The State Department’s independent watchdog has issued a highly critical analysis of Hillary Clinton’s email practices while running the department, concluding that Clinton failed to seek legal approval for her use of a private server and that agency staff members would not have given their blessing if it had been sought because of “security risks.”
The report by the inspector general’s office concludes that Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for president, handled email in a way that was “not an appropriate method” for preserving public records and that her practices failed to comply with department policy. The review found that Clinton, who has said her system was secure, also never provided security details to agency officials responsible for safeguarding sensitive government information.
The 83-page report reviewed email practices under the past five secretaries of state and found persistent problems with ensuring that records are preserved in keeping with federal law. But the review was sparked by the controversy over Clinton’s email setup, and the report is particularly critical of her practices.
Clinton has long said it was no secret at the department that she used a private email. And the review found there had been “some awareness” of Clinton’s email habits among various staff members and senior officials in the agency.
But the report also provides a striking example of a department official appearing to shield the system from scrutiny. When an IT staffer raised concerns in 2010 that the system may not properly preserve records, the official said the system had been reviewed by attorneys and chided the staffers “never to speak of the Secretary’s personal email system again,” the report says. The IG’s office said it could not find evidence of such a legal review.
The timing of the report is inconvenient for Clinton, who is facing an onslaught of attacks from presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and who has been trying for more than a year to put the email controversy to rest.
While the IG review dealt with the State Department’s compliance with public-records laws, Clinton is still awaiting the conclusion of a separate FBI inquiry into whether she mishandled classified information through her use of the private email setup.
Officials have told The Washington Post that FBI investigators have so far found little evidence that Clinton maliciously flouted classification rules. Clinton and her team have cooperated with the FBI, and officials have said they plan to interview Clinton about the matter soon.
In contrast, Clinton and her senior aides declined to speak with the inspector general’s investigators, according to the new report.
Each of the other former secretaries, in addition to current Secretary John F. Kerry, was interviewed for the IG review. The report cites “longstanding systemic weaknesses” in record keeping. It calls out former secretary Colin L. Powell for also violating department policy for his use of a personal email account while in office.
But the report notes that by Clinton’s tenure, the department’s warnings about the “obligation” to generally use government email — and the risks of not doing so — had become more detailed and frequent.
Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon on Wednesday pointed to the IG report’s broader conclusions to say that Clinton’s “use of personal email was not unique, and she took steps that went much further than others to appropriately preserve and release her records.” He said the report showed that the agency’s problems with records was “longstanding” and that, if Clinton ran the agency today, she would adopt the IG’s recommended fixes.
Fallon said that “political opponents of Hillary Clinton are sure to misrepresent this report” for partisan purposes.
Clinton had acknowledged during a March debate that she had not sought approval for the private setup. She pointed to the practices of her predecessors and said: “There was no permission to be asked. . . . It was permitted.”
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said the report underscores the need for federal agencies to adapt “decades-old record-keeping practices to the email-dominated modern era.” He said the agency has put multiple improvements in place.
A State Department official, speaking with reporters on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged on Wednesday a problematic aspect of Clinton’s setup. Agency officials didn’t have a “complete understanding” of Clinton’s email practices, the official said. The official added that, in retrospect, the agency “wouldn’t have recommended the approach.” But, the official said, the agency had no plans to take disciplinary action based on the report and cited Clinton’s efforts to respond to concerns about her emails.
Still, the critical assessment of Clinton’s tenure is politically significant as the former secretary struggles to reverse a slide in her approval ratings that has coincided with the unfolding email scandal.
The report concludes that Clinton should have printed and saved her emails during her four years in office, or should have surrendered her work-related correspondence immediately upon stepping down in February 2013.
Instead, Clinton provided those records in December 2014, nearly two years after leaving office, and only after the State Department requested them as it prepared responses for the Republican-led House committee investigation into the 2012 attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya.
At the time, she turned over more than 30,000 emails she said represented all of her work-related correspondence. She said that she also exchanged about 31,000 personal emails during her time as secretary and that those messages have been deleted.
While the IG’s review found that many employees sometimes used personal accounts for public business, the report identifies only three who used it exclusively: Clinton, Powell, and Scott Gration, who served as ambassador to Kenya under Clinton in 2011 and 2012. But only one — Gration — faced an internal rebuke for doing so.
“The department’s response to his actions demonstrates how such usage is normally handled when department cybersecurity officials become aware of it,” the report says.
The IG review found that four of Clinton’s closest aides also made “extensive” use of personal emails, including one who sent an average of nine emails every workday on a personal account, the report says.
The IG review found that technical support for the server was primarily provided by a non-State Department employee who worked for former President Bill Clinton, as well as a State employee, who has been publicly identified in the past as Bryan Pagliano.
The Post has reported previously that the Clintons paid Pagliano separately for his work on the server. The IG’s office found that several of his direct State Department supervisors were unaware that he was providing Hillary Clinton with the service, the report says.
The IG’s office also found several incidents in which Clinton or people around her expressed fear that the server, which was stored in the Clintons’ New York home and shared by the couple, might have been hacked. The report cites a January 2011 email in which a Bill Clinton staffer wrote a Hillary Clinton aide to say he had shut down the server because he believed “someone was trying to hack us.”
Hillary Clinton’s aides have said there is no evidence the server was, in fact, breached. However, the IG notes that Clinton and her aides failed to alert State Department computer security personnel to the possible breaches, as agency policy requires.
Clinton has said she complied with laws requiring the preservation of documents, including emails, because she emailed other government officials at their official accounts, knowing their emails would be retained on public servers.
But the report undercuts that contention, citing this practice as an inappropriate form of preservation.
The impending IG report, combined with the FBI inquiry, have prompted the Clinton campaign to brace for what her allies hope will be the last round of publicity about her email use.
They have worked to inoculate her against potentially critical findings, accusing the State Department’s inspector general of working in concert with congressional Republicans to harm her presidential campaign and noting that a top inspector general official used to work for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
Democratic lawmakers chimed in after the report became public Wednesday. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a news release headlined, “State Inspector’s Hit Job An Embarrassment.”
The inspector general has rejected allegations of bias, noting that the scope of the review encompasses secretaries of both parties and that it was undertaken at the direction of Clinton’s Democratic successor, Kerry.
The inspector general, Steve Linick, was appointed by President Obama and has served since 2013.
As for the FBI inquiry, Director James B. Comey has said there is no “external deadline” for concluding that probe, but he acknowledged that there is pressure to wrap up the matter promptly and thoroughly.
Carol Morello and Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.