuries. Osiel López Pérez lost his left leg in a work-related accident, then was fired. See photos of former workers.

by Michael Grabell 
published with permission from ProPublica (co-published with The New Yorker)

By late afternoon, the smell from the Case Farms chicken plant in Canton, Ohio, is like a pungent fog, drifting over a highway lined with dollar stores and auto parts shops. When the stink is at its ripest, it means that the day’s 180,000 chickens have been slaughtered, drained of blood, stripped of feathers and carved into pieces — and it’s time for workers like Osiel López Pérez to clean up. On April 7, 2015, Osiel put on bulky rubber boots and a white hard hat, and trained a pressurized hose on the plant’s stainless steel machines, blasting off the leftover grease, meat and blood.

A Guatemalan immigrant, Osiel was just weeks past his 17th birthday, too young by law to work in a factory. A year earlier, after gang members shot his mother and tried to kidnap his sisters, he left his home, in the mountainous village of Tectitán, and sought asylum in the United States. He got the job at Case Farms with a driver’s license that said his name was Francisco Sepulveda, age 28. The photograph on the ID was of his older brother, who looked nothing like him, but nobody asked any questions.

Osiel sanitized the liver giblet chiller, a tub-like contraption that cools chicken innards by cycling them through a near-freezing bath, then looked for a ladder, so that he could turn off the water valve above the machine. As usual, he said, there weren’t enough ladders to go around, so he did as a supervisor had shown him: He climbed up the machine, onto the edge of the tank, and reached for the valve. His foot slipped; the machine automatically kicked on. Its paddles grabbed his left leg, pulling and twisting until it snapped at the knee and rotating it 180 degrees, so that his toes rested on his pelvis. The machine “literally ripped off his left leg,” medical reports said, leaving it hanging by a frayed ligament and a five-inch flap of skin. Osiel was rushed to Mercy Medical Center, where surgeons amputated his lower leg.

Back at the plant, Osiel’s supervisors hurriedly demanded workers’ identification papers. Technically, Osiel worked for Case Farms’ closely affiliated sanitation contractor, and suddenly the bosses seemed to care about immigration status. Within days, Osiel and several others — all underage and undocumented — were fired.

Though Case Farms isn’t a household name, you’ve probably eaten its chicken. Each year, it produces nearly a billion pounds for customers such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, and Taco Bell. Boar’s Head sells its chicken as deli meat in supermarkets. Since 2011, the U.S. government has purchased nearly $17 million worth of Case Farms chicken, mostly for the federal school lunch program.

Case Farms plants are among the most dangerous workplaces in America. In 2015 alone, federal workplace safety inspectors fined the company nearly $2 million, and in the past seven years it has been cited for 240 violations. That’s more than any other company in the poultry industry except Tyson Foods, which has more than 30 times as many employees. David Michaels, the former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, called Case Farms “an outrageously dangerous place to work.” Four years before Osiel lost his leg, Michaels’s inspectors had seen Case Farms employees standing on top of machines to sanitize them and warned the company that someone would get hurt. Just a week before Osiel’s accident, an inspector noted in a report that Case Farms had repeatedly taken advantage of loopholes in the law and given the agency false information. “The company has a 25-year track record of failing to comply with federal workplace safety standards,” Michaels said.
Case Farms has built its business by recruiting some of the world’s most vulnerable immigrants, who endure harsh and at times illegal conditions that few Americans would put up with. When these workers have fought for higher pay and better conditions, the company has used their immigration status to get rid of vocal workers, avoid paying for injuries and quash dissent. Thirty years ago, Congress passed an immigration law mandating fines and even jail time for employers who hire unauthorized workers, but trivial penalties and weak enforcement have allowed employers to evade responsibility. Under President Obama, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed not to investigate workers during labor disputes. Advocates worry that President Trump, whose administration has targeted unauthorized immigrants, will scrap those agreements, emboldening employers to simply call ICE anytime workers complain.

While the president stirs up fears about Latino immigrants and refugees, he ignores the role that companies, particularly in the poultry and meatpacking industry, have played in bringing those immigrants to the Midwest and the Southeast. The newcomers’ arrival in small, mostly white cities experiencing industrial decline in turn helped foment the economic and ethnic anxieties that brought Trump to office. Osiel ended up in Ohio by following a generation of indigenous Guatemalans, who have been the backbone of Case Farms’ workforce since 1989, when a manager drove a van down to the orange groves and tomato fields around Indiantown, Florida, and came back with the company’s first load of Mayan refugees.

In 2015, the director of OSHA called Case Farms “an outrageously dangerous place to work.” That year, the agency fined the company nearly $2 million after finding dozens of safety violations.

Just before the presidential election in November, I toured Case Farms’ chicken plant in Canton with several managers. After putting on hairnets and butcher coats, we walked into a vast, refrigerated factory that is kept at 45 degrees in order to prevent bacterial growth. The sound of machines drowned out everything except shouting. Thousands of raw chickens whizzed by on overhead shackles, slid into chutes and were mechanically sawed into thighs and drumsticks. A bird, I learned, could go from clucking to nuggets in less than three hours, and be in your bucket or burrito by lunchtime the next day.

Poultry processing begins in the chicken houses of contracted farmers. At night, when the chickens are sleeping, crews of chicken catchers round them up, grabbing four in each hand and caging them as the birds peck and scratch and defecate. Workers told me that they are paid around $2.25 for every 1,000 chickens. Two crews of nine catchers can bring in about 75,000 chickens a night.

At the plant, the birds are dumped into a chute that leads to the “live hang” area, a room bathed in black light, which keeps the birds calm. Every two seconds, employees grab a chicken and hang it upside down by its feet. “This piece here is called a breast rub,” Chester Hawk, the plant’s burly maintenance manager, told me, pointing to a plastic pad. “It’s rubbing their breast, and it’s giving them a calming sensation. You can see the bird coming toward the stunner. He’s very calm.” The birds are stunned by an electric pulse before entering the “kill room,” where a razor slits their throats as they pass. The room looks like the set of a horror movie: blood splatters everywhere and pools on the floor. One worker, known as the “backup killer,” stands in the middle, poking chickens with his knife and slicing their necks if they’re still alive.

The headless chickens are sent to the “defeathering room,” a sweltering space with a barnlike smell. Here the dead birds are scalded with hot water before mechanical fingers pluck their feathers. In 2014, an animal welfare group said that Case Farms had the “worst chicken plants for animal cruelty” after it found that two of the company’s plants had more federal humane-handling violations than any other chicken plant in the country. Inspectors reported that dozens of birds were scalded alive or frozen to their cages.

Next, the chickens enter the “evisceration department,” where they begin to look less like animals and more like meat. One overhead line has nothing but chicken feet. The floors are slick with water and blood, and a fast-moving wastewater canal, which workers call “the river,” runs through the plant. Mechanical claws extract the birds’ insides, and a line of hooks carry away the “gut pack” — the livers, gizzards and hearts, with the intestines dangling like limp spaghetti.

By late afternoon, the stench from the Case Farms chicken plant in Canton, Ohio, hovers like a pungent fog over Nimishillen Creek and drifts down a highway lined with dollar stores and auto parts shops.

On the refrigerated side of the plant, there’s a long table called the “deboning line.” After being chilled, then sawed in half by a mechanical blade, the chickens, minus legs and thighs, end up here. At this point, the workers take over. Two workers grab the chickens and place them on steel cones, as if they were winter hats with earflaps. The chickens then move to stations where dozens of cutters, wearing aprons and hairnets and armed with knives, stand shoulder to shoulder, each performing a rapid series of cuts — slicing wings, removing breasts and pulling out the pink meat for chicken tenders.

Case Farms managers said that the lines in Canton run about 35 birds a minute, but workers at other Case Farms plants told me that their lines run as fast as 45 birds a minute. In 2015, meat, poultry and fish cutters, repeating similar motions more than 15,000 times a day, experienced carpal tunnel syndrome at nearly 20 times the rate of workers in other industries. The combination of speed, sharp blades and close quarters is dangerous: Since 2010, more than 750 processing workers have suffered amputations. Case Farms says it allows bathroom breaks at reasonable intervals, but workers in North Carolina told me that they must wait so long that some of them wear diapers. One woman told me that the company disciplined her for leaving the line to use the bathroom, even though she was seven months pregnant.

