Hillary Clinton is unlikely to face charges for how she handled sensitive information on her personal computer server, but the FBI investigation revealed a litany of ways the former secretary of state and her aides failed to keep government secrets safe.
The FBI’s revelations provided new searing labels – “extremely careless,” for example – that could hurt her with voters in battleground states where polls show some already question her honesty.
“From a security and policy perspective, her staff very clearly played fast and loose with security rules in a way that nobody else could get away with,” said Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer who handles national security information and is involved in an ongoing public records lawsuit against the State Department related to Clinton emails.
The FBI’s assessment contradicted several statements Clinton and her staff had made over the past year about her unprecedented decision to use a private email server exclusively for government business while serving as the nation’s top diplomat. It also detailed how many of her closest, most trusted aides, including Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills and former Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin, made poor decisions and sent and received classified information. It’s unclear whether those staffers and others, many working for Clinton’s campaign, might have trouble receiving security clearances if they return to government.
Not surprisingly, Republicans seized on the new details, saying the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee showed a lack of judgment and honesty to be the next president because she did not turn over all her records and had jeopardized national security. The investigation helps feed the narrative of Clinton that has long dogged her since her husband, Bill Clinton, was in the White House: She is hiding something, she is treated differently from others and she doesn’t think she has to answer for her behavior.
“It gives Republicans an opportunity,” said Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, in a swing state. “Basically it’s not settled.”
The yearlong investigation continues to cast a shadow over Clinton as she is about to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in Philadelphia later this month and then launch her general election campaign against Republican Donald Trump. Her campaign, however, said it considered the matter closed.
“We are pleased that the career officials handling this case have determined that no further action by the department is appropriate,” Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement. “As the secretary has long said, it was a mistake to use her personal email and she would not do it again. We are glad that this matter is now resolved.”
FBI Director James Comey announced that the FBI is recommending to the Department of Justice that no charges be filed against Clinton or her aides after interviewing Clinton for 3 1/2 hours Saturday. The department is likely to agree with his assessment.
“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is information that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” Comey said.
Comey’s statement was extraordinary both because he spoke publicly about a case before the Justice Department makes its decision and for the detail he offered. Among the FBI findings were:
▪ Clinton and her staffers “should have known that an unclassified system was no place” for their email conversations.
▪ The security culture of the State Department was “lacking in the kind of care for classified information found elsewhere in the government.”
▪ “Hostile actors” could have gained access to the email accounts of Clinton associates whom she regularly contacted.
Robert Cattanach, a former Justice Department attorney who specializes in cybersecurity for the law firm Dorsey & Whitney, said the Justice Department might have pursued the case of a lower-level employee more aggressively. “If a lower-level employee had taken the significant steps to divert government emails to a non-secured private server, that almost surely would’ve been dealt with much more harshly than an admonition for having been ‘extremely careless,’ ” he said.
Comey said that of the 30,000 emails Clinton had turned over to the State Department, 110 emails in 52 separate chains had been determined to contain classified information when they were sent or received. Of those, eight of those chains included “top secret” information, 36 included “secret” information and eight contained “confidential” information, the lowest level of classification. another 2,000 were identified as “confidential” after they had been sent or received.
Comey said there were several thousand work-related emails that were not in the group of 30,000 that Clinton had turned over. The State Department had asked her repeatedly to give them all the emails. Among those found, Comey said, three were classified at the time they were sent or received; one at the secret level and two at the confidential level.
Clinton initially said she did not send or receive any classified information. She later adjusted that assertion, saying that none was marked as classified at the time. Clinton also claimed her server was safe and that it was never hacked. However, the FBI found her server could have been hacked in part because she used her personal email extensively while outside the United States, including when she was in the territory of “sophisticated adversaries.”
A report by the State Department inspector general determined that her email arrangement violated State Department rules, that she did not seek permission for the setup and that her account was shut down at least once because of fears it had been hacked.
Comey acknowledged the FBI might not be able to definitively get to the bottom of some questions because emails could have been deleted that the bureau did not recover. However, he emphasized the FBI had found no evidence of an intentional cover-up by Clinton or her lawyers.
“Although we do not have complete visibility because we are not able to fully reconstruct the electronic record … we believe our investigation has been sufficient to give us reasonable confidence there was no intentional misconduct in connection with that sorting.”
His announcement came the same day that President Barack Obama campaigned with Clinton for the first time in Charlotte, N.C. Neither mentioned the investigation.
“Folks – the system is rigged,” Trump said in a statement. “The normal punishment, in this case, would include losing authority to handle classified information, and that too disqualifies Hillary Clinton from being president.”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, under fire for meeting with Bill Clinton in what she called a social visit, said last week that she would defer to career prosecutors and FBI agents, as well as Comey, a Republican appointee during the Bush administration at the Justice Department, in deciding whether to pursue charges.
Critics also accused the Obama administration of failing to give the case to an independent special prosecutor.
Some political observers say Hillary Clinton will move past this, much as she did the Obama administration’s bungled handling of the fatal 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
“For Clinton, now she gets the opportunity now to turn the page,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York. “It’s a bump in the road but doesn’t derail her.”