Little (c) Marks on E-Mails to Clinton Tell a Complex Story

Comey on Clinton: I See Evidence of Great Carelessness
  • FBI director says they stood for ‘confidential’ information
  • State Department says the marks were probably ‘human error’

What are the little “(c)” marks on these e-mails?

Hillary Clinton didn’t bother to ask that question, didn’t notice the marks, had good reason to think they were inaccurate, or disregarded that they stood for “confidential.”

The tale of two e-mails with the cryptic marks in their text illustrates the complexity of the politically charged debate over Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server for official business when she was secretary of state. It also calls into question the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s long-standing insistence that she never sent or received e-mails “marked classified.”

“That’s not true,” FBI Director James Comey said of Clinton’s frequent assertion when he was questioned at a House committee hearing last week.

The point may be central to a request Republicans have promised to make for Comey to investigate whether Clinton lied to Congress. She used the formulation during her almost 11 hours of testimony in October before a House committee investigating the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

Modified Answer

In a television interview on Friday, Clinton modified her standard answer on whether she had sent or received classified information on her private account, now saying she didn’t “believe” she had done so. “As I have said many times, I certainly did not believe that I received or sent any material that was classified,” she told CNN.

The issue of the “(c)” markings first arose on July 5, when Comey announced his agency’s findings that Clinton and her staff at the State Department had been “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” but added that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring charges in the case. Attorney General Loretta Lynch concurred, to the outrage of many Republicans.

For a QuickTake Q&A on the e-mail issue, click here.

“With respect to the thousands of e-mails we found that were not among those produced to the State Department, agencies have concluded that three of those were classified at the time they were sent or received, one at the secret level and two at the confidential level,” Comey said in outlining the conclusions of the FBI’s investigation.

He didn’t elaborate immediately, but the State Department’s spokesman told reporters on July 6 that he could account for two of the e-mails, which he said were marked “(c)” for confidential, the lowest level of classification.

‘Call Sheets’

John Kirby, the spokesman, said the e-mails were “call sheets,” routine briefing documents that provide a secretary of state with succinct information before a planned phone call to a foreign leader. While they are initially labeled confidential, Kirby said, they are routinely downgraded to “sensitive but unclassified” or unclassified “once it is clear that the secretary intends to make a call.”

“In this case,” Kirby said, “we think that it was human error -- that those confidential markings should have been removed by the individual who was transmitting them on the unclassified side.”

In his House committee testimony on July 7, Comey acknowledged that the e-mails with “(c)” notations lacked proper “headers” at the top indicating they were classified, which might have signaled to Clinton that they didn’t really contain sensitive information.

‘Improperly Marked’

Clinton’s campaign concurred.

“The director acknowledged those e-mails were improperly marked and based on that, even an expert in classification rules may have looked at those e-mails and reasonably judged them as unclassified,” Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said in an e-mail.

But Comey also provided an alternative explanation that was hardly complimentary to Clinton.

“I don’t think that our investigation established she was actually particularly sophisticated with respect to classified information,” Comey said, adding it’s possible Clinton “didn’t understand what a ‘(c)’ meant when she saw it in the body of the e-mail.”

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