Case Farms was founded in 1986, when Tom Shelton, a longtime poultry executive, bought a family-owned operation called Case Egg & Poultry, whose plant was in Winesburg, Ohio. In the world of larger-than-life chicken tycoons, like Bo Pilgrim — who built a grandiose mansion in rural Texas nicknamed Cluckingham Palace — Shelton, with a neat mustache, a corporate hairstyle and a mild manner, stood out. The son of a farmer, Shelton majored in poultry technology at North Carolina State, where he was the president of the poultry club and participated in national competitions in which teams of aspiring poultrymen graded chicken carcasses for quality and defects. Perdue Farms hired him right out of college, and he quickly rose through the ranks, attending Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program before becoming Perdue’s president, at the age of 43.

In 1986, the year that Shelton resigned from Perdue and started Case Farms, he gave a keynote address at the International Poultry Trade Show. It was a time of change: new mass market products such as nuggets, fingers and buffalo wings — along with health concerns over red meat — had made chicken a staple of American diets. With more women working, families no longer had time to cut up whole chickens. To meet the growing demand, Shelton told the audience, poultry plants would have to become more automated, and they would also need lots of labor.

Shelton was the kind of manager who could recite the details involved in every step of production, from the density of breeding cages to the number of birds processed per man-hour. He set about maximizing line speeds at Case Farms, buying additional family-owned operations and implementing modern factory practices. Today, the company’s four plants — Morganton and Dudley, in North Carolina, and Canton and Winesburg, in Ohio — employ more than 3,000 people.

Winesburg, the home of Shelton’s first plant, is a small community in the middle of Amish country. Even today, it’s not uncommon for drivers to yield for horse-drawn buggies or to see women in long dresses and bonnets carrying goods home from Whitmer’s General Store. Before Shelton bought the plant, it had employed mostly young Amish women and Mennonites. But, as the company expanded, it stopped recognizing Amish holidays and began hiring outside the insular community. “The Amish fathers found the urban newcomers objectionable because of such things as coarse slogans on T-shirts, vulgarity in conversations, and ‘necking’ in the parking lot,” the company said later, in federal court filings. The Amish workers left Case Farms, and, almost immediately, the company had trouble finding people who were willing to work under its poor conditions for little more than minimum wage. It turned first to the residents of nearby Rust Belt cities, which had fallen on hard times following the collapse of the steel and rubber industries. Turnover was high. About 25 to 30 of its 500 employees left every week.

Four years before Osiel lost his leg, OSHA inspectors saw Case Farms employees standing on top of machines to sanitize them and warned the company that somebody would get hurt.

Scrambling to find workers in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Case Farms sent recruiters across the country to hire Latino workers. Many of the new arrivals found the conditions intolerable. In one instance, the recruiters hired dozens of migrant farmworkers from border towns in Texas, offering them bus tickets to Ohio and housing once there. When workers arrived, they encountered a situation that a federal judge later called “ wretched and loathsome.” They were packed in small houses with about 20 other people. Although it was the middle of winter, the houses had no heat, furniture or blankets. One worker said that his house had no water, so he flushed the toilet with melted snow. They slept on the floor, where cockroaches crawled over them. At dawn, they rode to the plant in a dilapidated van whose seating consisted of wooden planks resting on cinder blocks. Exhaust fumes seeped in through holes in the floor. The Texas farmworkers quit, but by then Case Farms had found a new solution to its labor problems.

One spring night in 1989, a Case Farms human resources manager named Norman Beecher got behind the wheel of a large passenger van and headed south. He had gotten a tip about a Catholic church in Florida that was helping refugees from the Guatemalan civil war. Thousands of Mayans had been living in Indiantown after fleeing a campaign of violence carried out by the Guatemalan military. More than 200,000 people, most of them Mayan, were killed or forcibly disappeared in the conflict. A reportcommissioned by the United Nations described instances of soldiers beating children “ against walls or throwing them alive into pits,” and covering people “ in petrol and burning them alive.” In 1981, in a village of Aguacatán, where many Case Farms workers come from, soldiers rounded up and shot 22 men. They then split their skulls and ate their brains, dumping the bodies into a ravine.

Through the years, the United States had supported Guatemala’s dictators with money, weapons, intelligence and training. Amid the worst of the violence, President Reagan, after meeting with General Efraín Ríos Montt, told the press that he believed the regime had “ been getting a bum rap.” The administration viewed the Guatemalan refugees as economic migrants and Communist sympathizers — threats to national security. Only a handful received asylum. The Mayans who made it to Florida had limited options.

Beecher arrived at the church in time for Sunday Mass, and set himself up in its office. He had no trouble recruiting parishioners to return with him to the Case Farms plant in Morganton, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those first Guatemalans worked so hard, Beecher told the labor historian Leon Fink in his book, “The Maya of Morganton,” that supervisors kept asking for more, prompting a return trip. Soon vans were running regularly between Indiantown and Morganton, bringing in new recruits. “I didn’t want [Mexicans],” Beecher, who died in 2014, told Fink. “Mexicans will go back home at Christmastime. You’re going to lose them for six weeks. And in the poultry business you can’t afford that. You just can’t do it. But Guatemalans can’t go back home. They’re here as political refugees. If they go back home, they get shot.” Shelton approved hiring the immigrants, Beecher said, and when the plant was fully staffed and production had doubled “he was tickled to death.”

Evodia González Dimas could feel the pain in her left arm getting worse. For eight hours a day, she stood at a cutting table at the Case Farms Morganton plant, using a knife or scissors to remove fat and bones from chicken legs every two to three seconds. She wore a chain-mail glove on her non-cutting hand to protect it from accidental stabs by her knife or by the blades of her co-workers. The glove weighed about as much as a softball, but grew heavier as grease and fat caught in the steel mesh. By 2006, the pain and swelling were routinely driving González to the plant’s first-aid station. A nursing assistant would give her pain relievers and send her back to the line. She could no longer lift a gallon of milk, and had trouble making a fist. At night, after putting her children to bed, she’d rub soothing lotion on her swollen wrist and forearm.

One Friday, in September 2006, González was called to Case Farms’ human resources office. The director told her that the company had received a letter from the Social Security Administration informing it that the Social Security number she had provided wasn’t valid. González, one of the few Mexicans at the plant, told me that the director sold her a new permanent resident card, with the name Claudia Zamora, for $500, and helped her fill out a new application. (The human resources director denied selling her the ID.) She was assigned to the same job, with the same supervisor. And Case Farms paid her more than it did new hires, noting in her file that she “had previous poultry experience.”

Around that time, Case Farms workers began complaining that their yellow latex gloves ripped easily, soaking their hands with cold chicken juice. Only after pieces of rubber began appearing in packages of chicken did Case Farms buy more expensive, better-quality gloves. It passed the extra expense along to its employees, charging workers, who were making between $7 and $8 dollars an hour, 50 cents a pair if they used more than three pairs during a shift.

The morning the policy took effect, in October 2006, there were grumbles throughout the plant’s locker rooms. As workers began cutting chickens, the line abruptly stopped. One woman yelled that if they stuck together they could force the company to change the policy. When they refused to go back to work, managers called the police, and officers escorted workers off the premises.

More than 250 workers left the plant, gathering at a Catholic church nearby. González and another woman agreed to speak to a local newspaper reporter. Quoted as Claudia Zamora, González said, “Workers at Case Farms are routinely told to ignore notes from doctors about work restrictions when they’ve been injured on the job.” OSHA later foundthat Case Farms often made workers wait months to see a doctor, flouted restrictions and fired injured workers who couldn’t do their job.
Returning to the factory on the Monday after the walkout, González brought a note from the local medical clinic prescribing “light work or no work” for a week. She gave it to the safety manager, who asked her to fill out a report stating when the pain began. When she wrote “2003,” he was baffled. According to personnel records, “Zamora” had worked there for only a month. The human resources director who had hired González as Zamora summoned her to the office; she had been sent a copy of the newspaper article quoting González. The pain couldn’t be related to work at Case Farms, the director told González. After all, she was a new employee.

González didn’t understand. “I’m not new,” she said, her voice rising. “You know how many years I’ve been working here.”

“Claudia, you’re a probationary employee,” the director replied. “I don’t have a job for you.”

González challenged her firing before the National Labor Relations Board, a federal body created to protect workers’ rights to organize. The NLRB judge wrote, “In my opinion, [Case Farms] knew exactly what was going on with respect to her employment status.” The company, he said, “took advantage of the situation.” The board eventually ruled that González had been illegally fired for protesting working conditions. But the victory was largely symbolic. In 2002, the Supreme Court had ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that undocumented workers had the right to complain about labor violations, but that companies had no obligation to rehire them or to pay back wages. In the dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer predicted that the court’s decision would incentivize employers to hire undocumented workers “with a wink and a nod,” knowing that “they can violate the labor laws at least once with impunity.”

Case Farms had broken the law, but there was nothing González could do about it. The doctor told her that she needed surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, but she never got it. A decade later, her hand is limp, and her anger still fresh. “This hand,” she told me, sitting in her living room. “I try not to use it at all.”

Centro San Jose, a social welfare agency and legal clinic in Canton, Ohio, has been swamped the past few years as hundreds of unaccompanied minors have come to the area, fleeing violence in Guatemala.

What happened to González was part of Case Farms’ decades-long strategy to beat back worker unrest with creative uses of immigration law. The year that Case Farms was founded, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it illegal to “knowingly” hire undocumented immigrants. But employers aren’t required to be document experts, which makes it hard to penalize them. The requirement that workers fill out an I-9 form, however, declaring under penalty of perjury that they’re authorized to work, makes it easy for employers to retaliate against workers.

In 1993, around 100 Case Farms employees refused to work in protest against low pay, lack of bathroom breaks and payroll deductions for aprons and gloves. In response, Case Farms had 52 of them arrested for trespassing. In 1995, more than 200 workers walked out of the plant and, after striking for four days, voted to unionize. Three weeks after the protest, Case Farms requested documents from more than 100 employees whose work permits had expired or were about to expire. Case Farms refused to negotiate with the union for three years, appealing the election results all the way to the Supreme Court. After the company lost the case, it reduced the workweek to four days in an effort to put pressure on the employees. Eventually, the union pulled out.

Case Farms followed the same playbook in 2007, when workers at the Winesburg plant complained about faster line speeds and a procedure that required them to cut three wings at a time by stacking the wings and running them through a spinning saw. Occasionally, the wings broke, and bones got caught in workers’ gloves, dragging their fingers through the saw. One day, a Guatemalan immigrant named Juan Ixcoy refused to cut the wings that way. As word spread through the plant, workers stopped the lines and gathered in the cafeteria. Ixcoy, who is now 42, became a leader in a new fight to unionize. “They saw that I didn’t have fear,” he told me.

In July 2008, more than 150 workers went on strike. For nine months, through the depths of the recession, they picketed in a cornfield across the street from the plant. In the winter, they bundled up in snowsuits and protested from a shed made of plywood and bales of hay. According to the NLRB, when the workers walked out again, in 2010, a manager told an employee that he would take out the strike leaders “ one at a time.” A short time later, Ixcoy was fired for insubordination after an argument with a manager on the plant floor prompted some workers to bang their knives and yell “ Strike!” A judge with the NLRB found that Ixcoy had been unlawfully fired for his union activity and ordered that he be reinstated. After Ixcoy returned to work, however, the union received a letter saying that it had come to the company’s attention that nine of its employees might not be legally authorized to work in the United States. Seven were on the union organizing committee, including Ixcoy. All were fired.

After Juan Ixcoy led a series of strikes for better pay and conditions at the Winesburg plant, Case Farms investigated his immigration status and fired him.

The company’s sudden discovery that the union organizers were undocumented was hard to credit. Ixcoy had first been hired in 1999, as Elmer Noel Rosado. After a few years, a Case Farms manager told him that the company had received notice that there was another person, in California, working under the same ID. “The manager, he told me if you can buy another paper you’re welcome to come back,” Ixcoy said. So he bought another ID for $1,000 and returned to Case Farms under the name Omar Carrion Rivera. Current and former workers at Case Farms’ four plants said that the company had an unspoken policy of allowing them to come back with a new ID. An employee in Dudley told me that he had worked at the plant under four different names. Case Farms executives had to have known that many of their employees were unauthorized. On at leastthreeoccasions, scores of workers fled their plants, fearing immigration raids.

