Clinton told FBI she relied on others’ judgment on classified material
The FBI’s documents provide a glimpse into the probe that Republicans have said reached the wrong conclusion.
Hillary Clinton never received training on how to handle classified information. By her own admission, she had little ability to discern whether a document included sensitive information. And when she did handle sensitive materials, she relied on her subordinates to ensure that nothing important was compromised.
Taken together, her responses to questions from FBI investigators reveal a high-level government executive who apparently had little grasp of the nuances and complexities around the nation’s classification system — a blind spot that helped allow classified communications to pass through her private email server.
While Clinton is clear that she never had any intention to mishandle classified documents, a fact that FBI Director James Comey noted as a factor in his decision not to recommend any charges against the former secretary of state, answers she gave to FBI agents during a July 2 interview are likely to reinforce the Republican campaign talking point that she lied to cover up her own recklessness with government secrets.
Comey declared in his early July press conference that Clinton had been “extremely careless” in her handling of government secrets during her tenure as secretary of state, a description laid out more thoroughly in the FBI’s release. The newly-released documents do not include transcripts of Clinton’s interview but are instead summaries of the bureau’s investigation and meeting with the former secretary of state, essentially the long-form justification for Comey’s recommendation against pressing charges.
“We are pleased that the FBI has released the materials from Hillary Clinton’s interview, as we had requested,” Clinton’s campaign press secretary Brian Fallon said in a statement emailed to POLITICO. “While her use of a single email account was clearly a mistake and she has taken responsibility for it, these materials make clear why the Justice Department believed there was no basis to move forward with this case.”
“Clinton did not recall receiving any emails she thought should not be on an unclassified system,” the FBI’s report on Clinton’s interview states. “She relied on State officials to use their judgment when emailing her and could not recall anyone raising concerns with her regarding the sensitivity of the information she received at her email address.”
Later, while discussing another message with a redacted subject line and contents, Clinton noted that the people included on the correspondence “were experienced foreign service professionals and she had no reason to doubt their judgment and ability to handle classified information.”
The report states that “Clinton could not recall how often she used this authority or any training or guidance provided by State.” And when she was asked about a “C” marking in one of her emails, a marking the FBI considered an indication of classification, Clinton said she did not know what it meant and speculated “it was referencing paragraphs marked in alphabetical order,” adding that she “did not pay attention to the ‘level’ of classified information and took all classified information seriously.”
News of Clinton’s unusual email set-up first came to light in early March of 2015 when the New York Times published a story on the former secretary of state’s personal server. At the time, Nick Merrill, who is now Clinton’s traveling press secretary, said his boss was complying with the “letter and spirit of the rules.”
But weeks after the Times published its story, the FBI’s investigation found that an individual, whose name was redacted, used an online program called BleachBit to delete a file on the server containing Clinton’s emails. The unnamed staffer deleted the files after remembering an earlier request from longtime Clinton aide Cheryl Mills that changed “email retention policies” for Clinton’s server.
In a statement emailed out by Donald Trump’s campaign, the GOP nominee’s senior communications adviser Jason Miller said the newly-released FBI documents were further proof that Clinton had exposed classified information via her private email server on thousands of occasions.
“Hillary Clinton is applying for a job that begins each day with a Top Secret intelligence briefing, and the notes from her FBI interview reinforce her tremendously bad judgment and dishonesty. Clinton’s secret email server was an end run around government transparency laws that wound up jeopardizing our national security and sensitive diplomatic efforts,” Miller said. “All of this was done to conceal what we are once again seeing in the latest email productions from the State Department: rampant conflicts of interest and a pay-to-play culture that rewarded Clinton Foundation donors with access and favors. Clinton’s reckless conduct and dishonest attempts to avoid accountability.”
“Hillary Clinton’s answers to the FBI about her private email server defy belief,” Trump himself said in a statement emailed out later Friday afternoon. “I was absolutely shocked to see that her answers to the FBI stood in direct contradiction to what she told the American people. After reading these documents, I really don’t understand how she was able to get away from prosecution.”
The FBI interview also seems to confirm that some of the emails in question dealt with U.S. drone strikes.
When discussing a redacted email, for example, Clinton “stated deliberation over a future drone strike did not give her cause for concern regarding classification,” and Clinton “understood this type of conversation as part of the routine deliberation process.”
The U.S. treats drone operations conducted by the CIA as classified, even though in a 2012 internet chat Presidential Barack Obama acknowledged U.S.-directed drone strikes in Pakistan.
