Hillary Clinton retains a security clearance allowing her access to classified information despite an FBI inquiry into her handling of sensitive government information on the private email account she used during her tenure as secretary of state.
Clinton, like other top officials appointed by the president, kept her clearance after she left office in 2013, according to a recent letter from Assistant Secretary of State Julia Frifield to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley.
While Clinton has kept her clearance, it’s common practice to suspend them while an investigation or internal inquiry is ongoing, according to some national security experts on Capitol Hill and in private practice. Others say a clearance could be suspended at any time after allegations are made if officials are concerned about the government’s secrets.
“Whether you’re a member of the military, a high-ranking executive branch official or anybody else with a security clearance, people should be treated equally,” said Grassley, R-Iowa. “If rank-and-file military and intelligence community employees have their clearances suspended during security investigations, then senior officials should not get any special exemptions.”
Clinton sent or received at least 200 emails through her private system while she served as a Cabinet secretary that were later determined to contain classified material, according to records released in recent months by the State Department. None of them were marked as classified at the time, department officials say.
John V. Berry, a Virginia lawyer who practices security clearance law, said top-ranking officials, regardless of political party, are often treated differently than low-level bureaucrats who may quickly see their clearances suspended or revoked.
Most people are treated the same until you get to that level.
John V. Berry, a Virginia lawyer who practices security clearance law
Clinton has been under fire for months for exclusively using a personal email system routed through a private server at her Chappaqua, N.Y., house for all four years she served as secretary. The FBI, a pair of inspectors general and Congress all are looking into the issue, prompting questions about her judgment and the motive for actions that potentially led to national security risks.
The issue has harmed the Democratic presidential front-runner’s standing in polls, where more and more voters say Clinton is not trustworthy, in part, because of the email controversy. In recent weeks, she has taken the criticisms about her email more seriously and apologized for not using a government account.
It’s unclear if any agency, including those that generated the material now deemed classified, has asked for Clinton’s clearance to be suspended. Security clearances are generally granted for five years at a time.
“If this were a normal employee, it would be entirely routine to temporarily suspend their access pending investigation,” said Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer who handles national security information.
But Paul Pillar, a former CIA official and deputy chief of the intelligence community’s counterterrorism center who serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he is not aware of any rule that mandates that once a case has been referred to an agency, such as the FBI, that a clearance must be suspended. The result of an FBI inquiry can vary drastically and may not warrant a suspension, he said.
Clinton’s Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance was re-validated after she left office, according to the Sept. 22 letter to Grassley. Kendall and Katherine M. Turner, both of the Williams & Connolly law firm, retain clearances as well, according to the letter.
Assistant Secretary of State Julia Frifield’s letter was in response to Aug. 24 letter from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley.
In July, the State Department installed a safe in Kendall’s office after determining some of Clinton’s emails may have contained classified information. The department acknowledged for the first time in the same letter that it did not provide Kendall with a secure enough safe because officials did not expect the correspondence to be deemed so secret.
An executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2009 allows those who have occupied senior policy-making positions appointed or designated by the president or vice president to access classified information after they leave office.
It is also standard practice for former presidential appointees, including secretaries of state, to be cleared in order to access certain classified records from their tenure in office.
Assistant Secretary of State Julia Frifield
The access granted to the former officials is limited to items that the person originated, reviewed, signed or received while in their position.
“There’s a long tradition of secretaries of state making themselves available to future secretaries and presidents, and secretaries are typically allowed to maintain their security clearance and access to their own records for use in writing their memoirs and the like,” Jen Psaki, then a State Department spokeswoman, said in March.
Clinton’s campaign did not return messages seeking comment.
Clinton has turned over 30,490 work emails to the State Department in response to a request from the agency, but she said that she deleted another 31,830 personal emails.
The department has been releasing the emails after they were scrubbed for classified information in response to a lawsuit over an unanswered public records request. The next release is scheduled for Wednesday.
Clinton has insisted she did not send or receive information marked as classified and that she only used a personal email account for business as a matter of “convenience.”
She will testify Oct. 22 to the House committee investigating the fatal attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 about her use of a private email account.