Ixcoy eventually received a special visa for crime victims because of the workplace abuses he had suffered. “Ixcoy lived in an atmosphere of fear created by supervisors at Case Farms,” the Labor Department wrote in his visa application. “He feared for his own safety, that if he complained or cooperated with authorities, he would be arrested or deported.”

In the past few years, Tom Shelton has cast himself as the genial proprietor of a winery that he runs on his 40-acre estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Its name, Bordeleau, means “the water’s edge,” and it’s one of the few wineries in the United States that you can visit by boat. Shelton exercises the same attention to detail at the winery that he does at Case Farms. According to Bordeleau’s website, he is “particular about everything, from pruning vines to the operation of the bottling line to the freshness of the wines being served in the tasting room.” The label features Shelton’s elegant Georgian-style château.

Shelton never responded to my calls or letters. A Case Farms PR person said he declined to be interviewed and, instead, arranged for me to meet with the company’s vice chairman, Mike Popowycz, and other managers in a conference room in Winesburg. Popowycz is the son of Ukrainian immigrants, who came to America after World War II. His father was a steelworker, and his mother worked nights in a thread mill. “I know what these people go through every day,” he said. “I can see the struggles that they go through because those are the struggles my parents went through.”

Popowycz, who is the chairman of the industry’s trade group, the National Chicken Council, said that Case Farms had made some safety mistakes but was working hard to correct them. He defended the company on every question I had. Case Farms, he said, treated its workers well and never refused to let them use the bathroom. Fees for replacement equipment discouraged workers from throwing things away. As for unions, the company didn’t need someone to stand between it and its employees. “Our goal is to prove that we’re not the company that OSHA has basically said we are,” he told me.

Case Farms had notice on numerous occasions that a large share of its workforce was undocumented. At least three times in its history, workers fled their plants, fearing immigration raids. One worker said he has worked at Case Farms under four different names.

Popowycz seemed unaware of many of the specific incidents I cited. He was almost like a parent hearing of his teenager’s delinquency: He hoped supervisors didn’t do that, but, if they did, it was wrong. Case Farms operates under a decentralized management system, which Shelton instituted early on. Every Monday at 8 a.m., Shelton hosts a conference call from Maryland, but many decisions are left to local managers. “We want the people at the locations to manage their business as if it’s their own,” Popowycz said.

I found it hard to believe that Shelton, who is known to ask questions about a $10,000 equipment expense, wouldn’t be aware of workplace disputes costing tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. I contacted 60 former Case Farms managers, supervisors and human resources representatives. Most declined to comment or didn’t return my calls, but I spoke to eight of them. Many agreed that Shelton gave them a good deal of autonomy, and denied that there was pressure to produce chickens faster and more cheaply. “When I was there, any problems that we saw, we took care of it,” Andy Cilona, a human resources director in Winesburg in the ’90s, told me. But two said that promotions went to those who pushed employees hardest, which led some supervisors to treat workers harshly.

Popowycz acknowledged that some human resources supervisors had sold fake IDs; when the company found out, it fired them. He insisted that Case Farms complied with immigration laws. It was one of the first companies in Ohio to report Social Security numbers to immigration in the ’90s. Case Farms also periodically audits its personnel records, and when it receives letters from the authorities about discrepancies in workers’ IDs it investigates. But the company has never used immigration status to retaliate against injured or vocal workers, Popowycz said; any firings that occurred after protests were coincidental. “At the end of the day, we need labor in our plants; we’re not looking to get rid of these folks,” Popowycz said. “Do we do everything right? We hope we do.”

Last fall, I traveled to several villages in the Guatemalan state of Huehuetenango in the hope of finding former Case Farms workers. After passing through the market town of Aguacatán, where women in white-and-red huipiles sell everything from garlic to geese, I headed 45 minutes up a mountain to the village of Chex, where I found a cargo truck that had careened over the side of a road. Dozens of men came from the nearby fields and helped brace the truck with branches and ropes. I asked the men if any of them had worked for Case Farms. “I worked there for a year, around 1999 to 2000,” one man said. “2003,” another added. “Six months. It’s killer work.” “11 years,” said another. Two said that they had been among the first Guatemalans to work in Winesburg.

