U.S. law enforcement officials are investigating how classified material found its way into messages that members of Hillary Clinton’s State Department staff sent to her private e-mail address, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the inquiry.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an investigation still in its early stages, said there is some indication that Clinton aides drew upon a variety of messages in classified information systems to produce summaries and updates of events in Libya and elsewhere and then sent them to Clinton or her aides using a private server.
The official didn’t identify the aides.
This transfer of classified information onto a server not approved to handle sensitive material is a focus of the investigation and could form the basis for a criminal probe to determine just how much classified material was sent - and who prepared and sent it.
A spokesman for the State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Anybody who knowingly e-mailed classified material to Clinton or her top aides when she was secretary of state could face criminal prosecution, according to current and former U.S. national security officials. Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, isn’t the target of the investigation.
“There’s a responsibility to safeguard classified information,” Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and CIA, said in a phone interview. Failing to protect such data “could get to a level of negligence that criminal penalties would kick in.”
The probe comes after the inspector general for U.S. intelligence agencies determined that four e-mails on Clinton’s server contained classified information at the time they were sent. The State Department and intelligence agencies now are trying to determine if other material in the e-mails was classified when sent, and whether the data should be classified at all.
Clinton and her aides have said material in her e-mails wasn’t marked as being classified at the time it was sent and received through her server. Law enforcement officials, however, are examining e-mails that contained material known to be classified when sent.
Clinton used a private e-mail system in her home in Chappaqua, New York, while she was secretary of state from 2009 until February 2013. E-mails sent and received by her and top aides that used the system were stored on a server. The Federal Bureau of Investigation took possession of the server on Aug. 12 as part of its investigation.
Clinton said she turned over paper copies of 30,490 e-mails relating to government business from her tenure. Government screeners have flagged 305 of those documents for further review by U.S. intelligence agencies to see if they contained classified material.
There are several scenarios in which known classified material could have been improperly transferred, according to Hayden and an intelligence official who asked to remain anonymous to speak about a current investigation.
The most egregious way would be to knowingly strip classification markings from documents or other data, a move that would clearly be a criminal act.
Another, and possibly more probable, scenario is that those sending e-mails blended data from multiple sources that ultimately included or referenced some classified content.
“What you’re probably talking about is someone typing a message based on multiple sources in their head,” Hayden said.
Hayden acknowledged the blending of material can be difficult to prevent. However, he said Clinton shouldn’t have used a private e-mail server that didn’t have government security protections. Hayden is an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush.
Moving a message from a classified system to an unclassified one, known within intelligence circles as going from the high side to the low side, requires two officials to certify that it contains no classified material, said the intelligence official.
The first is the sender; the second is an information management officer. It’s possible two people missed the classification markings, the official said.
However, anybody who inadvertently sends or receives classified data could be held criminally responsible for gross negligence.
Clinton faced a barrage of questions during a tense news conference on Aug. 18 in the Las Vegas area about the matter. When pressed about whether she wiped the server clean, Clinton replied, “What, like with a cloth or something?” She added, “I don’t know how it works digitally at all.”
Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director, said on Bloomberg TV’s With All Due Respect on Wednesday that Clinton “didn’t really think it through” when setting up the server for convenience. Given the chance for a do-over, she would do it differently, Palmieri said.