WASHINGTON (Reuters) - FBI Director James Comey told U.S. lawmakers on Thursday that FBI employees who mishandled classified material in the way Hillary Clinton did as secretary of state could be subject to dismissal or loss of security clearance.
Comey addressed the issue at a House of Representatives committee hearing that lasted nearly five hours after House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that Clinton should be denied classified briefings during her campaign for the presidency.
Comey, who said on Tuesday he would not recommend that the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee face criminal charges, was asked at the hearing if Clinton should face administrative punishment for the way she handled her email. “I don’t think that’s for me to recommend,” he said.
Comey did say his employees in the Federal Bureau of Investigation would face discipline for the same behavior.
“They might get fired, they might lose their clearance, it might get suspended for 30 days,” Comey said. “There would be some discipline.”
Presidential candidates normally get access to classified information once they are formally nominated. As director of the FBI, Comey does not have the authority to revoke Clinton’s security privileges.
A group of Republican senators on Thursday asked the State Department to immediately suspend clearances for Clinton and several current and former aides based on the agency’s findings.
The State Department said on Thursday it would conduct an internal review of Clinton’s handling of the emails now that the FBI investigation was over. The department said in April it had suspended plans for a review at the FBI’s request.
“I cannot provide specific information about the Department’s review, including what information we are evaluating. We will aim to be as expeditious as possible, but we will not put artificial deadlines on the process,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
A Clinton spokesman on Thursday criticized the congressional hearing for its “partisan motivations,” and expressed confidence that Comey’s testimony had shut down any lingering “conspiracy theories” on the matter.
“Director Comey’s testimony clearly knocked down a number of false Republican talking points and reconciled apparent contradictions between his previous remarks and Hillary Clinton’s public statements,” spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement.
The issue of Clinton’s use of private email servers has cast a cloud over her campaign for the Nov. 8 presidential election, raising questions among voters about her trustworthiness and judgment and giving her Republican presidential rival, Donald Trump, an avenue of attack.
Comey’s testimony marked the first time he took questions publicly since his announcement the FBI was not recommending charges against Clinton. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch accepted the FBI recommendation and was to appear at another hearing next Tuesday.
Comey had disappointed some Republicans by only rebuking Clinton, not recommending charges against her, for what he called her “extremely careless” handling of classified information while using private email servers.
Under persistent questioning at the hearing of the House Oversight Committee, Comey said Clinton did not break the law.
“The question I always look at is, is there evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that somebody engaged in conduct that violated a criminal statute. And my judgment here is there is not,” Comey said.
Comey also said Clinton knew her email server at her home in Chappaqua, New York, was not authorized to receive classified information.
But Clinton may not have had sufficiently sophisticated understanding to know the emails that passed through her personal server were classified, Comey said. Only three of the FBI-reviewed emails were explicitly marked as classified and those were marked with a “C” in the body of the email, not in the header, he said.
Comey said his FBI team conducted its investigation of Clinton “in an apolitical and professional way” and he had no reason to believe she had lied to the FBI. Clinton had said publicly she never sent or received any classified information.
“I think there is a legitimate concern that there is a double standard, if your name isn’t Clinton or you are not part of the powerful elite that Lady Justice will act differently,” U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said to Comey at the beginning of the hearing.
A Democratic member of the committee, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, defended Comey’s actions by saying: “I firmly believe your decision was based on conviction, not convenience.”
Comey, a Republican who was appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama and also served in the administration of former Republican President George W. Bush, has built a reputation as a straight shooter who does not bend to pressure from either party.
He has differed sharply with the Obama administration, including over the case of General David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty after he knowingly shared classified information with his biographer and lover. Comey recommended Petraeus be charged with a felony, but then-Attorney General Eric Holder downgraded the charge to a misdemeanor.
The hearing took place as Trump met with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill to get them behind his candidacy, discussing a variety of issues, including his campaign style.
“I’m going to make you proud,” Trump told House Republicans, according to a participant, Representative Bill Flores.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Alana Wise, Julia Harte and Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Steve Holland and Julia Edwards; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney