Powell Told Clinton He Used Private E-Mail to World Leaders

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  • Former secretary of state set out how he skirted disclosure
  • Democrats cite Powell’s advice to rebut criticism of Clinton

Former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton speak in Washington on Sept. 3, 2014.

Photographer: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell gave Hillary Clinton blunt advice about skirting the rules on using personal e-mail when she started work at the State Department, saying he used a private account on a personal computer to communicate with everyone from friends to foreign leaders.

‘What were your restrictions on your use of your blackberry?” Clinton asked in an e-mail to Powell on Jan. 23, 2009. “Did you use it in your personal office?” She said she heard that diplomatic security personnel “knew you had one and used it but no one fesses up to knowing how you used it!”

“I didn’t have a BlackBerry,” Powell responded. “What I did do was have a personal computer that was hooked up to a private phone line (sounds ancient.) So I could communicate with a wide range of friends directly without going through the State Department servers. I even used it to do business with some foreign leaders and some of the senior folks in the Department on their personal email accounts. I did the same thing on the road in hotels.”

The e-mail from Powell, who was the top U.S. diplomat under Republican President George W. Bush, was released Wednesday by a Democratic lawmaker as part of his party’s efforts to rebut Republican assertions that Clinton should be prosecuted for handling sensitive matters on a personal e-mail system.

Portions of Powell’s advice were cited in a summary the FBI released last week on its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server during her four years as secretary of state. FBI Director James Comey found earlier that Clinton and her aides were “extremely careless” in handling sensitive government communications but didn’t recommend prosecution.

Previous story: Clinton Left Politically Exposed by FBI Report

Powell wrote Clinton that the “real danger” was if the use of a personal device to conduct official business became known, the communications could be considered a public record and subject to disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Act. “Be very careful,” he urged her, adding that he had skirted public records laws “by not saying much and not using systems that captured the data.”

Powell said in a statement Thursday that his e-mail to Clinton wasn’t an effort to influence her practices “but just to explain what I had done eight years earlier to begin the transformation of the State Department’s information system.”

But Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who released the e-mail exchange, said in a statement on Wednesday that it “shows that Secretary Powell advised Secretary Clinton with a detailed blueprint on how to skirt security rules and bypass requirements to preserve federal records, although Secretary Clinton has made clear that she did not rely on this advice.”

Asking AOL

“If Republicans were truly concerned with transparency, strengthening FOIA, and preserving federal records, they would be attempting to recover Secretary Powell’s emails from AOL, but they have taken no steps to do so despite the fact that this period -- including the run-up to the Iraq War -- was critical to our nation’s history,” Cummings, of Maryland, said.

Patrick Kennedy, the State Department’s under secretary for management, testified during a hearing of the committee Thursday that the department had sought Powell’s e-mails but couldn’t secure them without his assent. Powell’s personal e-mail service was provided by AOL, which is now owned by Verizon Communications Inc.

"We cannot make a request for someone else’s records from their provider," Kennedy said. "We ask that Secretary Powell contact AOL."

‘Private Conversation’

In his statement, Powell said that his e-mails that weren’t on the official state.gov system were “a private conversation similar to a phone call."

"I was not aware at the time of any requirement for private, unclassified exchanges to be treated as official records," he said, adding that he had been interviewed by the FBI and the State Department’s inspector general. "I stand by my decisions and I am fully accountable."

In the e-mail, Powell also gave Clinton unsolicited advice about diplomatic security agents, warning her that she’d find them “driving you crazy if you let them.” He said he didn’t let the agents in his house or on his property and got them to agree to let him drive on weekends without them following him. Though “they hated it,” they let him do it after he signed a letter releasing them from liability “if I got whacked while doing that."

Separately on Wednesday, the House committee’s chairman, Representative Jason Chaffetz, asked the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia to investigate the apparent deletion in 2015 of an archive of Clinton’s e-mails from her time at the State Department by an employee of Platte River Networks, a firm that managed her private server.

Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, wrote that the erasure, which was revealed in FBI notes from its investigation of Clinton’s server released Sept. 2 and apparently occurred after the House Benghazi Committee ordered the preservation of such messages, "may amount to obstruction of justice and destruction of evidence by Secretary Clinton and her employees and contractors."

The FBI said a technician said that he had been told by Clinton aides months earlier to purge the e-mail archive. He said he did so belatedly when he heard about the uproar over her e-mails and realized he’d failed to do so.