2008 December: President Obama nominates Hillary Clinton for secretary of state. 2009 Jan. 13: Reports say the clintonemail.com domain was established. Jan. 21: Senate confirms Clinton as secretary of state. March 18: Clinton will later name this as the date she began using a private server for government business. 2012 Sept. 11: Islamic extremists launch […]
“At the end of the day, I am sorry that this has been confusing to people.”
That’s how Hillary Clinton summed up her email controversy in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on September 4.
Indeed, those who haven’t closely followed developments may be confused as to what, exactly, Clinton did—and what, if anything, she allegedly did wrong. Here’s an attempt to sort it out in simple terms.
Clinton may have done nothing of significance wrong. She has not been charged with any violations of ethics, regulations or laws and it’s possible she may never be.
Issues under public discussion include: possible violations of Freedom of Information Act law, federal records rules and laws, and handling of classified material.
“Mistake in judgment.”
Clinton has acknowledged she made a mistake in judgment. She describes her error as using one electronic device for both work and personal email, as secretary of state, out of convenience.
But the controversy isn’t about mixing work and private email. It’s over the fact that Clinton circumvented the government email system altogether and conducted government business on a personal email system that she established and controlled.
This meant Clinton’s work-related emails, which are owned by the public, were not directly searchable or accessible in response to subpoenas from court cases and Congress, or in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from the public and press. Think of it as an email system that was “off the grid.” Critics say it also meant that Clinton exposed sensitive government business, some of it classified, to unnecessary security risks.
Clinton’s initial explanation for using a private server and email was that it was for “convenience.” On March 10, she told reporters she found it “easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal emails.” However, it was soon revealed that she did use multiple devices, an iPad and a blackberry, so that explanation didn’t make sense.
Since then, Clinton has redefined how she defines the controversy saying: “I should have used two email addresses” rather than devices.
However, mixing work and personal on a single device or email isn’t the crux of the controversy at all. In fact, if Clinton had used her government—rather than personal—device or email system for both work and personal emails, as former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood did, there would likely be no great fuss today.
Other story shifting.
As Clinton’s statements have repeatedly allegedly proven untrue, she has modified her story.
On March 10, Clinton claimed unequivocally that there was no classified material on her system. “I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email. There is no classified material. I’m certainly well-aware of the classification requirements and did not send classified material.”
Soon, federal investigators indicated that Clinton’s statement was incorrect: they said there was classified material among the emails. Clinton then changed her story.
On July 28, Clinton modified her claim to say that the information in question was not classified at the time. “I am confident that I never sent nor received any information that was classified at the time it was sent and received [emphasis added].”
But then, the inspector general of the Intelligence Community indicated even Clinton’s modified statement was incorrect: her emails did contain information that was classified at the time. Clinton then revised her story again.
On August 18, Clinton modified her claim to say that the classified material wasn’t marked classified. “I did not send classified material, and I did not receive any material that was marked or designated classified [emphasis added].”
The implication is that Clinton couldn’t have known the material was classified because it wasn’t marked. However, officials with government security clearances are well-briefed on the fact that material doesn’t have to be “marked” to be classified, and they are trained on how to recognize and protect sensitive material.
Timing of turning over email.
Clinton left office February 1, 2013. But she didn’t give the State Department her work-related emails until December of 2014, nearly two years later; and did so only after the House Benghazi Committee formed and the State Department wrote Clinton asking for the emails.
Timing of deleting personal email.
Clinton unilaterally deleted tens of thousands of emails that she said were personal in nature. She has not answered exactly when the deletions took place but has narrowed the timeframe to sometime in fall of 2014, after the State Department asked for her copies of her work email and after the House Benghazi Committee formed. To critics, the sudden decision to delete huge blocks of email after approximately two years suggests something other than a coincidental, routine or casual action.
Timing of deleting work email.
Clinton unilaterally deleted record of tens of thousands of work emails after providing 55,000 pages of hard copies to the State Department on Dec. 5, 2014. Though Clinton won’t say exactly when the deletions took place, she has narrowed the timeframe to sometime between Dec. of 2014, after the House Benghazi Committee formed; and March of 2015, shortly before she announced her candidacy for president. She has not answered whether, in addition to deleting the emails, she also “wiped” the server clean to prevent easy retrieval of the records. To critics, the sudden decision to delete all of her work email after approximately two years, in the midst of the House Benghazi committee investigation, suggests something other than a coincidental, routine or casual action.
So far, the public, Congress and State Department have had to rely on Clinton’s word that she turned over all of her work-related emails. However, critics suggest she did not tell the truth because work emails that she allegedly did not turn over have surfaced through at least one of her associates and email correspondents: Sidney Blumenthal.
“It was allowed.”
Clinton argues use of a private email system was permitted as long as the email records were somehow preserved by somebody at the State Department. She claims that the records were properly preserved because she sent all work related emails to colleagues on their government accounts and so they would be captured on the State Department’s system on the receiving end.
However, this explanation has three primary flaws.
First, it relies on a sort of honor system; there’s no independent way to confirm that Clinton sent all work emails to government employees on their government accounts. Hypothetically, an official trying to hide wrongdoing might not be telling the truth.
Second, by Clinton’s own admission, the State Department may have been deprived of up to 10% of her work emails. Clinton stated, “more than 90%” of her emails “should have already been captured in the State Department’s email system.” But 100% of the emails are owned by the public and should have been on record.
Third, even if 100% of Clinton’s work emails were received by government officials, they were not necessarily properly subject to Freedom of Information requests, subpoenas and court requests. That’s because those seeking the material would have asked for a search of State Department records–not knowing that Clinton wasn’t using that email system. If Clinton emailed somebody at the White House, for example, from her private server, a search of State Department email would not have produced that public record.