Included in the release was the report the bureau filed last month with the Department of Justice recommending against charges for Clinton, as well as the former secretary of state’s 302 document, the FBI’s term for agent notes from Clinton’s interview at the bureau’s headquarters.
The FBI’s probe found multiple cases of phishing or spear-phishing emails to Clinton’s email account when she was secretary of state. The investigation refers to a 2011 email that was part of one the State email releases that contained a potentially malicious link. Clinton responded to that email, writing, “Is this really from you? I was worried about opening it!”
In another instance, deputy chief of staff Huma Abedin emailed someone, whose identity was redacted in the investigation, expressing concern from Clinton that “someone [was] hacking into her email” after the secretary of state received an email from “a known [redacted] associate containing a link to a website with pornographic material,” according to the FBI’s report.
The report said there was “no additional information” about the email or more about why Clinton was concerned about the hack, or whether the link Abedin referred to in her email was “used as a vector to infect Clinton’s device.”
Following roughly two lines of redacted text, the report states, “Open source information indicated, if opened, the targeted user’s device may have been infected, and information would have been sent to at least three computers overseas, including one in Russia.”
In its investigation, the FBI turned up 13 total mobile devices connected to two different phone numbers that had potentially been used to send emails from Clinton’s personal account, including eight email-capable BlackBerrys that she used during her tenure as secretary of state. Lawyers for Clinton said in late February of 2016 that they were unable to find any of the 13 devices identified by the bureau.
The FBI also identified five iPads “associated with Clinton” that were potentially used to send emails from Clinton’s private system. The bureau managed to obtain three of those iPads, none of which contained any potentially classified information.
As she transitioned between mobile devices, two people interviewed by the FBI said the whereabouts of Clinton’s previous devices would “frequently become unknown.” One aide to former President Bill Clinton who also helped the family set up the initial personal email server in their Chappaqua, New York, home said that on two occasions he “destroyed Clinton’s old mobile devices by breaking them in half or hitting them with a hammer.”
Clinton has long contended that her decision to maintain a separate email account was one made purely out of a desire for convenience, a claim bolstered by the FBI investigation’s finding that the former secretary of state would often be given a new device only to quickly switch back to an older one with which she felt more comfortable.
The former secretary of state’s email server was in fact a series of three servers used over a period of time from approximately 2007 to 2015, beginning with an Apple server installed by a former aide to her husband. That server was replaced in 2009 with a server installed by a former IT specialist for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, which was then supplanted in 2013 by a server installed by a vendor, Denver-based Platte River Networks. That server, housed in a data center in New Jersey, was voluntarily handed over to the FBI in 2015.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that without a full insight into the FBI’s investigation, “it would be inappropriate for us to comment on their findings or their recommendations” and warned that the newly-released documents could present certain pieces of information out of context.
“It’s important to remember that the FBI memo and 302s are not transcripts — they are summaries. Furthermore, it is not appropriate to consider pieces of evidence outside of the broader context. So the State Department is not going parse every individual piece of evidence that may be characterized through the media. As Director Comey noted in his July press conference, the FBI’s view was that ‘no charges are appropriate in this case.’”
The release came in response to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests.
At several points during her interview with the FBI, Clinton said she relied on the judgment of other government officials when it came to the handling of classified information. When reviewing an email from October of 2012, for example, Clinton said that while she did not recall the message specifically, she described an individual involved with the communication as “someone who was well acquainted with handling classified information” and “described him as someone she held in high regard.”
She said she “relied on” the individual, whose name is redacted in the FBI notes, and she had “no concern over his judgement and ability to handle classified information.”
Even after FBI Director James Comey announced last month that the bureau would not be recommending charges against Clinton, the former secretary of state has struggled to put the scandal behind her. She has been haunted by Comey’s words at the press conference in which he said that the evidence showed that Clinton and her colleagues “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” and by the seemingly continuous trickle of court rulings and fresh discoveries related to the homebrew email system.
Most recently, the State Department announced Tuesday that the FBI has turned over thousands of additional emails it had recovered from Clinton’s server, a cache that could include up to 30 messages related to the 2012 terrorist attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the 30 emails were identified “using broad search terms” and therefore are not necessarily related to the Benghazi attack. The emails could also be duplicates of what Clinton has already turned over to the State Department, Kirby said.
The State Department said it will take until the end of September to complete a review of the emails handed over by the FBI, but the Trump campaign still jumped at the chance to hammer Clinton once again over her email troubles.