Former Case Farms workers turned up everywhere — the hotel clerk in Aguacatán, members of the local church, a hitchhiker I picked up on the way to another village. One man in Chex had been a chicken catcher in Winesburg, but years of overuse had left his elbow swollen and in chronic pain. Unaware that Case Farms is supposed to pay for workplace injuries, he told me that he had returned to Guatemala to heal and had spent thousands of dollars seeing doctors. Now his arm lay frozen at his side.

The village where Osiel grew up, Tectitán, is reachable by a rutted red-dirt road marked by two dozen hairpin turns. It’s so isolated that it has its own language, which is spoken almost nowhere else.

The village where Osiel grew up, Tectitán, is at the top of another mountain five hours west, reachable by a winding red dirt road. It’s so isolated that it has its own language, Tektiteko. Like Chex, Tectitán has a long history of sending residents north to work at Case Farms. By the time Osiel was a teenager, a man watching a soccer match could make fun of the Guatemalan team’s goalie on Facebook by saying that he “couldn’t even grab the chickens at Case Farms.”

I met Osiel at Centro San Jose, a social welfare agency and legal clinic operated from an old redbrick Lutheran church on the edge of downtown Canton. For the past few years, Centro San Jose has been swamped by hundreds of unaccompanied minors fleeing gang violence in Guatemala. Osiel was wearing a blue knit hat with a pompom, a white compression shirt, sweatpants with patches, and blue sneakers. He told me that he left Guatemala on his 16th birthday, after his mother’s murder, and, two weeks later, was in the custody of border patrol agents in Arizona. He moved in with an uncle in Canton and befriended some other teenagers from Tectitán who were working nights at Case Farms. He worked at the plant for eight months, earning $9 an hour, before the accident.

Osiel said that, on the night of the accident, after passing out in the machine, he awoke in the hospital. “The nurses told me that I lost my leg,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t feel any pain. And then, hours later, I tried to touch it. I didn’t have anything there. I started crying.” Today, he lives with two of his brothers in a weathered gable-front house next to a vacant lot. He is still getting used to the prosthesis, and hobbles when he walks. “I never thought that something like this could happen to me,” he said. “They told me that they couldn’t do anything for my leg to get better. They told me that everything was going to be OK.”

Osiel started working at Case Farms when he was 16 years old, too young by law to work in a factory. The job cost him his leg when he fell into a machine.

The Labor Department, in addition to finding numerous safety violations, fined Cal-Clean, Case Farms’ sanitation contractor, $63,000 for employing four child laborers, including Osiel. The fines and the citations against Case Farms have continued to accumulate. Last September, OSHA determined that the company’s line speeds and work flow were so hazardous to workers’ hands and arms that it should “ investigate and change immediately” nearly all the positions on the line. As the company fights the fines, it finds new ways to keep labor costs down. For a time, after the Guatemalan workers began to organize, Case Farms recruited Burmese refugees. Then it turned to ethnic Nepalis expelled from Bhutan, who today make up nearly 35 percent of the company’s employees in Ohio. “It’s an industry that targets the most vulnerable group of workers and brings them in,” Debbie Berkowitz, OSHA’s former senior policy adviser, told me. “And when one group gets too powerful and stands up for their rights they figure out who’s even more vulnerable and move them in.”

Recently, Case Farms has found a more captive workforce. One blazing morning last summer in Morganton, an old yellow school bus arrived at Case Farms and passed through the plant’s gates, pulling up to the employee entrance. Dozens of inmates from the local prison filed off, ready to work at the plant. Even their days may be numbered, however. During the tour in Canton, Popowycz and other Case Farms managers showed me something they were excited about, something that would help solve their labor problems and also reduce injuries: In a corner of the plant was a shiny new machine called an “automatic deboner.” It would soon replace 70 percent of the workers on the line. §

Michael Grabell covers economic and labor issues for ProPublica and has previously reported on temp agencies, the stimulus, and the TSA. This article is used with permission from ProPublica.