The e-mail painted a vivid picture of a fast-deteriorating situation in Libya’s bloody civil war, complete with snipers shooting people, armed forces on the move and diplomatic personnel preparing to evacuate.
The message, dated April 10, 2011, was forwarded to “H,” for Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state. It came from one of her closest aides, Huma Abedin, who is now vice chairman of her presidential campaign.
And a U.S. government review of its seven terse paragraphs has led to a probe of how sensitive information got to personal e-mail accounts used by Clinton and some of her top aides and housed on a server at her New York home, according to two officials with knowledge of the inquiry who asked for anonymity. The matter could form the basis for a criminal probe of whether laws for handling classified material were broken.
The investigation, led by the FBI, comes after the inspector general for U.S. intelligence agencies determined that seven e-mails on Clinton’s server, including the April 2011 one, 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.
As the controversy has grown around Clinton’s campaign, the question of how -- and in what form -- classified information may have been mishandled has moved front and center.
The Huma-to-Hillary e-mail gives a clue.
In this case, and the others known to be in dispute, it isn’t necessarily a question of a Clinton staff member sending classified documents in whole, or large passages attached to e-mails. Abedin’s e-mail contains information from multiple sources, distilled into a digestible situation report sent to Clinton on a Sunday morning.
There are other examples that suggest Clinton aides drew upon a variety of classified information to produce updates of events in Libya and elsewhere and sent them via e-mail, according to the officials familiar with the investigation, who weren’t authorized to publicly discuss a current probe.
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. Those who inadvertently send or receive classified data could be prosecuted for gross negligence. Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, isn’t a target of the investigation.
“There’s a responsibility to safeguard classified information,” Michael Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, said in a phone interview. Failing to protect such data “could get to a level of negligence that criminal penalties would kick in.”
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, who was named by then-President Bill Clinton to head the NSA, is an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush.
The Clinton campaign points out that the 2011 e-mail, made public as part of a Republican-led House committee’s probe into an attack on the U.S. mission at Benghazi, was labeled sensitive but unclassified. The inspector general, however, has concluded that some of the details were classified and shouldn’t have been included. An attorney for Abedin, Karen Dunn of Boies, Schiller & Flexner in Washington, declined to comment.
One of the U.S. officials said information in the e-mail came from secret imagery and should still be classified. Because the e-mail was released by the State Department by mistake it is now effectively declassified, the official said.
The e-mail illustrates the challenges that investigators now must sort through in determining what was classified, when it was sent, how was the data complied and who sent it.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, told reporters on Aug. 12 that it’s not always “black and white” what should be classified and what shouldn’t.
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 are examining e-mails that contained material known to be classified when sent.
Clinton used the private e-mail system set up in her Chappaqua, New York, home 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 probe.
Clinton’s server could have been vulnerable after a Romanian hacker accessed the personal e-mail of Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal in March 2013, according to one of the officials familiar with the probe. Blumenthal frequently e-mailed Clinton, and although the hack could have exposed the domain name of her server and her IP address, the State Department never conducted a security survey of her server, said the official.
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 one of the U.S. officials who asked for anonymity.
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.
A potentially 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.
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 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.
Clinton faced a barrage of questions during a 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 in an interview 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.